I got my season one Burn Notice DVDs in the mail a few weeks ago, and got to sit down with phierma and cos_x to go through them in one marathon sitting. (If you want to tape or DVR it and do so yourself, USA Network is airing them all back-to-back on July 3rd to prepare for the July 10th season two premier, check local listings for time.) The first time I watched these, I was taken by how well written they were, how witty and wry the voice-over narration was, by how well series creator Matt Nix is paying homage to the great "Florida caper" writers John D. MacDonald and Carl Hiassen, how many great throw-away references to classic non-fiction spy literature he threw in for those of us who share his obsession with the subject, and especially just how much fun Bruce Campbell and Gabrielle Anwar were having with their parts. And lord knows, I'm a sucker for watching actors have fun with their parts.
For those of you who don't know this series and don't remember me hyping it last season, Jeffrey Donovan plays Michael Westen, a one-man private contractor for the CIA in the War on Terror who's been unfairly accused of something awful (for most of season one, he doesn't even know what), convicted in a top secret hearing he wasn't even aware of, blacklisted, shanghai'ed, and dumped back in his home town, his address of record. His identity has been erased, his bank accounts and credit frozen, every government official and contractor with a secret or above clearance told to avoid him under penalty of law, and then he's given word: leave the greater Miami area and we'll send every police force and agency in the US to hunt you down like a dog. Oh, and at the end of the pilot, he finds out that in addition to his FBI tail, he's under really good 24-hour professional surveillance by someone even better than he is. He sets out to clear his name and get his job back. Practically the only assets he has left are his psychotic ex-girlfriend Fiona Glenanne (Anwar), a long-retired alcoholic ex-spy buddy named Sam Axe (Campbell), and what grudging help he can get out of his neurotic mother Madeline Westen (Sharon Gless). This doesn't worry him too much; he's finished field assignments this hard with even less help, before. And in the season one ending cliffhanger, after a dozen episodes of accumulating money and other assets by working as an unlicensed private detective, he has done just what he set out to do: forced the hand of the shadowy conspiracy that framed him for corruption and treason and thereby wrecked his career, with the camera fading to black just as he's about to meet them and find out what this is really all about.
This time through, something different struck me, and it's the way in which the three main characters of Fiona, Michael, and Sam personify one of the ugliest moral and political dilemmas of the War on Terror. Sam is (or at least was) a government agent, CIA covert ops at the end of and right after the Cold War. Fiona is (or mostly was) a terrorist, an Irish Republican Army bank-robber and gun-runner; in fact, at one point in the Cold War before he retired, Sam managed to screw up an arms deal that Fiona was brokering with Libyan intelligence. (One of those in-jokes for those of us obsessed with spy literature: the Reagan and Bush the Elder administrations spent a fortune trying to prove a connection between the IRA and Libyan intelligence. In Burn Notice, that connection turns out to have been the lead character's girlfriend.) Michael, though, is neither a terrorist nor a government agent, he's a private contractor. And it makes him feel awkward that Fiona looks at him and sees "one of us," and that Sam looks at him and sees "one of us." And in fact the main plot of the first season is driven by just how fine the line is between being the kind of mercenary Michael is and the kind of international criminal mastermind and terrorist Fiona is. Fiona at one point accuses him of being "a criminal with a government paycheck." In an earlier episode, Sam says that the kind of things that have happened to Michael in his career, including this, are why he's glad he got out long before the War on Terror: in the Cold War, it was easier to be sure who was on your side. Michael throws the other side of that argument back into Sam's face later: the difference between Sam and Michael is that Sam was a lot more comfortable taking orders. Fiona needles Sam even more often than Michael does over the same point; to her, Sam's unforgivable sin is how readily he keeps handing his conscience over to a government to tell him what's right and what's wrong.
If you want a clearer metaphor for this, one has occurred to me, from the Golden Age of (Caribbean) Piracy. If this is (figuratively) the Caribbean of 1680, Fiona is a pirate. Sam is (ex-)navy. Michael is a privateer.
Michael is a high-minded privateer, at least in his own mind, at least as much motivated by his urge to do what his country needs as he is by his urge to have the government pay what it costs to keep him on the opposite side of the planet from his dysfunctional family with enough left over to fund his mom's hypochondria. But still a privateer. And if you know any of your pirate history, you know this about privateers: an awful lot of them ended up being hanged for piracy. Whether they intentionally crossed the line, accidentally crossed the line, or found themselves mysteriously on the other side of a line someone else blurred for their own greedy reasons, the line between independent private military contractor (privateer) and terrorist enemy of all mankind (pirate) was (and is) way too easy to be on the wrong side of.
P.S. I wish I knew that a bunch of you were caught up on Burn Notice. If I'm reading between the lines of the season one finale correctly, the series creator made a fascinating, and possibly scurrilous, political accusation that I'd love to have readers to discuss with, a discussion I can't possibly go into without wandering way, way deep into spoiler territory.