The Leftovers s1 ep 5

imageEvery episode of The Leftovers so far has opened with the televisual equivalent of a punch to the gut, but the pre-credits sequence of this week’s “Gladys” pushed the envelope even further.

One of the most horrific things I’ve ever seen on tv, this was an unflinching, utterly harrowing depiction of a brutal murder, a scene so distressing that I actually whimpered and had to look away. Which was uncomfortable but probably good for me as well: it sounds incredibly patronising to say it but murder is obviously a terrible, terrible crime, and yet it’s a crime that, on tv, is regularly sanitised and stylised. Think of the number of jokey procedurals where the murder is no more than the jump-off point for the wisecracks and the sexual tension, or some of the more self-consciously serious shows where the killings are both routine and multiple, or even the “daring” psychological series where they’re almost fetishised. It’s not that my tv viewing doesn’t include some of these shows – I love The Mentalist and Burn Notice, I even went through a brief phase of watching the supremely unpleasant SVU – and it’s not that there’s anything wrong with escapism, but sometimes a dose of realism can be a healthy thing, I think. So, while I never want to watch that sequence again, all credit to veteran director Mimi Leder for keeping it honest.

Enough of the sermonising, though, and back to this week’s show. As a result of the murder, Laurie continued to struggle with both grief and doubt, the townsfolk and the Council openly rebelled against Chief Kevin and the rising tensions between the GR and everybody else threatened to boil over. Things then took an even more sinister turn when ATFEC got involved and offered to “eliminate the infestation” instead of investigating the crime, leaving the troubled but fundamentally decent Kevin as the GR’s last line of defence; the closing sequence showing ATFEC’s cold, mechanical attitude towards the victims wasn’t quite as difficult to watch as the opening one but it was still incredibly grim. There was a real sense in this episode of a world and a world view deeply, irrevocably affected by the Departure – the GR and the pushback against it isn’t confined to Mapleton, and the authorities’ reaction to it is far from benign.

All of which sounds beyond depressing but, as usual, there was some dry humour to leaven the mix (this week, not only were the townsfolk thumbing their noses at Kevin, but so were his alarm system and his dry-cleaners). And there was a little hope too. In a couple of poignant scenes, Kevin and daughter Jill edged closer to understanding each other, and, on a much lighter note, Kevin and fellow lonely soul Nora edged closer to, er, sleeping together. A ship, you guys! You know how I feel about a ship! Not that I needed another reason to love this show – this episode was terrific.

Burn Notice s7 ep 13

image“My name is Michael Westen. I used to be a spy.”

Sniffle.

It’s the last Burn Notice ever, and Michael’s in deep trouble. Since last week’s cliffhanger resolved itself in exactly the way we thought it would, both the CIA and James are out for Westen blood, and things are looking decidedly perilous for our heroes if they stick with him. So of course they do, because that’s what Burn Notice has been about almost from the start – these people have grown into a family who stick with each other through everything, no matter how insurmountable the odds and, as Sam points out, they didn’t risk their necks saving Michael just to leave him behind.

That warmth, loyalty and refusal to give up radiates through every scene and every new disaster, giving us a finale that is wildly exciting, deeply moving and thoroughly gripping throughout. There’s a desperately sad sacrifice and some genuinely tear-jerking scenes (I cried a lot), but there are also some slyly, joyously funny meta-moments amongst the mayhem: I loved Sam and Jesse’s self-aware plan at the end (perfectly setting up their own spin-off – if we ever get one – with a smile and a wink) and Sam and Fiona’s shout-outs to the opening voiceover and the series’ history were both sweet and hilarious. And that last line bringing us right back round to the beginning (even if it seemed to be filmed inside a Christmas card) was perfect. It’s always a relief to be able to say a series finale did a series I like justice, and this one definitely did.

We haven’t always made a massive fuss of Burn Notice on unpopcult; it’s been overshadowed, both on these pages and everywhere else, by showier, more zeitgeisty shows over the years – it won’t have the cultural impact of Lost, for instance, or inspire broadsheet think-pieces like Mad Men, or even ignite the passionate arguments that Game of Thrones does. But something has kept us coming back to and writing about every episode of this little-show-that-could; a show which started out as jokey heroics in the typically sunny USA network style and evolved into something a little deeper, a little more nuanced and a lot darker over the past seven years. Jed will have his own views about why Burn Notice has kept us interested, but, for my part, like Jesse, I fell in love with this little family of characters and that, combined with a smart, witty and increasingly brave attitude to the stories and a keenness to delve deeper every season, meant that while I didn’t love each and every episode, I was very, very fond of the show itself. I’m a wee bit sad it’s over, but it was definitely time and I’m glad it got a fitting send-off in this brilliant episode. Goodbye Michael, Sam, Fiona, Jesse and Madeline, and Barry and Sugar and everyone else who hopped on during the ride – it’s been a blast.

Burn Notice s7 ep 12

“They ruined my life. I don’t owe them anything.”

Seven seasons in, second-last episode ever, and Michael Westen has had ENOUGH. Depressed, disillusioned and desperate for something new to believe in, he’s the perfect convert to James’s cause. Although, even if Mike believes, I’m struggling to accept that James on the other hand is such a zealot he’d sacrifice himself so the work could go on without him. Dude seems all ego to me. But never mind him. No one can blame Michael for turning against the CIA, given what they’ve done to him and his, but joining psycho James and sidekick Sonya just means taking a different road to hell, and one that involves cutting out his friends, breaking his mum’s heart and losing himself in the process. Yes, things are pretty bleak this week, and it’s disconcerting to see Mike not only so low but so isolated from the family he’s built over the years.

That family however isn’t going to give up on him just yet: would-be de-programmers Fiona, Sam and Jesse have a plan of their own to get their friend back, but this tough, brave and genuinely thrilling episode makes clear it isn’t going to be easy or fun.

I thought it was fantastic: fraught, gripping and sometimes painful, even if it did end on a cliche. It seems pretty obvious what (and who) Michael’s going to choose in the end, but the fall-out is going to be intense, regardless. Series finale, here we come.

Burn Notice s7 ep 11

Sonya, who has it bad, and Michael, who’s a bit soft on her too, are flying off to Mexico to meet James for some as yet identified, super-important event. But not before Michael manages to feed Strong enough info to set up an extraction: yes, the plan is for yet more “freelancers” to grab James in Veracruz and end the op, at last.

Except there are two more episodes of the season to go, so SPOILER it doesn’t quite work out that way, and when Michael realises exactly who else is on his side, it pushes him over the edge. Michael’s voiceover-conveyed motivation being his apparent realisation that Strong and co “are willing to do things even (his) enemy wouldn’t dream of” sounds ludicrous since the “enemy” in question is James the psycho who’ll do pretty much anything and worse, but Jeffrey Donovan’s performance more than sells the idea that the disillusioned Michael has finally given up his last shred of loyalty to the CIA; after seven seasons of them using, abusing and letting him down, I suppose the main surprise is that it’s taken this long. Well, that and, after all he’s seen, done and been through because of James and his organisation, that his “Tipping Point” is the killing of his new “friends” rather than his old ones.

It’s another strong, fast episode with plenty of action and excitement, and there’s also a sense that the story is gathering momentum again instead of just wallowing in Michael’s misery like so much of this season has. Not that the ep is short on angst, though. The scene where he waits, wants to die is both desperately sad and powerful; Michael’s clearly bone-tired of this life and ready to end it. But like I said, there are two more eps to go. We’ll see if the writers grant him his wish or pull a happy ending out of the bag at the last gasp.

Burn Notice s7 ep 10

After a couple of weeks of missions that didn’t trouble his conscience too much – apart from the odd execution along the way – this week Michael is ordered to do something truly awful, agonises over it a bit and then SPOILER does it anyway. On one hand, this shows how brave Burn Notice has been in tracing the gradual corruption of a fundamentally decent man who has gone so far down the road of doing bad things for good reasons that he has destroyed himself and everyone around him in the process. On the other hand, I really don’t like watching it happen.

It’s no fun watching a character I’ve enjoyed for years doing terrible things – at this point, I’d rather everyone just went to prison instead of things going on like this – and this week’s mission was a step too far for Michael and me both. I don’t know if he can forgive himself for it but I’m struggling to, and it’s becomingly increasingly clear with only 3 episodes left to go that the likely end for Michael is a tormented, lonely, self-loathing and probably dead one. Good times!

Sigh. At least Jesse and Sam are still a joy (as health dept workers this week, but really in anything they do) and the Carlos/Fiona story is both quickly drawn and unexpectedly moving and insightful, even if it does underline just how toxic Michael and his life have now become.

Burn Notice s7 ep 9

Michael’s mission this week is to protect a diplomat targeted for assassination and James has very kindly “invited” – with the help of some armed guards – Sam, Jesse and Fiona to help, as well as putting his own man Ben on the team. Plot holes of the week include:-

a) Ben is so obviously a liability from the outset, it’s impossible to believe super-careful psychopath James would ever select him for his organisation never mind for this mission.

b) If James’s surveillance of Madeline, Fiona and Jesse is so thorough he knows what time Fiona visits Maddie on Thursdays and when Charlie’s parent-teacher conferences are, how come he doesn’t know that Fiona and Jesse disappeared off to Biloxi last week with the CIA?

c) Michael had to go through the most harrowing screening process ever, but (as with Sam last week) James is happy to bring Jesse and Fiona on board without so much a “tell me your secrets” and then *SPOILER* commit an actual murder in front of them?

Apart from all that, the story’s fine and Jesse and Fiona together in the field are great. It’s a shame Sam is largely sidelined and the once-formidable Maddie is reduced to scared, hysterical old lady for the entire episode, but Michael charging in to rescue REDACTED is swoonsome and the last scene is brave if bleak. Not amazing then, but not bad either.

Burn Notice s7 ep 8

The voiceovers in Burn Notice have suddenly begun to drive me mad.

I used to quite like them but 7 seasons in and they have really started to get on my nerves. Have they just run out of interesting things to say? They certainly seem a lot more obvious this year and this week in particular. “Being an undercover spy is hard…”; “if you’re taken prisoner and can’t escape, communicate with your captor, find out what he wants…” – no really? You don’t say!

Were they always this banal? Or have we absorbed so much of the techniques of tv spycraft from years of watching this show and others like it, that there’s no surprise in any of Michael’s bon mots any more? Either way, this week’s are both obvious and off-putting and I could put them down to an off-week on either the show’s part or my mood, but I’m not wholly convinced: I have a feeling they’ve just run out of new things to say. In voiceover, anyway.

Onto the story. Turns out Michael’s new boss, James sees himself as a good guy; the uber-good guy in fact, dispensing unflinching, untempered “justice” to all the uber-bad guys out there. Sound familiar? Yes, he’s “Ultimate Michael!” – willing to do whatever it takes to bring down the ultimate baddies, no matter the cost.

Sam, at least, sees the dangers inherent in our boy getting in too deep and too close with this guy since James’s aims and philosophy are the logical end of the path Michael’s been travelling for years now; if Michael carries on like this for long enough, he won’t be pretending to work for James any more, he’ll be doing it for real. And enjoying it. Being Michael, however, he acknowledges the risk to his own soul and sanity, and ploughs on anyway.

“Whatever it takes,” remember?

Of course, it’s completely jarring that Sam is allowed to meet James at all – how many weeks of proving himself did it take Michael to be allowed within 50 feet of the guy? How many hours of torture and advanced interrogation before he was admitted to the inner circle? This bloke bulldozed a house rather than leave any evidence of that meeting, and now he’s all “hey, nice to meet you, any friend of Michael’s a friend of mine” without so much as a hood or a hallucinogen? It’s such a glaring plot hole, it put me off the rest of the episode entirely which is a shame because the episode isn’t at all bad: it’s standard Burn Notice, ie misdirection, explosions – and since Sam’s along for the ride – wisecracks. The B-plot trundles along agreeably enough too, but there’s another niggle which I just can’t get past there as well; why would Strong insist on using Fiona and Jesse in an operation in Biloxi, not Miami, where acquaintance with Michael is completely unnecessary? I know I’ve asked this before, but does the CIA genuinely have no staff of its own? Or am I getting this caught up in the plot holes because I’m losing interest in the plot?