Several weeks ago, a friend suggested that I write a blog about the character of Fiona Glenanne on the USA show Burn Notice. My friend had perfect timing—Burn Notice is a show that my husband and I watch via Netflix each summer. We’re a season behind the actual show, so each summer when the show starts a new season I eagerly await the previous season’s appearance in my mailbox. Now I was doubly interested to resume watching it, this time with an analytical eye trained on Fiona, who is a character worthy of both attention and admiration.
First, some background—Burn Notice is about Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan), a former CIA operative who has been “burned,” or fired for supposed wrongdoing. Michael was set up, as he is one of the good guys, and would never do anything to betray his country or his people. As Michael tries to figure out who framed him and why, he and his sidekicks—Fiona (or Fi, played by Gabrielle Anwar), an ex-girlfriend who quickly becomes his current girlfriend, and Sam, an old friend and former Navy Seal (Bruce Campbell)—help damsels or dudes in distress, usually by blowing up at least one abandoned warehouse. The trio get some occasional help from Michael’s mom, Madeline, played by Sharon Gless. The show is action-packed, with a good balance between the core mystery created by the shady people who are playing havoc with Michael’s life and the day-to-day activities of a burned spy just trying to make a living and help out the unfortunate victims of scam artists, drug dealers, and the like.
I’ve been watching Burn Notice for a few years now, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the interplay between Fi and Michael. Fi is an ex-IRA operative who went out on her own because she doesn’t like to follow orders. This woman is, without a doubt, all that and a bag of chips. She is gorgeous, feisty, a larger-than-life character capable of doing whatever it takes to ensure her own survival and that of the people she cares about or has sworn to protect. She LOVES to blow stuff up, and has a stash of C4 at the ready at all times. Like Michael, she can make an impromptu bomb out of the stuff she finds in an average garage or basement, use gum and duct tape in a variety of situations to save the day, and get the truth out of any number of seasoned killers. She loves Michael, but she hates the way he closes off to her, and she packs a punch when she’s pissed. Here is a superheroine worthy of partnering with a superhero—one badass Maid Marion to Michael’s Robin Hood.
I am currently watching season four of the show, and I’ve been waiting for an episode that would allow me to examine Fi more closely. I knew I wanted to point out the way she uses her beauty as a survival tactic, and doesn’t enjoy it any more than a man would—she drops the ruse the minute she’s done, and doesn’t wait for anyone’s once-over, including the camera’s. The camera, which zooms in on many a set of beach buns, does showcase Fi, but not as background to a male fantasy. Fi’s body, like Michael’s, is a fine-tuned weapon, capable of seduction but not solely engineered for it (and, I’d like to add, we see a shirtless Michael on occasion, as well as a bikini-clad Fi). I wanted to talk about the fact that Fi and Michael are in (albeit stormy) love, and the way their emotions shape the sexual dynamics of the show. As all of these ideas were bopping about in my head, waiting for a place to settle, along came the perfect episode—“Where There’s Smoke.” In this episode, Fi and Sam are posing as a wealthy married couple so they can provide security at a fancy ball for a tech genius’s investors. The tech genius thinks someone is out to steal his latest invention, but he’s wrong. Before the party even gets started, a gang of kidnappers with automatic weapons show up to kidnap his wife. Fi allows herself to be kidnapped as well, so that she can protect and save her client.
The two women are taken to a house somewhere in Miami and shoved in a basement. As soon as they are left alone while their captors go to negotiate their ransom, Fi begins building a bomb. It is worth noting here that both Fi and her client, another beautiful woman, are dressed in ball gowns for the fancy gala they never went to. As Fi is putting together deadly ingredients to engineer an escape, her client pleads with her to stop. The client naively believes that their captors will let them live if they don’t make trouble. Fi points out that they are going to die because they’ve seen their captors’ faces. Her client responds that her husband won’t let that happen: “He’ll save me,” she says. Fi responds, “Sometimes you have to be your own white knight.”
A woman rescuing herself, or even her man, is not a new concept for TV. Another USA show we watch during the summer, Psych, used the same idea recently, when a female cop promised she’d rescue her boyfriend right back after he said he’d rescue her when she got in trouble. Although this idea isn’t new, and is getting enough dialogue that it might even soon take on the whitewash of cliché, I’m still gonna cheer for it every time I hear it. Because every time a female character on a TV shows says—and proves—that she can take care of herself, we all remember it. Cheer-worthy though it is, however, this line is not my favorite one from this episode.
That comes later, when Fi has been separated from her client, whose husband has stupidly arranged to pay a ransom that will get both himself and his wife killed. Fi is now on her own, handcuffed to a chair and supposedly waiting to die. She has gotten herself the things she needs, however. By playing the “I’m a lonely trophy wife” card, she’s gained the sympathy of her captor, along with a bottle of vodka. (And yes, Fi used her body to get his sympathy—getting her face real close to her captor’s, close to enough to kiss, and telling him like it is—she was after a man’s money, and now when she needs it most he won’t pay up.) Fi breaks free of her handcuffs and uses a cell phone she’s taken from her captor to call Michael and Sam. She urges Michael to go after the clients, who are surely going to die without help. Michael insists on leaving Sam behind as backup—they’ve found her location, thanks to a smoke signal Fi has sent via the house’s ventilation system. When Sam cautions Fi not to get herself killed, she replies, “Don’t worry about me. I’m not your average trophy wife.” As she delivers this line, Fi is standing on the chair she was chained to, filling a light bulb with vodka so that it will explode.
Not your average trophy wife, indeed.
Sam does end up coming to help Fi free herself—just as she has helped him out of many a tricky situation—and, with Michael, they save the day, and their clients, yet again. At the end of the episode, Fi and Michael reunite in a passionate embrace. And here is another reason Fi is not your average TV female—she and Michael might sometimes play games, but they are always on the same team. He loves her enough to die for her, and she him. They are the yin and the yang of black cover operations— each could survive on his or her own, but the wound of loss would be irreparable. Which is just what would happen in a real-life partnership, with real-life people—with or without bikini bodies and exploding buildings. And that, along with Fi’s uncompromising ability to be herself, is one of the many reasons why I’ll be eagerly awaiting season five of Burn Notice next summer.
Note: All images in this blog were taken from friskytuna’s photostream on flickr. Both photos were taken on February 3, 2009.