Burn Notice’s Fiona kicks ass

I love Burn Notice. I love the style of it, with Michael’s dry narration, often over a frozen snapshot of the action scene, making us his confidant. I love Sharon Gless playing a real piece-of-work mother in deep denial about the abuse Michael’s father put him and his brother through. I love Bruce Campbell as the drunken sidekick.

Did I mention I love Fiona? I wasn’t sure about her midway through last season, but the more I see, the more I like. In this week’s episode, she was tasked with nabbing a man so Michael could interrogate him about some crimes he’s involved in. The man sees her reaching for the taser and knocks it out of her hand before she can stun him. They fight for a bit until they reach an impasse in which she’s standing with the taser and he’s kneeling before her, holding onto her leg. At this point, the film freezes and Michael’s narration explains the problem with tasers: if the person you want to taser is touching you, you’ll get zapped too.

The film starts back up. Fiona looks at the man. The man laughs at her. Fiona sees that Sam (Bruce Campbell) is coming, and she zaps the guy. By the time Sam arrives, they’re both unconscious on the pavement. Sam’s very in-character comment: “Fiona, you are one crazy chick.”

She’s trigger-happy, tenacious and clever. She prefers the direct approach, backed up by her ability to turn myriad ordinary household products into explosives, but she’s equally savvy with more strategic approaches. She’s also a good team player.

As Michael’s off and on “not girlfriend, she’s the designated love interest. Despite this, she has relationships of her own with other people. It’s something we only see here and there, but considering most shows don’t even bother, it’s great. For example, there was a male bounty hunter last season she was competing with for a catch, and they developed a rather personal, bitter rivalry that had nothing to do with Michael and very little to do with the overall storyline. Fiona and Sam can barely stand each other but are both too professional to let that stand in the way of a job, so when they work together sans Michael, it tends to be hilarious. She also plays poker with Michael’s mother and her pals, but so far we’ve been given no reason to think they really talk about anything but Michael. This show does not pass the Bechdel test with flying colors, and yet Fiona:

  • Has a life outside of Michael, complete with relationships
  • Is professional and competent
  • Has a personality
  • Cares about Michael and even makes compromises in hopes of renewing their relationship, but never comes across as pining or being in the grips of the stuff of teenage romantic angst

We don’t know much about Fiona’s past, but I’m not sure we need to. We’re given enough glimpses of her motivation that I feel like I know her.

It’s rare to get a female character who’s got an implied and sometimes demonstrated life of her own. It’s even more rare to get one who comes across as a whole, complex person when she’s got feelings for the star. The fact that it can be done should serve as a lesson to TV and filmmakers who assume that because the lead is a man, there’s no need to make the lead female interesting on her own.


  1. Graculus says

    Having seen the episode in question now, I have to disagree that it’s a crotch shot – if you watch it again, you’ll see that Fi actually kicks the guy on the inside of the knee…

    I agree, however, that the character has improved since season 1. She also doesn’t look quite as skeletal as she did in the very first episodes, either.

  2. Gategrrl says

    I always get the idea that she plays poker with the gals and they discuss the guys but ALSO movies, TV shows, that hot young thang that just moved in down the street, maybe even politics and voting, where the cheapest cigs are, etc etc.

  3. S. A. Bonasi says

    I like that, in a light-hearted summer action series like Burn Notice, Fiona got written in the role of the muscle of the team instead of Sam. It’s been written elsewhere – ragnell.blogspot.com, I think? – that female audience members desire wish-fulfilment escapist fantasy just as male audience members do. That’s Fiona. She allows female viewers to have a female character to identify with rather than it being the usual trend of men having male characters to identify with but women only ever having male characters to identify with. It’s not that cross-gender identification for escapist purposes is impossible – it’s not – but it’s nice that Burn Notice offers gender variation in which characters viewers (of any gender) wish to identify with.

    Also, I liked the recent episode that rejected the idea of using an attractive woman (read: Fiona) to distract a group of men. :-)

  4. Gategrrl says

    I just watched a show (Primeval) in which two of the younger leads are talking about getting information from a male character. The male lead pulls the female lead’s jacket down around her elbows, showing off her shoulders and says she could get the information out of the male information source.

    Clearly exasperated, the female lead then pulls the male lead’s jacket down around HIS elbows off his shoulders and says something along the line of, “In case you hadn’t noticed, XXX prefers the boys” and there’s a beat where the male lead is dumbstruck. It’s a nice role reversal. Of course, it takes several scenes for the female lead to pull her jacket back up on her shoulders, but the first scene was worth it.

    If only it could happen in America in a noncomic script.

  5. says

    Gategrrl, I agree, and here’s the thing. Fi only knows Madeline through Michael. It’s entirely possible Fi keeps up her relationship with Madeline mainly out of concern for Michael – they both seem to worry about him and want the best for him. So here’s the perfect excuse for a show to fail the Bechdel test, and if they did I would be inclined to overlook it. But they have instead gone to the trouble of showing a poker game in which Fi has learned that one of the players used to deal Texas Hold ‘Em – which means the writers are suggesting that even when women have men in common, we still talk about other things when we’re together. That’s pretty advanced, sad as it is to say. And it’s the kind of trick really good screenwriters understand: mediocre writers claim you can’t develop characters without slowing the pace of an action story, but little touches like this one imply so much without slowing the pace at all.

    That said, I’d love to see Fi and Madeline handle a strategic situation together. Srsly!

    I’ve got Primeval recorded on TiVo substitute – that sounds great!

    S.A. Bonasi, that was great! I suppose there might be situations when an attractive woman is a good tool of distraction, but if it was done in real life half as often as it happens on TV, no man with something to hide could look at an attractive woman without suspicion, LOL. Actually, I would argue a much better way for a woman to distract a man is to pretend she needs assistance – struggle to open a door with arms full of stuff, drop something, etc. I’ve seen men neglect their gorgeous dates to run to the assistance of an average-looking woman because that chivalrous training is so ingrained.

    And yes, it is so cool that Fiona is the muscle. In fact she’s the character normally played by a 6’5″ male mountain of muscle.

  6. says

    *Love* Burn Notice, *Love* Fi, *Love* how South Florida the show feels; reminds me of home.

    “That said, Iā€™d love to see Fi and Madeline handle a strategic situation together. Srsly!”

    OMG, that would totally rock! And if they could work in a subtle reference to the Bechdel test, somehow indicating the writers have been reading geeky girls on the Internet my big geek heart would explode! šŸ˜‰

  7. sbg says

    Last season Fi made me uncomfortable. I think it was the “ex-girlfriend-makes-sexual-overtures” thing, which I hope has officially gone away now.

    I how this week they had another woman be the muscle for the baddie group du jour, and openly acknowledged that of Sam, Michael and Fi, Fi is so totally the one who likes the violence and blowing things up.

  8. says

    SBG, I hope I don’t someday have to retract what I’m about to say, but after re-watching S1 on DVD, I’m okay with the whole Fi/Michael thing so far. I get the feeling they both really care about each other but they’re both ambivalent about whether they should couple up or not, and since both of them go on about their other business at all times (even the times when Fi was making the overtures), it just doesn’t nauseate me the way most TV romance does.

    I do hope they don’t return to Fi making overtures because (a) it would make a lie of what she said in the first ep of this season and (b) been there, done that. But if they get close again through some circumstance that doesn’t sell either character short, I’m okay with that because they were established as on-again/off-again/heavily baggaged from the beginning.

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