While television pundits work themselves into an honors-English lather deconstructing the minutiae of "Breaking Bad's" final episodes, let us pause for a moment, crack a window and possibly a beer, and consider Thursday's final episode of USA's "Burn Notice," a show that had profoundly altered the television landscape before Walter White was barely a mad gleam in Vince Gilligan's eye.
USA was the network that "Monk" built when "Burn Notice" debuted in 2007, and though Matt Nix's tale of kicked-to-the-curb spy Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) shared a few of "Monk's" DNA markers — an emotionally burdened lead character with a specific set of super-skills and a surprising amount of humor — "Burn Notice" was something else again.
Fast paced, bullet-pocked and extremely clever, it took a classically handsome action hero who could talk/shoot/MacGyver his way out of anything and dumped him on the ash heap (in this case Miami). There he was forced to rely on his wits and a few other characters so dented and dinged that they weren't afraid to hang out with a burned spy.
"When you're burned, you've got nothing: no cash, no credit, no job history. You're stuck in whatever city they decide to dump you in. You do whatever work comes your way. You rely on anyone who's still talking to you: a trigger-happy ex-girlfriend, an old friend who used to inform on you to the FBI. Family too, if you're desperate. Until you figure out who burned you, you're not going anywhere."
Each week, this perfect prose poem of intent prefaced an episode that dealt with a specific problem — "do whatever work comes your way" — while advancing the über-narrative of discovering the villain behind the burn. Wielding what may be the best use of voice-over in television history, Michael offered insights into the world of espionage with a deadpan wit that infused the storytelling and a biometric blend of self-confidence/self-loathing that quickly infected almost every leading male on TV.
Likewise, for several years, the "trigger-happy girlfriend" Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar) was among the best female roles on TV. Tough and impetuous, she never dissolved into sentiment or self-doubt. Her love for Michael moved her, but it never overwhelmed her.
Add to the mix a beer-swilling former Navy SEAL in a Hawaiian shirt (Bruce Campbell's Sam Axe), a chain-smoking, hilariously narcissistic mother (Sharon Gless as Maddie) and, a few seasons in, a former nemesis turned buddy (Coby Bell's Jesse) and you had a show that redefined family viewing.
But now the fall is upon us, and with it the end of "Burn Notice." There is no denying the stress of seven seasons. What began as a sharply defined, smart-mouth lark, with explosives, inevitably grew blurrier.
In television, familiarity breeds the opposite of contempt. The scrappy band of losers have become Michael's family. The seventh season opened with Michael reluctantly agreeing to go undercover in a terrorist organization in order to get his friends and his mother out of jail.
As he took his new assignment, even his voice-over changed, cockiness gave way to wariness over the dangers of going undercover. Nix abandoned the procedural element and concentrated solely on the A-story, in which Michael became a more classic antihero. By the penultimate episode, last week, he had effectively switched sides, working for the terrorist he originally set out to bring down.
Not, perhaps, the most original ending — in this age of self-service, the enemy of any man worth his salt is himself. But to Nix's credit, he has allowed his cast to stretch dramatically in these final episodes, to see how far they could take their characters beyond the banter and the bombs.
Gless, with those limpid eyes and that dead-on delivery, has always delivered some of the best moments of the show. In the last few episodes, she has been a godsend, anchoring the final events in strength and beauty.
If storms threaten and Nix splashes a bit too obviously into the mire of Prestige TV, he never loses sight of who his characters are and what his show is. The finale unleashes at least one genuine surprise and will, no doubt, cause more than a few tears to fall.
But while, like any good spy, it acknowledges the perimeters of heartbreak, it does not breech them. And that allows "Burn Notice" to go out as it came in, a show that, against the odds, remained wholly its own.
When: 9 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-PG-V (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for violence)