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Recap / Burn Notice S 1 E 1 Pilot

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Michael is in the midst of negotiating with a Russian expat over the security for a Nigerian oil field when, out of nowhere, he's informed that a burn notice has been issued on him and he's out of the game. Unfortunately, the Russian takes this poorly. Michael manages to kill the men taking him to the money and escape the country.

Woken by a kick in the back, Michael finds himself in his childhood home, Miami, Florida. He finds that he's being followed by the FBI, his bank accounts are frozen, and he's on all the government watch lists. He takes a job to scrape together a little cash, and ends up working with his ex-girlfriend, former IRA bank robber Fiona Glenanne, and an old acquaintance, ex-Navy SEAL Sam Axe.

The pilot quickly establishes many of the staples of the series. Michael has family issues, Sam has buddies, Fiona's violent. Michael could just shoot people, but prefers MacGyvering. The bulk of the episode is spent dealing with the Monster of the Week, while making a small amount of progress with the Story Arc.

Tropes include:

  • Affably Evil: While not actually evil, Michael certainly comes across as this to some people. He admits that he doesn't like stealing cars, but knows that it's a necessity sometimes, though he also has rules when doing so: he keeps said car clean, and if he takes it on a work day, he'll have the car back by a certain time
  • Air Vent Escape: Michael broke out of his room to go see Star Wars when he was six.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: "Southern Nigeria isn't my favorite place in the world. It's unstable, it's corrupt, and the people there eat a lot of terrible-smelling preserved fish."
  • Badass in a Nice Suit: Michael is in an exquisite suit from word one.
  • Blackmail Backfire: Michael pushes Pyne by revealing knowledge of his crooked financial dealings. Instead of caving to Michael's demands, Pyne in desperation orders Vince to kidnap Javier's son, forcing Michael to up his game.
    Michael: Powerful people don't like being pushed around. You can never quite predict what they're going to do. Or have their washed-out special forces security guys do. Point is, blackmail is a little like owning a pit bull; it might protect you, or it might bite your hand off.
  • Blatant Lies: "Sometimes the truth hurts. In these situations, I recommend lying."
  • Boxing Lesson: Michael teaches the client's son how not to get beaten up.
  • Break-In Threat: The mysterious people behind Michael's burn notice break into his loft and leave photos of him all over the floor.
  • California Doubling: Well, Miami doubling. All the scenes ostensibly in Nigeria were shot in Miami. Mostly in back alleys.
  • Car Chase Shoot-Out: Michael is fired from his job at the CIA in the middle of meeting a Nigerian underworld figure and flees on a stolen dirt bike with mooks chasing him in a car and firing at him. The pursuers screw up and crash into a market stall, and get surrounded by a crowd of angry and heavily armed bystanders, ending the chase.
  • Casual Danger Dialogue: Wedged into a Mercedes sedan between two thugs, one of whom is jamming a pistol into his ribs, Michael comments that Mercedes-Benz makes a "surprisingly affordable" SUV with a much roomier backseat.
  • Characterization Marches On:
    • Gabrielle Anwar's Irish accent really is terrible. Fortunately, this is the only episode to really feature it.
    • Michael is a lot more ruthless in the pilot than he is by the fifth season. He executes two unconscious goons during his escape from Nigeria, and later he cheerfully lets Vincent bleed out on the couch for quite a while as he does his "show-and-tell" shtick with Graham Pyne.
    • The pilot implies that Michael and Sam weren't as close as, by the fifth season, their backstory has made them.
  • Chronic Hero Syndrome: "Fighting for the little guy is for suckers. We all do it sometimes, but the trick is to get in and out without getting involved. That's a trick I never mastered."
  • City of Adventure: Southern Nigeria is the gun-running capital of the world, which apparently means crashing your car into a market leads to every shopper pointing an automatic weapon at you.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Michael.
    • Tricking his captors into taking him into a restroom to throw up:
      That's why I like bathrooms. Lots of hard surfaces.
    • Teaching David to play possum to draw his bully in before head-butting him;
      I'm the champion at getting beaten up. But I'm also very good at winning.
    • Preparing for the final confrontation with Pyne and Vincent:
      Most bad guys expect you to just sit there and wait for them, like those are the "rules" or something.
  • Conspicuous Consumption: What's the point of being a Nigerian warlord if you can't wear heavy gold chains?
  • Distract and Disarm: During the climax, Michael tells Vince, "By the way, Vince, you're gonna have a hard time blowing my brains out with the safety on." When Vince looks at the gun to check, Michael wrestles the gun away from him, firing off a shot in the process of getting it out of his hands: "What do you know, the safety was off! My mistake."
  • Don't Tell Mama: Michael keeps his mother in the dark, a status that won't change for several seasons.
  • The Dreaded: According to Oleg, Michael's Russian landlord.
    Oleg: You're real Michael Westen, yes? Back home you're story Russian Intelligence tells to scare. They say you're one name for many people. Special operations team. They think one person cannot make so much problems.
  • Drives Like Crazy: Losing a tail means driving like an idiot.
  • Duct Tape for Everything: Michael's MacGyvering involves a lot of duct tape.
    "For a job like getting rid of the drug dealer next door, I'll take a hardware store over a gun any day. Guns make you stupid. Better to fight your wars with duct tape. Duct tape makes you smart."
  • Dysfunctional Family: It becomes clear right away that the Westen home was not a happy one.
    People with happy families don't become spies. A bad childhood is the perfect background for covert ops; you don't trust anyone, you're used to getting smacked around, and you never get homesick.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: Fiona's Irish accent and Madeline's hypochondria both disappear after this episode, with the former only showing up again in the third season and the latter just acting as set dressing. Fortunately, Maddie's wig never comes back. The first scenes also belie Michael's later Thou Shalt Not Kill rule (violated only on extreme occasions in Miami).
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    • Michael's first scene involves him being gang beaten, devising a lie to prolong his life, beating up and killing the guards restraining him, racing away on a stolen motorcycle (promising the guy that he could pick it up at the airport) and escaping Nigeria on a plane.
    • Fiona shows up by kicking Michael awake and being someone Michael trusts enough to distract some FBI agents. An additional moment occurs later when she suggests just shooting them.
    • Sam's first line has him explaining that he is already known as a drunk womanizer so he has nothing to lose by talking to a burned spy, highlighting his Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass tendencies and his friendship with Michael.
    • Madeline is introduced by Michael being absolutely terrified to see her again, and her bullying him into taking her hypochondriac tendencies seriously.
    • Michael flies first class, wears Armani, and is offered a job for what is clearly to him a small amount of cash. He's on the verge of refusing before the man begs him, on behalf of his son.
  • Establishing Shot: To demonstrate that Miami is full of beautiful places and people.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Michael drops everything when his mother calls him, though not without screaming into a pillow.
  • Even the Guys Want Him: The art dealer offers to show Michael some Greco-Roman nude wrestling sculptures...
  • Frame-Up: The client is being framed by his boss.
  • Friend to All Children: Michael waffles on taking the job until the client mentions he has a son. Michael accepts, and later teaches the kid how to defend himself.
  • "Friends" Rent Control: Michael's apartment only costs him $200 a month despite being quite large and in an expensive city, mainly because its location next door to a nightclub makes the noise level unbearable for most people.
  • Game-Breaking Injury: Michael's beating in Nigeria makes him less of a badass in Miami.
    Michael: It doesn't matter how much training you have; a broken rib is a broken rib.
  • Good Feels Good:
    As a spy, it doesn't matter if you're helping rebel forces fight off a dictator, or giving combat tips to a 3rd grader; there's nothing like helping the little guy kick some bully's ass.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Michael beats the crap out of a few guys in a bathroom. The camera cuts away to the exterior and we hear a few gunshots.
  • Government Agency of Fiction: Michael makes it clear right away that he doesn't work for anyone directly. That's why he can do what he does.
  • The Help Helping Themselves: Pine's chief of security Vince suspects the groundskeeper Javier of being involved in the theft, to which Pine accuses them of bigotry for targeting the Ethnic Menial Labor. It turns out that Vince and Pine were both in on it, and his defense of Javier was simply Propping Up Their Patsy.
  • Hero Stole My Bike: Mike gets to the airport by stealing a dirt bike from some guy. He also steals several cars throughout the episode.
  • Hollywood Silencer: Made particularly egregious by the fact that Michael just stuck the barrel of his gun into a tin can.
  • Home Field Advantage: This episode inspired the trope, although Michael calls it "home court advantage". He preps Javier's house so he can down the opposition.
  • Hyper-Awareness: Sitting in a sushi restaurant with Fi, Michael easily spots the three FBI agents tailing him.
  • Hypochondria: Madeline's initial characterization. It disappears.
  • Interplay of Sex and Violence: "Fi, violence is foreplay for you, it's not for me."
  • It's Always Spring: The hotel Michael stays at is full of beautiful young people in bathing suits, but his mother tells him it's almost Christmas. Justified because it's Florida—the average December temperature in Miami rarely gets below 63°F.
  • MacGyvering: Michael improvises a few things.
    • He makes a fake bomb to get his handler's attention.
    • He makes a listening device using a few cell phones.
    • He gets rid of Sugar using duct tape. And a gun.
    • He deals with the fight at the end using flares attached to a pistol.
  • Made of Iron: Averted right away.
    Michael: It doesn't matter how much training you have; a broken rib is a broken rib.
  • The Mafiya: The show opens with Michael dealing with a Russian warlord in Nigeria.
  • Mr. Exposition: Michael does a little show and tell with Pyne at the end.
  • Must Have Nicotine: Madeline's chain-smoking habits show up right away.
  • Narrator: Michael begins narrating the show right away.
  • Not With the Safety On, You Won't: Michael tells a man pointing a gun at him, "By the way, Vince, you're gonna have a hard time blowing my brains out with the safety on." When Vince looks at the gun to check, Michael wrestles the gun away from him and it discharges away from the two of them in the process: "What do you know, the safety was off! My mistake."
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: "I never run around the bushes in a ski mask when I'm breaking in someplace. Somebody catches you, what are you gonna say? You want to look like a legitimate visitor until the very last minute. If you can't look legit, confused works almost as well."
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • Michael's in the middle of a deal when his burn notice goes through.
  • Once an Episode: Michael's love of yogurt makes its first appearance.
  • Perma-Stubble: Sam doesn't sport his, which upset the producers.
  • Pet the Dog: Michael giving tips to a kid on how to fight bullies.
  • Playing Sick: Michael fakes nausea to get into the bathroom.
  • Post-Victory Collapse: "If you're going to collapse on a plane, I recommend business class. The seats are bigger in case you start convulsing."
  • Propping Up Their Patsy: Michael investigates an art theft from the mansion of a real estate tycoon named Pyne, who spoke up for his groundskeeper Javier when the man was investigated by the police. Michael breaks into Pyne's safe and discovers that he's involved in a massive real estate fraud scheme that's falling apart because of an economic downturn, and infers that Pyne had the art "stolen" by his security chief Vince to defraud his insurer and plans to make Javier the fall guy. He defended Javier's character to the police to deflect suspicion when he later frames him.
  • Re-Cut: This episode has aired as both a double-length and a single-length episode, with the longer version including additional scenes of Michael investigating his burn notice and being stonewalled. Oddly, the DVD sets of the series use the single-length version.
  • Renegade Russian: The episode opens with Mike bribing a Russian ex-pat to protect an oil field.
  • Retired Badass: Sam Axe is a retired Navy SEAL.
  • Safecracking: Made easier by laziness and modern technology.
  • She Is Not My Girlfriend: Michael insists he's not hooking back up with Fiona. That's not what's happening.
  • Staring Kid: Michael screaming into a payphone while a shocked kid stares at him from a nearby water fountain.
  • State The Simple Solution: "Should we shoot them?" Made it into the opening credits.
  • Straight for the Commander: Michael gives his client's young son some advice about dealing with the bullies tormenting him at school, the most important being, "you take out their leader, oh, they'll all leave you alone." It works on schoolyard bullies as well as it works on Afghan paramilitary groups.
  • Strictly Formula: The pilot introduces the formula. Story A) Michael helps someone in Miami so that he can continue Story B) dealing with his burn notice.
  • Surveillance as the Plot Demands: The photos at the end are from throughout the episode.
  • Sweet Tooth: Over coffee with the FBI guys. Look at how much sugar Michael puts in his coffee.
  • This Is Reality: Michael is a "super-spy" with two black belts, but he can still lose a fight, get beaten nearly to death, and any injury hurts like hell. So when David starts crying, wishing he was a "tough guy" like Michael, Michael immediately tells him he's got nothing to be ashamed of.
  • Those Two Guys: Michael's FBI tail make their first appearance.
  • Title Drop: "We got a burn notice on you. You're blacklisted."
  • Totally Radical: The skater kids Michael gets to talk to the cops to deal with his FBI tail. "All right, dog."
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Twice in this episode, we learn about Michael's love of yogurt. He steals one from the real estate douche and all he has in his fridge above the club is a blueberry yogurt.
  • Why We Are Bummed Communism Fell:
    Sam: Look, point is, you getting burned wouldn't have happened back then. I mean, in the '80s, the rules were the rules. They had their guys, we had our guys. Wasn't so goddamn complicated. You could get your head around it. Now, today, it's all about religion and oil. It's no fun anymore. I tell you, I'm glad I got out when I did.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Pyne sends his bodyguard after Javier's son to get some leverage.
  • You Got Murder: Michael gets his handler to call him back by mailing him a defective pipe bomb.