Killing beloved characters on a TV show is always risky. It can invoke the ire of loyal fans, but it can also be the catalyst to propel a story forward. BURN NOTICE was always premised on a CIA agent getting “burned” and then stuck in Miami with his mother and his ex-girlfriend. Fortunately, in the six seasons since that pivotal moment, BURN NOTICE found a way to make Miami “home” for Michael and its avid audience. The escapades of Michael, Fiona and Sam, which later included Madeline and Jesse, has made the show like family for viewers. We cheered as they championed the little guy getting kicked around and saved countless lives. We also rooted for Michael as he fought valiantly to clear his name and make the responsible parties pay for his predicament. And we fell in love with Michael and Fiona and their blossoming relationship.
Throughout all the adventures, there was always a strong undercurrent of love and family. So when one of the family is struck down, it is a blow to the gut as well as the heart. In last week’s heart-breaking episode, Michael’s brother Nate was caught in the crossfire. It was the loss of part of our BURN NOTICE family and we mourn for Michael’s loss. In a recent conference call, creator and producer Matt Nix talked about the decision to take the show to such a dark place and make such a sacrifice so close to home.
When did you make the decision that in order for Michael to move forward we had to see Nate ultimately die?
Matt Nix: I hadn’t thought of it quite that way, but there’s a story version of answering that question and then a kind of a more behind the scenes version of that. In the sense that one of the things I really wanted to do this season is I just really wanted to shake up the show and do some really new stuff. So part of that was just really putting the people that “burned” Michael to bed. Like we’ve done it. So Anson is the last of them and he’s gone. So then the question becomes what is something that keeps that sense of Michael’s mission, a propulsive sense for Michael, something that’s personal to him. So in thinking about what to do with this season that was part of it, and just this idea that over the course of these 5 and 1/2 seasons, Michael has really grown closer to his family. He’s developed friends. All of these things that he didn’t have at the beginning of the series, he now has. That means good things for him as a human being in some ways; but it also means that there’s a lot more that can be taken away. So in taking that away, it sort of launches him with a new sort of personal mission that lead to all sorts of complications going forward, vis-a-vis, the intelligence community and that kind of thing as he’s trying to figure out what happened with his brother. So it was a combination of a lot of different things. And then also just the desire to do something that wasn’t [expected]. We had sort of fallen into a bit of a pattern of like the big things happen in episode one and then in the second half season premiere and then in the second half of the season finale. So just doing something really big and exciting in the middle of the season, in the middle of by far our most serialized season ever, was also a priority. Just shaking up the show, shaking up Michael as a character, shaking up the show, all of it.
For you, as a showrunner, how refreshing is it now to be able to use a little bit more of a serialized approach versus episodic storytelling?
Matt Nix: It’s great. I mean, I love this kind of storytelling. It was one of the things that was discussed with USA Network and they were down with it for all sort of network priority reasons. But, for us, one of the things we said was that if you just look at what are people’s favorite episodes of BURN NOTICE over the years, they tend to be the most serialized episodes. They’re the first couple of the year and the last couple of the year and people do actually watch those episodes in reruns. The fact that there’s a little bit of a previous story doesn’t really seem to bother people. So although, going all the way back to season when Victor died, that was a very serialized pair of episodes at the end and our fans really seemed to respond to that. So this season in shaking up the show one of the things we did was we haven’t really had a traditional client all season. We’ve had Barry from last [week’]s episode and he is a client of sorts, but his problem was really (a) he’s sort of part of the team and (b) his problem was sort of generated by the team. It’s not like he had a problem in the abstract and he just needed our help with it. When I say our team, I mean Michael got him in trouble and now Sam’s got to get him out of trouble. That’s a very different orientation for us than “I am a resident of Miami, someone in my family has been kidnapped.” And I think we were sort of sick of that. We wanted to do something new. So this season is really about focusing on the team and making sure that everything that they’re doing is really focused on the characters, focused on what it means to them, and very personal. And it fits well with this serialized form of storytelling.
Why did it have to be Nate?
Matt Nix: When I started on the show six seasons ago, it was one of the things that I talked about with my wife actually because we had always watched shows together and she made the point about THE SOPRANOS. That part of what made it compelling to watch was the sense that things could happen on the show that really mattered to you, and that things could actually change. As part of that conversation she basically said, “If you ever kill a character off and then say we didn’t mean it, he’s not really dead — you don’t get to sleep in our bed anymore.” So partially just as a storytelling priority and partially to preserve my marriage, I realized that if we’re going to take it seriously, this kind of storytelling seriously, then we have to do things with real consequences. So that was why. For me, if we wanted to do something big on the show, it couldn’t be, “Hey remember Michael’s old neighbor Sugar the drug dealer who lived downstairs, he’s dead now. Isn’t that crazy?”
What is this going to do going forward with Michael’s relationship with Madeline?
Matt Nix: That’s actually another thing, just in terms of this whole story turn, is that we all on the show — all of the writers really and the actors too — wanted to do something that had emotional consequences that continued. Because even when we have to do very self-contained episodes, people sort of have to forgive each other really quickly and be done with stuff in relatively short order like a couple episodes. And we’ve had some of that with Michael and Fiona’s relationship and things like that. But this has a far greater impact than anything we’ve ever done, just from an emotional perspective. There’s a really “sea change.” Then talking to Sharon, we had really long conversations and important conversations about how she felt this impacted her character and how that carries forward and that kind of thing. So she she’s in this very difficult position of kind of blaming Michael for putting his brother in harm’s way but also realizing that her remaining son is still in danger and in a difficult situation and his situation only gets more difficult over the course of the season. So to what extent can she forgive? To what extent was she responsible? I mean, all of those questions come up over the course of the season. And not just in one episode, I mean, it really carries forward. It’s a little bit similar to putting Fiona in jail. We were like, “Okay if we’re going to put Fiona in jail, she’s got to be there for a while.” And similarly, “If we’re going to play the card of Michael’s brother dying, then it’s got to have real impacts for everybody.” The other thing I will say about the greatness of Seth is that he is a great guy. He comes on the show for a couple episodes or an episode here or there and then really giving him an arc and giving him some real stuff to do and in a way he’s never been more impotent to the serious. So that was a nice thing, I think, for him and for us.
Can you talk about the ramifications of the fact that Fiona didn’t listen to Michael and turned herself in and how that’s going to have lasting effect on their relationship?
Matt Nix: I think that her being in prion sort of allowed Michael to acknowledge that in a way it brought them closer. The fact that she sort of makes this sacrifice to kind of save his soul at the end of season five, and then the lengths that he goes to get her out of prison. In a way, they’re as close as they’ve ever been when she’s getting out of prison. I think there’s this magical moment that they both anticipated of coming together and the fact that that coincides with Michael finally resolving finally wrapping up the last guy associated with his being burned, and in that same moment having that torn away by Nate’s death, it does have a really lasting effect. In a general sense, the big thing at the end of last season was Fiona basically saying that Michael is really dedicated to his quest getting done the thing that he needs to get done. But that can be costly and if he’s giving up all of his principles for the sake of doing what he wants to do versus for the sake of take care of the people he loves, is that acceptable and her answer was “No.” And going forward, that central issue becomes a greater and greater issue over the course of the season as Michael is now trying to dealing with his brother’s death and his dealing with that and his investigation into that and his thirst for vengeance and all of those things. It pushes Michael really to the brink in a lot of ways: personally, morally. All of those things come into play. So I guess it’s sort of like a question that she imagined was resolved only gets more central and worse, and the answers get more challenging as the season goes on. So there’s a big impact and her yearning for the resolution to all of this and the possibility that they might be able to be together in a less complicated way is snatched away at exactly the point where she imaged it could’ve been hers. So that’s a big part of it.
Are we going to have more of MI6 coming to bother Fiona again or is that done with?
Matt Nix: As part of her deal in getting out of prison, she has to have some association with the CIA. It protects her to some extent going forward but that entity doesn’t go away. I mean, it’s not a huge part of the season, but it’s not as if she’s best friends with British Intelligence at this point.
Does Nate’s death signal a darker turn in the show?
Matt Nix: Well, I guess I’d say yes and no. We actually have some really fun episodes coming up with some real humor. So it’s not that going forward everybody mopes around a lot. At the same time, I think that over the course of all of our seasons, the serialized storytelling is always more kind of serious and emotionally impactful than the self-contained aspects of the show. In the early seasons, the client-of-week tended to be pretty light and/or lighter, and then the serialized stuff tended to be more more serious and a little darker, and now this serialized stuff is coming to the fore. So it’s not like I sort of woke up in the morning and was like, “Okay, BURN NOTICE is going dark.” But to the extent that emotional consequences continue, it’s sort of unavoidable. Like if you have an ongoing storyline called, “Madeline Does Not Forgive Michael for the Death of Her Son”, that’s not really a laugh riot of a storyline. So it’s important to preserve the fun of the show and it’s not like that just gets abandoned or anything. But I think the maturing of the show has been in a direction of more like characters with ongoing emotional lives and things that tend toward the darker.
Will Michael ever have complete resolution to being “burned” or will it always be hanging over him?
Matt Nix: Well, the short answer is yes. I mean, Anson is the last guy. He is the last guy. That does not mean that there are not complications in the vis-à-vis the intelligence world. So it’s funny actually. Sometimes, like people will say, “Oh, it’s a guy behind a guy,” to which my response has always been, “Well conspiracies involve multiple people.” It’s not literally there’s one person behind another person. But if you look at any conspiracy in history, it’s not just a single person acting alone. So the idea that he was “burned” by an organization, well there are multiple people in that organization. It’s not that everybody’s not the head; they have different jobs. But that organization has been wrapped up. They are done there. But there are other complications as you might imagine, as you just wrap up one of these big conspiracies it’s not like you didn’t know they weren’t doing anything else. It’s not as if Anson’s secret boss did it. Because I’m sick of that. So let’s just say Michael isn’t going to hold back in trying to figure out who killed his brother. And Michael off-the-chain isn’t necessarily playing by CIA rules, isn’t necessarily the asset they want. He has friends in the CIA and he has enemies in the CIA, so there’s a whole world of compilations ahead for him that don’t have to do with the people that “burned” him. And, ultimately I can tease this: he finds himself rather worse off than he was vis-à-vis the intelligence community by the end of the season.
Fiona’s cellmate, now that we know she’s going to get out of prison early, we’re going to see her in future episodes?
Matt Nix: Not Fiona’s cellmate, but the woman that helped her, yes. Ayn, yes. You do see Ayn again. It’s been really fun this season because in being able to do this, it feels like a door has been unlocked and we get to run outside play. So with regard to a lot of the storytelling, even the client storytelling, whereas once upon a time we kind of had to think about it like, “Okay, how do we meet this person who’s unrelated to the team?” So there was that whole mode of storytelling. Now a lot of times it’s okay. How are these people coming back? How is this person closely related to the team? It’s kind of the opposite of what we used to do, and that’s been really fun. So yes, she does show up again in a different capacity.
Is there anything else you can tell us about what might happen this season?
Matt Nix: Well, we have some really fun. Rebecca will be returning, who was in the finale who betrayed Michael in the finale and was working for Anson. So she comes back in a new unexpected capacity. So yes, we’ve got that. There are all sorts of things. I think that’s a big one – and Michael’s mentor and ally at the CIA, Tom Card is also going to reappear. Michael has to lean on him in a way that he hasn’t leaned on him before and turn to him for help. So that’s a big part of the season going forward. So to what extent is he going to get help from Tom Card that the CIA might not be willing to give him is a big part of it as well.
How does Nate’s death affect Fiona’s relationship with Madeline?
Matt Nix: Oh, wow. I think the main impact there is between Madeline and Michael. I mean, that’s the real focus for a little while. Part of it is actually that Madeline’s upset with everybody, as becomes clear over the course of the the next episodes. It’s not just that she feels like Michael shouldn’t have put his brother in harm’s way, it’s also that whole team they’re all sort of trained. They were working with Michael. So there’s plenty of blame to go around. It’s not that she really takes Fiona to task specifically, but that comes into it. But moving forward the Madeline sort of mourns the life she imagined Fiona and Michael could’ve had together in Miami with her. So I think that Fiona becomes one of the things that draws Madeline back. That keeps Madeline from just writing it all off, writing her family off, and really slipping into despair. It’s not like Madeline is particularly close to Fiona in the upcoming episodes, because she’s mad at everybody. But ultimately one of the things that we’re exploring is just the idea that this whole group has become a bit of a family now and this is a real challenge to that family. But it is a family nonetheless everybody. So that’s part of it as well.
If BURN NOTICE does get a 7th season, would you definitely be looking for it to be the last?
Matt Nix: Looking for it would be a strong term. It’s funny actually. If you’d asked me that last season, I would’ve said: How many more of these can we do? But this season I think has breathed some new creative life into the show for all of us — for the actors, for the writers, for me. So the fact that we’ve been able to do this new kind of storytelling that we haven’t done a lot of before has been really exciting. I think that ultimately with any of these kinds of shows, you do need to aim towards some sort of resolution. So I could definitely see a 7th season being the last season. But if the actors are willing and the network wants it and the studio wants it and everything, I could also imagine a circumstance — I wouldn’t guarantee it — but I could imagine a circumstance where we might say, “Hey there is some creative life here and there are things we want to do.” But I guess I would ultimately make the decision on that basis. Like: Is there cool stuff to say? Because you occasionally see shows that just sort of somebody backs up a “money truck” and everybody takes the money and then they just sort of like phone in a last season, and I wouldn’t want to do that.
With the possibility that next season may be it’s last, to see how Michael is galvanized into action and the retribution he takes for his brother’s death, be sure to tune in for an all new episode of BURN NOTICE on Thursday, August 2nd at 9PM on USA Network. Someone is going to pay.