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Tuesday, 2 of March of 2021

Spy Myths in Covert Affairs & Burn Notice

He is Michael Westen! There are only four of us!

This week’s episodes of Covert Affairs (“Walter’s Walk”) and Burn Notice (“Past & Future Tense”) were both very good. Covert Affairs is still having to do legwork, fleshing out the characters and the world, but it’s doing an admirable job of that. Meanwhile Burn Notice has the luxury of being an established show, with its format and characters firmly in place and ready to go for anything.

What both shows touched on this week, however, was about something more than just how a new show develops or how an established one keeps itself fresh. This week, Covert Affairs and Burn Notice tackled the notion of spyhood in their own specific ways. Unsurprisingly, both shows dealt with the issue of spyhood from their particular vantage points: new spy and old spies.

With Covert Affairs, Annie is still having to work her around around the Company, figure out how to balance the secrets and her family. While this is dramatized most clearly by the decision of whether or not to be the guardian of her nieces (Dudek is wasted yet again), she’s also put in the field with a veteran spy from MI6, someone who can teach her about the spy life, and perhaps more willingly than anyone else she works with.

Really there’s no better way to do this than to have a British spy “help” Annie in the episode. Spies are pretty easily connected to James Bond, the quintessential (British) spy. While the episode leaves little doubt that the MI6 agent is the traitor (those Brits are shifty!) , he’s still able to feed into Annie’s notion of spyhood, which includes the balance between family and spy lives. Connections in the family life are often portrayed as a liability for the spy (even one night stands can prove deadly, right, James?), a way for your enemies to come at you. With the signing of the guardian papers, Annie looks to buck that trend and not let it control her. Indeed, if Annie is like spy, she’s like Chuck, who derives confidence and assuredness from his family and friends. Both see the two as interrelated components that help each life be a better one.

Covert Affairs does balance this optimism with Joan and Arthur’s combative personal and professional relationships, showing the extremes that a person involved with a spy (especially when they’re a spy themselves) will go to feel secure. The bleed through between their lives, marriage counseling at Langley, using CIA resources to wiretap phones, shows the dangers of having a family life while being a spy. While Covert Affairs could certainly go darker and have Annie make a break from the family, I imagine her sister could bring her back.

Burn Notice, on the other hand, is more concerned with what a spy with an established reputation is capable of. “Past and Future Tense” is a great episode that allows Michael to play into the image that has been constructed around him by his enemies (“He’s like the Boogeyman.”). This is a great shift in the show’s formula as Michael’s cover ID for the episode is still Michael Westen, but an exaggerated version of him. This kind of identity play is what I expected from last season, after Management stopped protecting Michael. I’d like to see more of this from the show (though, of course, it shouldn’t rely on it too much), as it allows Jeffrey Donovan to provide variations on Michael instead of whole new characters.

On the flipside of Michael’s confident and scary image, is Paul’s washed out image. While he’s been out of the spy game for a while, and poses no threat to anyone, his past deeds, the spy he used to be, still haunt him (albeit in the form of a Russians hit squad instead of existential questions about the self). But the even the spy he used to be is slipping away from Paul, and those stories that defined him for a generation are fading due to age. Michael himself faces the same fate, and that’s a weight that Michael can’t simply shrug off next week, especially as the stakes in his long game with Jesse  get higher.


  • I have no nostalgic attachment to Burt Reynolds, so his appearance in Burn Notice meant little to me. I don’t think he was particularly special in the role, so I wasn’t engaged with Paul beyond being the Client of the Week this week.
  • On the other hand, Burn Notice needs more Richard Kind. Hell, everything needs more Richard Kind. I hope he’ll be back later in the season to do more as Jesse’s former boss.
  • Fi’s slow slide to Jesse’s side hasn’t been totally convincing, so I’m hoping that the next couple of episodes give me a little more to latch on to.
  • The Joan and Arthur stuff in Covert Affairs is still the weakest part of the show. I like Sendhil Ramamurthy already, though sad that Wade wasn’t given a stronger write-out (perhaps as the leak in the previous episode?)

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