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The Sadness of Michael Westen

Every episode except the pilot of the wonderful and troubling TV show Burn Notice begins with this image:

Burn Notice was created by Matt Nix and stars Jeffrey Donovan as a spy who has been excommunicated — "burned" — from the CIA and is trying to get back in. The deciders at the CIA have ousted Donovan's character, Michael Westen, who worked freelance for them, because they've been led to believe he has done something bad, not regular spy bad but, presumably, against-America's-national-interests bad. They have frozen Westen's accounts, revoked his passport, and banished him to Miami. The short arc of each episode of Burn Notice consists of him helping some innocent who's being threatened by a gang or has been bilked by a con man or whose child has been kidnapped by a bad guy (the terms good guy and bad guy come up a lot in the Manichean world of this show). To do this he draws upon his prodigious spy skills and inexhaustible resourcefulness. The long arc of each season of Burn Notice consists of Westen's efforts to get himself back in the CIA's good graces.

In keeping with this week's informal theme of looking and reading, let's scrutinize the screen grab above. We see, in the center of the frame, a white man wearing dark sunglasses and a sleek gray suit of probably American or European origin. He's looking at his watch, which means, in the language of bodily gestures, that he's waiting for somebody. ( "Want to know what it's like to be a spy?" Westen asks in a voiceover in the pilot episode, from which this image is drawn. "Like sitting in your dentist's reception area 24 hours a day. You read magazines, you sip coffee, and every so often someone tries to kill you.""Want to know what it's like to be a spy?" Westen asks in a voiceover in the pilot episode, from which this image is drawn. "Like sitting in your dentist's reception area 24 hours a day. You read magazines, you sip coffee, and every so often someone tries to kill you.") The white man is surrounded by black people, Africans by the look of the bright, printed garments and head coverings that nearly every one of them is wearing. So we are looking at a lone white man in a sea of Africans in what we might infer is Africa. Whose day are we interested in here? Whose waiting, whose thoughts, desires, aspirations — to pick up a thread from yesterday's remarks, whose subjectivity does the costuming, art direction, and cinematography of this shot encourage us to pay attention to and be curious about? Those of the person driving the blue car on the lower left? Those of the woman in the yellow dress and red headscarf on the upper left? I think not. Even without the voiceover, all the considerable visual information of just this one frame of the opening montage of a 42-minute long TV show asks us to focus on the white dental patient in his exotic waiting room, and wonder what kind of dental work he's waiting for. If you happen to have seen the pilot episode, then you know the African city Michael Westen is waiting in is Warri, Nigeria, which is not coincidentally one of that country's oil production centers. (Another Westen voiceover: "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.") But if you missed the pilot and have not spent much time in the western part of that continent then it's just kind of "Africa."

Which puts me in mind of a book by the philosopher and social theorist Judith Butler Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?, in which she argues, among other things, that cameras can be used as instruments of warfare — that they can reinforce a set of values wherein some lives are less recognizable as lives than others, and therefore more expendable. "The frame does not simply exhibit reality, but actively participates in a strategy of containment, selectively producing and enforcing what will count as reality." This means that the image above assists in creating what Butler calls "the differential distribution of grievability upon which war depends." Knowing that Michael Westen was in Nigeria in that scene, and that his $750,000 payoff to a "warlord" to protect a local refinery "went south," doesn't decrease the interchangeability of the people in the opening montage of Burn Notice whose function is to establish the foreign ground where Westen was performing the spy activities from which he has since been banished.

Butler also says, "[T]he frame is always throwing something away, always keeping something out, always de-realizing and de-legitimizing alternative versions of reality, discarded negatives of the official version....When versions of reality are excluded or jettisoned to a domain of unreality, then specters are produced that haunt the ratified version of reality, animated and de-ratifying traces."

Specters. What do they look like? Maybe like this:

This is from somewhere deep into the, I think, second season of the show. Michael needs some kind of serviceman's uniform to allow him to slip past the security in a highly securitized building where he is going to steal something or find out something relevant to one of his noble missions that constitute the plots of this show. (And if I sound arch in that last sentence and any other sentences in today's guest blog it's probably because my archness is a bulwark, albeit a flimsy one, against the ample enjoyment I derive from this entertaining show whose aesthetic reinforces a vision of American militarism I am disturbed bymy archness is a bulwark, albeit a flimsy one, against the ample enjoyment I derive from this entertaining show whose aesthetic reinforces a vision of American militarism I am disturbed by.) In his mother's garage he finds this, his father's old uniform from when he was an exterminator. Michael's father is now dead, and was an abusive alcoholic. Part of the mythology in the show is that Michael initially developed what would become his spy skills and resourcefulness and his spy's resilience in order to survive the frequent and unpredictable adversity generated by his father. What do you see in this still image? I see a grown man with the face of a little boy. I see a little boy's sorrow and shame as he contemplates trying to fill his complicated father's clothes. The son of an abusive man goes into a profession in which he is always dissembling, always hiding his genuine motives and feelings, always acting out fantasies of being someone other than who he is. And now he's about to pretend to be the very man who set him on this weird journey. Not surprising that shame and sorrow come up.

I didn't pause the episode on this fleeting facial expression because I noticed it; I noticed it because I paused it, probably to go get a snack or something. I don't know whether the actor Jeffrey Donovan intended to show us this face or it just happened. In my reading or fantasy of this face, I regard it not just as the psychological effect of a dead mean dad, but also as an instance of the kind of specter Judith Butler is talking about above. Here is a man who so fervently believes that there is no better use for his particular set of skills and talents than spying on behalf of the U.S. government that he is willing to risk his life repeatedly to be able to do so even when said government — Michael's surrogate abusive father — doesn't want him to. For him to perform well in a self-appointed job that requires lightning reflexes and unwavering concentration, he can't risk much conscious contemplation of the moral ambiguity of what he's doing. He won't last very long as a spy or would-be spy if he considers too deeply that the Nigerian oil industry he's making a payoff to sustain benefits the multinational oil corporations and a few Nigerian officials while causing tremendous suffering to a large portion of the Nigerian populous in the form of massive oil spills, bloody turf wars, and violent political repression — that his payoff may well exacerbate the "unstable," "corrupt" environment he finds southern Nigeria to be. But Michael is a smart guy. In some part of his soul he must contemplate that whatever good it may be doing, this vocational path he has chosen out of a mix of psychological need and patriotic duty also causes harm to a lot of people. And therein lies the sorrow of Michael Westen.

÷ ÷ ÷

Matthew Sharpe is the author of the novels Jamestown, The Sleeping Father and Nothing Is Terrible, as well as the short-story collection Stories from the Tube. His latest novel is You Were Wrong.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Jamestown Used Trade Paper $4.95
  2. The Sleeping Father Used Trade Paper $3.50
  3. Nothing Is Terrible New Trade Paper $19.00
  4. You Were Wrong
    Used Trade Paper $3.71
  5. Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? New Trade Paper $17.95

Matthew Sharpe is the author of You Were Wrong

One Response to "The Sadness of Michael Westen"

    Joe ward December 29th, 2012 at 11:18 am

    i am so sorry for your loss of Nathatiel Eliase Westen, Michael Westen. i went to see you tomorrow at 2:30. i didn't know you had a little brother before Nathan.

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