Burn Notice: “Signals and Codes”


My name is Michael Weston. I’m an actor. When you’re a busy actor you’ve got a lot. Cash, credits, job history. You’re stuck working in whatever city they decide to film in. Like Miami.

Out from the shadow of the Paxson arc, Michael’s back to trying to find his way back into the Company’s good graces. Fortuitously, he is tracked down by a slightly anxious, slightly overwrought, slightly…oh, who am I kidding. He’s batshit. Spencer is the ever popular trope of the brilliant mathematician who suffers from schizophrenia. ((I swear, one guy goes crazy and has Russell Crowe play him in a movie and all mathematicians are suddenly crazy.)) He sees patterns everywhere and is able to track down Michael for help with a little alien/spy/treason problem.

Weston vs. Westen is a hoot and I’m happy to see the writers left plenty of room for Spencer’s return. Because tonight was fun.

The Recap

Michael and Sam have spent days staking out the airport, looking for off-the-books flights. Those would be the covert ops. They finally find one and Michael goes to the airport to find out more about the plane and its owners. By sweet talking an employee he gets his hands on a copy of the file of the mystery plane, hopping out a window to elude security when they come in response to a frantic call from Washington. The file was red flagged and Michael’s query raised an alarm.

While Barry heads upstate to get information about the shell company, Michael and Sam take a break at the gun range. And that’s where Spencer finds him. He’d calculated a high probability that Michael – the cause of the various controlled explosions and strange happenings around town – lived within five miles of this gun club. Knowing he’d need to practice all his skills to keep them sharp, he waited and watched.

One of the VPs at his job is a killer. Specifically, a traitor selling intelligence secrets about the identities of American covert operatives. And too, Spencer’s friend Barry was killed after Spencer used his computer to try to hack into Shannon’s files. Because Spencer doesn’t have a work computer, despite the PhD. He’s a little too crazy for that. After talk of aliens and an outburst at the restaurant, Sam calls the police and Spencer is hauled off to the psych ward. From which he quickly picks a lock, hacks the DMV, and shows up at Michael’s loft the next day.

It’s hard for the gang to take Spencer’s rants seriously as he shows them his walls and ceilings covered with newspaper clippings, until Sam spots the most recent clipping confirming a prediction Spencer had made earlier. The timing was TV contrived but I’m willing to let it slide. At some point the team would have found the piece of evidence that corroborated Spencer.

Michael distracts Shannon by acting like an arrogant IT guy ((Never. Never seen one of those before. Oh no. Never.)) long enough for Spencer to slip into her office to install a keylogger. They can’t access her computer remotely without being traced; they’ll have to break into it locally. After Shannon goes back into her office, Michael borrows the bathroom key from her secretary so he can know what type it is in order to make a bump key later.

With the bump key in hand, Michael and Spencer break into Shannon’s office while Sam drags everyone in the department to the conference room for a team building meeting. Unfortunately, while they find the encrypted emails Shannon has intercepted, she does not have a copy of Zydeco – the encryption software – on her computer. Spencer realizes she must use the copy in the SCIF room ((Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility. I Google so you don’t have to.)) instead. They copy what they can and get out.

Michael confronts Shannon and tells her he’s a cleaner tracking down a leak in her department. He tells her the Feds are bearing down on them and takes her to a boat – Virgil’s – telling her it belonged to Brad. There he shows her printouts of the emails he and Spencer had gotten from her computer.

He hands her a cellphone – primed to work as a bug – and says he needs to see the SCIF access logs the next day.

Shannon moves quickly, sending her hired muscle to kill Spencer. Fi and Michael get the call from Sam and race there to save Spencer. Unfortunately, this pulls Fi off her stakeout of the office building and Shannon gets a chance to clean the access logs, covering her tracks completely. That leaves only one play. Spencer has to con Shannon.

Which con he successfully pulls off – with some help from Fi and Michael – and save the day with a quick thinking ad lib about Venezuela.

From there, it’s a trivial matter for Michael to get Shannon into the SCIF room, handcuff her after he gets the copy of Zydeco, and decrypt the emails on her computer with it. The last time a criminal was tied up in such a neat package it had a note on it reading, “Courtesy of your friendly neighborhood Spider-man.”

On the B-story front, Barry tracks down a real business tied to the mystery plane, an import-export front company. Diego Garza, the spy who runs it, is upfront with Michael; subterfuge would be pointless. He’s happy with his safe and cushy assignment and won’t help Michael, so Michael motivates him. He motivates him by robbing the operation and putting the artifacts up for online auction under the screen name “Michael♥sDiego”.

Diego tells Michael the Company doesn’t care that he cleared up the Stone Kittredge mess as they want it swept under the rug. They will look at his file again, though.


Barry’s troubles with his mother and Michael’s understanding and empathy about them were humorous and helped ease an episode without Madeline. Michael knows what it’s like to have a mother who is annoying.

I was particularly touched by Fi’s very sweet interactions with Spencer in this episode. She was the only one able to calm him by speaking softly and reassuringly. Along with her lioness-like maternal instincts we’ve seen over the past year or so, this said a lot about Fi’s character. I’ve always been interested in what her childhood was like – I imagine her father as a rake, rapscallion, and con artist extraordinaire as played by Peter O’Toole – and now I’m even more curious. Little brothers or sisters? Maybe a socially awkward sibling? Why is Fiona, Fiona?

For his part, with anti-psychotics in his bloodstream Spencer has a bit more perspective and reminds Michael how lucky he is to have people he can trust. People like Fiona.

You know what, I am like Spencer. We both see the world a certain way and we both have skills to make it a better place. That’s not a bad thing. I don’t want to keep ducking this so let me be straight with you. This job, what we just did, saving American lives, this is the type of work I was made for, Fi. It’s what my old job gave me a chance to do every single day. So no, getting back in isn’t just a way to survive, to protect the people I love, it’s what I want. And if you truly care about me, you should damn well want for me what I want for myself.


I figure if they’re going to be consistently excellent, I should start taking note of them. So here we go:

  • Spencer: The Client
  • Shannon Park: Murderer, Traitor. Probably Not an Alien.
  • Diego Garza: The Spy Michael’s Looking For

Chin Bits

  • “Oh, Mike. You just wrecked the most amazing dream. All these beautiful nachos were coming right…”
  • “See the olive?”
  • “Okay mister computer. Is she out of your league?”
  • “My name is Charles Finley. You can call my Charles.”
  • “Did I mention ice cream cake?”
  • “Has anyone here heard of the seventh sigma? This is the newest commandment in the business bible, people.”
  • “You ask me, something’s wrong with the world when we don’t hang traitors anymore. Doesn’t seem right.”
  • “I actually am kind of a sweetheart.”

Important Lessons in Spycraft

  • “Nobody wants to hear from a burned spy…your best bet is to find an active field operative who can’t hang up on you. If you’re on domestic soil, the airport’s not a bad place to look.”
  • “When you get cornered, there’s a rush of adrenaline as the fight or flight response kicks in. In those moments you can’t listen to your body. There are some circumstances when flight just isn’t the right option. Fortunately with a little training and the right kind of hitch knot, all that adrenaline can make you pretty capable of something pretty close to flight.”
  • “A money launderer’s natural habitat is near rich people. What they save by avoiding taxes they usually spend on overpriced drinks.”
  • “In medieval Europe, spies used to pose as lepers and plague victims so they could snoop around without being bothered. In today’s corporate office, posing as IT works the same way.” ((Yeah, that sounds about right. IT = leper.))
  • “All you need to beat a modern tumbler lock is a little information and some stone age tools. If you know the basic type of key you need to spoof, pick out a matching blank, file down the valleys to the center ledge, and you have a bump key. Apply torque, whack it with anything handy, and you’re in.”
  • “They send out guns and supplies and get back goods to sell. Native antiquities are  favorites because their subjective prices make money laundering easy.”
  • “Doing a job in broad daylight means easier access but more witnesses. You can walk right in with your unwanted audience but you’d better have a plan to entertain them.”
  • “Cellphones are basically wireless computers. Upload the right program and you’ve got a roving bug you can turn on remotely.”
  • “Front companies generally make easy targets for burglary. They don’t want people wondering what they have to hide, so they tend not to install a lot of lights, alarms, and security cameras. And of course they’d never invite the police in to investigate, so there’s really no need to be shy about leaving clues.”

Final Thoughts

In his third outing behind the lens, episode director Jeremiah Chechik brought a few new colors to the palate. In the sequence where Michael explains how to craft a bump key there are a few heavily processed shots – also during Michael’s robbery of the hangar – but the most interesting to me was the skyline shot at :38. I’m impressed that the production team is still playing with the formula with as much verve and energy as the writers. That’s a hallmark of a truly fine show, unwilling to settle.

What did everyone else think?