Burn Notice wrapped up its seven season run Thursday night with a series finale filled with both triumph and tragedy, and now creator Matt Nix breaks it all down for us.
[SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have already watched Thursday night’s series finale of Burn Notice. MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!]]
We were led to believe that one of Burn Notice’s main characters would not be making it out of the finale alive. But while there was a very moving funeral service for Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) and Fiona (Gabrialle Anwar), it was Michael’s mother Madeline (Sharon Gless) who ended up paying the ultimate price — sacrificing herself by detonating a bomb to take out the bad guys so that grandson Charlie and Michael’s pal Jesse (Coby Bell) could escape.
Madeline’s sacrifice was necessary after Michael had to choose between Fiona and Sonya (Alona Tal), on a rooftop, killing Sonya to protect his past (and, seemingly, future) love. Both Michael and Fiona also appeared to perish in an exploding building, however a final scene showed them all snuggled up — along with nephew Charlie — in a cottage in what appeared to be Ireland (where Michael and Fiona first met and fell in love).
We talked to show creator Matt Nix about the death of Madeline, the future of Michael and Fiona, and whether there could possibly be even more Burn Notice to come. (Note: Click through both pages to read the entire interview.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This was a really dark season of Burn Notice. Was the goal to take Michael to the absolute brink before pulling him back at the last possible second?
MATT NIX: There’s an element of that, but really what drove this season for me was just this idea that if there’s one question we have answered something like 110 times on Burn Notice, It’s can Michael Westen defeat a bad guy by being cleaver and badass? And we kind of did that, right? The answer is yes, Michael Westen can defeat bad guys by being badass and clever. So this season was about presenting Michael with something new. It’s not just a big bad of the season. In fact, the person he’s nominally going up against this season is somebody who turns out to basically share his perspective on the world. James is the guy who pretty much does the same kinds of things that Michael Westen does or wants to do for pretty much the same reasons, so at the end of the day, Michael’s not really fighting James this season, Michael’s fighting himself, and I think there was no desire on my part to be dark for the sake of being dark, but by giving Michael an antagonist that wasn’t just another bad guy, and by making the conflict really about things that were inside of Michael — I think that naturally leads to some darker places, and more interesting places to me and to the actors.
EW: Michael has a choice to make at the start of the episode, but he later says he hesitated to make that choice to kill Sonya rather than Fiona. Did he need that moment to snap him back?
NIX: I think he absolutely needed that moment to snap him back. That choice has always been present in the series from the very beginning, he’s really struggled with the question of does he want to be with Fiona? Not because there’s a question of whether he loves her, because obviously he does, but really, it’s more a question of is he somebody who wants to love anybody? Is he somebody who wants to have those personal connections, or is he somebody who wants to be free to be an operative? The best spy is not somebody who’s tied to family and people he cares about and people who can be used against him and all of that. So that choice is in some sense a choice between two women that he has grown to care about, but on a deeper level it’s a choice between two paths. Sonya is basically this path of the professional Michael, the person who for seven seasons he he has thought he wanted to be. And Fiona sort of represents the person that he actually is and that he has actually become over the course of the seven seasons, which is somebody who really does have a family and friends and personal connections that he can’t leave behind casually.
EW: We get to the big moment of the episode where someone has to sacrifice themselves to allow everyone else to survive. Michael wants to be the one in that situation, but his mother Madeline convinces him that she’s the one who has to do it and ends up sacrificing herself by setting off that bomb. What made you feel you had to kill someone off in that finale? And why her?
NIX: It certainly wasn’t “let’s kill a character” [laughs]. It was really more in thinking what has this season been about? What has this series been about? This question of Michael’s relationship to his family — why has he been disconnected from his family? Why has he been a guy who doesn’t have a lot of fiends? What is that about? What does that mean? A big part of it has been he’s always been aware the closer you are to people the more that can be used against you and the less freedom you have as a spy. It’s something he’s said explicitly to Fiona, and that’s a price he’s paid before when his brother died. Having these connections and bringing these people into this world has had great consequences. He’s reconnected with them, he’s resolved some family issues, all of those things, but it’s also put all of them at risk. And so the question has been, can he have both? And I think it was important to me that that not be a question that’s answered trivially — that we don’t just go, “Oh yeah it turns out he can have both, ha-ha great!’
When it comes down to it, if you have these relationships, they can be used against you, and in the face of that, is it worth caring for people? Is it worth loving people? Is it worth having a family? And I think the answer that the episode gives is definitively yes. And that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have consequences, so Madeline sacrificing herself is basically saying, “I can save you. You can be this guy, you can do what you want to do, you can be who you want to be, and it will come at a price and I’m willing to pay that price.” And I think it also resolves some things for Madeline. This season we’ve gotten into her character a lot, and her own guilt for being unwilling to stand up for her own family when her children were little, dealing with the fact that she didn’t really stop her abusive husband from going after Michael and Nate. And the question in her mind being, is she a coward? Is she somebody who can’t take care of her family?
So I think that last moment is somewhat a triumphant moment for her. The answer is definitively no, she is not a coward. She sacrifices herself to save Michael, to save Charlie, to save Jesse, to save everybody. And really to provide the seed of a new family — what you see in the final scene with Michael and Fiona and Charlie off somewhere else in the world, kind of repairing the wrongs of the past. So it wasn’t a “Oh well, it would be really dramatic in the finale to kill a character.” It was really more that it felt right in terms of answering the central dramatic questions of the series, and Burn Notice has been kind of a light show in a lot of ways, but those themes have always been there, They’ve underpinned some of our lightest episodes, so I think that the finale’s really all of those themes coming together.
EW: You mentioned that in the finale we see Michael and Fiona and Charlie off somewhere at the very end. We see them living off the grid in what I’m assuming is Ireland, right?
NIX: It is certainly like Ireland. It is probably Ireland, yes. It’s not something I want to answer definitively, but Ireland is something that felt right. It was where they met, it was where they got together first, it’s somewhere that Fiona has connections. It’s a base, so it could be anywhere in the world that has snow, so there’s certainly a reason that we get into that scene with Irish music, so…
EW: Did you ever consider having Fiona going back to her Irish accent that we saw her with at the start of the series, or would that have been too jarring for the audience?
NIX: We never really discussed it because the idea was it wasn’t necessarily Ireland. I didn’t want to definitively say now they’re back in Ireland doing Irish things. It’s more they’re someplace in the world living as a family and I also think that to the extent that I even thought about if she’s talking in a accent then he’s talking in an accent, and it sends the wrong message. The idea is they to some extent have left that behind. They’re not living as spies now. Michael’s not undercover in Ireland as Michael McBride, so that felt wrong to me.
EW: One of my favorite moments involved Bruce Campbell, who plays Sam, repeating his “You know spies, a bunch of bitchy little girls” line from the first episode. Was it your idea to come full circle and give that little nod?
NIX: If you go through the episode, everybody gets a nod like that, with saying their little lines from the intro at the top of the episode. If you’re a fan, you’ve seen that a lot of times, you know the lines, so in some ways in an otherwise pretty heavy episode I wanted to throw some things in there that have a little bit of lightness to them — a little wink to the fans who have been with us for seven years. So if you look closely, Madeline has her moments where she echoes her lines, Michael has his, Jesse has his, Fiona has hers. So we have Fiona saying “shall we shoot them?” in the middle of the episode, so we’re clearly doing that. And there’s also a nod to the pilot where Michael talks about the virtues of duct tape, and over the course of the episode, everybody manages to use duct tape for a different purpose, so I wanted to throw in some easter eggs for people that care.
EW: Tell me what it was like personally filming this final installment. Seven seasons is a long time.
NIX: It’s funny, the weirdest thing about doing a final episode of television is there are so many lasts. When it hit me really was when I was alone in my office and I wrote “End of series” on the outline. It was the last day in the writers’ room that I was like oh well we just finished breaking the finale so I guess that’s the last writers’ room, and that’s the last time I wrote an outline and that’s the last time I wrote a script. And you just keep going through, and where it really hits you is when you wrap an actor on an episode one of the ADs will say, “That’s an episode wrap on such and such a guest actor” or whatever. But when you start doing that for series regulars, you say, “And that’s a series wrap on Mr. Jeffrey Donovan,” or “It’s a series wrap on Coby Bell,” that’s a very weird thing, because I was directing the episode and we don’t shoot these things in order so there might be a couple days after we wrap a particular actor and we’re still shooting, and it’s very odd. One nice thing about ending a series is it takes so long to make an episode that you do have a lot of opportunities to say goodbye and people give a lot of speeches. We’re actually still not done, we still have the postproduction wrap party, where we sort of give yet another series of speeches.
EW: Is Burn Notice really gone? To me, this feels like a franchise that could pump out a TV movie from time to time, like The Fall of Sam Axe one that you already did.
NIX: I would love to do that. I totally think it could. It’s sort of a question for the brass at USA and Fox TV studios as to whether they want to do that. The standalone movie model is not something we do a whole lot, but we did it for the Sam Axe movie and it seemed to go well, and I have a general sense that that’s be something the actors would be up for. So yeah, if we could get something like that going, I would love to do it. It would have to be something that made sense dramatically. I don’t think we would want to do something trivial after we brought the series to a close in a particular way, but I think there are ways around that so, at the same time, no matter what you do, it’s never the same experience as making the series itself. The Sam Axe movie was a blast to do, but it was made mostly with an entirely different crew in Bogota, Colombia, so maybe there will be an opportunity to revisit these characters, but it’s not going to be with the same crew, it certainly wouldn’t be with all of the same cast, so some elements may continue in a certain scenario, but many elements are certainly done.