September 12, 2013 12:45pm PT by Philiana Ng
'Burn Notice' Creator Reflects on Seven-Season Run, Talks Series Finale's Big Death
After seven seasons, 111 episodes and a TV movie, Burn Notice is closing its doors for good.
When the action drama debuted on USA Network in June 2007, it marked creator Matt Nix's first foray into scripted television. Over the course of its run, Burn Notice has served as a launch pad for other originals such as Royal Pains, Suits and Graceland.
In crafting the final episodes of Burn Notice, Nix purposely approached it like "the end of a seven-season story rather than as a new story called the seventh season," he tells The Hollywood Reporter, opting not to take the easy road. "Obviously we could have said, 'Here's a bad guy for the season, Michael's in a really tough spot, and he's going to have to defeat this particular bad guy, and he's going to be harder than the rest because it's the last year.' "
Do expect the intensity in the finale to be exponentially greater. "Part of the reason why this season has been so intense is it's the climax of a seven-year story, and well, it should be intense," Nix says.
In a chat with THR, Nix reflects on the action drama's long run on USA, the culmination of his final-season plan and the emotional last act in the series closer, "Reckoning," which features a gut-wrenching death.
What was the relationship you found yourself focusing more on this season that you weren't expecting to at the start of the series?
Madeline was less a character in her own right and more somebody who had a significant effect on Michael and informed his character. Largely due to the influence of the brilliant Sharon Gless, I realized she was a formidable character. The seeds of the [series] finale were sewn in the pilot. A lot of the first episode is about the idea of why did Michael go home to Miami? Why is his mother in the series at all? Where do spies come from? What is a spy's family like? [At the start of the series] Michael and his mother don't get along, and she doesn't have any idea what he's doing. Meanwhile, Madeline has confronted a lot of the demons of her past. This season has been about her journey to strength -- after losing Nate last year and the fact that she blames herself for not being there for him or Michael when they were kids. She's ambivalent about a lot of the things Michael does, but she's also conscious of the fact that the things she doesn't like about him, she was largely responsible for. She recommits to family. She gets another chance to protect the little boy who's living in her home. And at the end of the day, she does it magnificently.
What was the toughest death to write or conceive over the past seven seasons?
When I was writing the final episode, I realized that it was important that everybody on the team be an important part of what they accomplished in the end. There is a situation that Michael faces [in the finale] that without Madeline there, without Jesse there, without Sam there and without Michael and Fiona working together, it wouldn't have worked. A big part of it was coming up with a story and a situation that would give everyone an essential role. That isn't so much a death ... but that was the hardest thing. The climactic action with Michael and Fiona, that didn't come together until we were prepping the episode. It wasn't until I was physically in the space that I realized, "If I'm not careful, this is going to feel like any other shootout." The other thing that emerged really late that was central to the episode that I didn't see clearly was Michael's journey, from feeling like he's done something unforgivable to realizing that he owes it to his mother and his friends to figure it out. That was an important realization because otherwise they're just running around shooting and there isn't much there emotionally.
It sounds like tweaks and modifications were made to the script late in the game as you were figuring out the episode. Was that unique to how the finale ended up going?
That's often how a Burn Notice episode comes together. A lot of the time, you have to write it out, you have to have it on paper, you have to see it on its feet. And it's only when you have it laid out that you really understand the story that you're telling. A lot of times, the endings do change after you see that. You start out with one idea, and it's not that the idea changes radically, it's -- in my experience -- an indication that the process is working. Certainly something's broken if you're reconceiving right before you're shooting or if everything's exactly the way you expected it would be. That tells you that you're not challenging yourself or digging deep enough. When I was working on the first draft of this episode, that element of Michael not forgiving himself hadn't come to the floor enough, and I actually ended up talking about it with the head of the studio and the network. Everybody weighed in and helped me find my way to what was satisfying. It's not a last-minute addition, it was something that was always there that I can now bring out. That was the process of the final season and certainly of the final episodes, where you get momentum in the storytelling and it all starts to fall into place -- like at the end of a jigsaw puzzle.
Crafting the final episode is always a tall order, so how much of it was already in your head?
I pretty much knew what the last episode was going to be since before the season started. There were elements that changed, but we had a better idea of what the 13th episode was than the eighth, because that's how we laid it out. That was appropriate. It's more important to know the last episode than three-quarters of the way through.
How much thought went into the final visual of the show?
The final image of the show was one of those things where I didn't really know it precisely going in; I knew it in a general sort of way. Then I was writing the outline and I was in the zone. I was tearing up at my computer as I was writing, and it just came out. I didn't even think about it. I wrote it as fast as I could type because at that point, I was there. I knew structurally what needed to [happen].
What was the final day like on set?
It's funny. I had a conversation with David Shore about this, and I believe he directed the last episode of House, as I did for Burn Notice. Once you start wrapping for main characters on the show, it's very weird: "Now that person I've been working with for seven years is done. They can go home, forever." It's a very odd experience. (Laughs.) The other thing about directing and making the last episode of the show -- just because it's the last episode, everybody needs to take time to say goodbye. Everyone's giving their speeches, and that's appropriate; that's really important, and I wouldn't have it any other way. However, we also have to make the largest episodes of Burn Notice we've ever made, and it's not like we magically get more hours in the day. It's kind of like, "Oh God, I've gotta savor this moment ... but we've got like 15 more shots before the end of the day! OK, savor it really quickly!"
When did it hit you that Burn Notice was not coming back?
Take a random episode, say episode 57, and we've built some cool set, like the prison. When you're done with the prison set, they literally may start tearing it down 10 minutes later. And when I think about what drives me creatively, to some extent, I'm a little kid playing with action figures; that's what it feels like for me when I'm writing. I feel like I'm 8 years old in the backyard playing with Army men, making up a story. And when you build something beautiful -- that perfect sand castle -- you want to save it for a little while. You take that into the series: "Wait a second, they're setting up to tear down our stages. The entire building is coming down." All I could think was, "Don't I get to come back here and think about it and remember it?"
Do you feel like you've done everything that you've wanted to do on Burn Notice?
I feel like there's definitely a part of me that mourns certain episodes or ideas that I had that I go, "Some day we gotta do that!" But I think that when you're making a television series, you have a choice: You can either end it with a few episodes you wished you'd been able to do, or you can end it after you've run out of episodes. Unless you're unbelievably lucky, your last idea for the show is not going to be the last show. You're either ending a little late or a little early. And between the two, I'd definitely take ending a little early. That's how it felt. I always say, "Leave them wanting more." If you don't feel that way, then the audience won't. This was the time to bring this to a close, and this was the appropriate way to do it. I certainly don't want to get kicked out the door. I wanted to end it on my own terms and not peter out and show the last episode to three-quarters of a million people at midnight on a Tuesday.
How do you hope Burn Notice will be remembered in five or 10 years?
What I'd hope is -- and this will probably be more than five or 10 years down the line -- I look forward to seeing the shows that come after Burn Notice and do what we did in a new way. Burn Notice owes a [lot to a] certain kind of classic action drama, and I feel like we were able to do some new things. I'm excited to see what the show is that owes something to Burn Notice.
Burn Notice airs its series finale Thursday at 9 p.m. on USA.