When Michael Westen was dropped by the CIA in the premiere of Burn Notice, all he had left were friends and family.
As the USA drama ends its successful, seven-season run Thursday (9 p.m. ET/PT), the talented spy (Jeffrey Donovan) must decide whether to abandon them to achieve his own dreams of power and control. Of course, there will be blood, explosions and nods to the past along the way - duct tape, anyone? - along with the death of a major character.
Burn Notice, one of only three USA series to surpass 100 episodes (Monk and Psych are the others), has evolved into a study of Michael's character and relationships with those closest to him: Ex-girlfriend and former IRA operative Fiona Glenanne (Gabrielle Anwar); cocktail-swilling ex-Navy SEAL Sam Axe (Bruce Campbell); another disavowed spy, Jesse Porter (Coby Bell); and Westen's needy but loving mother, Madeline (Sharon Gless).
"We're the 21st-century family. You have a band of misfits who, though it's probably difficult for them all to say they love each other, love each other like they're like blood," Donovan says. "It's an amazing testament to the writing that people accepted that these two burned spies, this former IRA terrorist, this disgraced Navy SEAL and this crazy mom are all in it to win it every week."
Viewers captivated by the Michael-Fiona dynamic will learn whether they get back together,Donovan says.
Burn Notice began with Michael being wrongly "burned," or cut loose from the spy agency, and left to his own devices (literally) in Miami, using his skills as a covert operative to help clients and make ends meet.
Over the course of the series, Michael had to weigh the freedom of spy life vs. the pull of family ties.
"He came into the series as someone who was very disconnected from his friends and family. At that time, Michael is breezily competent and pretty unconflicted about things. He's very interested in finding out who burned him in that first season and why," says creator Matt Nix. "As Michael resolves a lot of those questions - he now understands who burned him and why - his relationships with the people in his life are really deepening."
He must decide between detachment, which serves him well as a spy, and involvement, which offers emotional rewards but can limit his ability to act.
"Is he going to disconnect from his friends and his family and get what he's always dreamed of as an operative, which is total independence?" Nix says. "For much of the season, he's disconnecting and as the season goes on he realizes those ties really run too deep to sever quite so easily."
Gless could see that evolution in the relationship between Madeline and Michael, who had grown distant from his mother during his years as a spy.
"We had seven years to find our way back to each other. It's not that they didn't love each other. She adored him, but she was mad at him and he was just cut off," she says. But "she grew and she actually became an asset" to Michael and his colleagues. "She's more than just a chain-smoking hypochondriac."
Burn Notice has been a strong ratings performer for USA, where it helped establish the network's successful "blue-skies" mix of drama leavened with humor. It paved the way for more original summer programming and served as a potent lead-in for later series such as Royal Pains and Suits.
Although the show has been averaging a healthy 5.6 million viewers this season, Nix says creative and (to a lesser degree) financial considerations made this a good time to plan its exit. Seven seasons seemed like "a healthy run for a TV series that would keep us from getting into the go-forever-and-go-stale territory."
To that end, the writers prepared differently for this final season. Instead of developing the self-containedweekly stories and weaving serialized relationship arcs through them, they started with a season-long look at Michael's personal issues as he confronts pressure from the CIA and the allure of terrorist James Kendrick (John Pyper-Ferguson), whose ends he admires even if he disagrees with the means.
"Matt and I wanted the layers of Michael Westen to be pulled away and to get to the core of who he is," Donovan says. "That journey is emotional. It's not tactical, it's not intellectual, it's all heart. Even the voiceovers changed this year to (become) more emotional."
Bill Keveney, USA TODAY