Hey Precariat, We’re Burned

My name is Michael Westen. I used to be a spy, until…”We’ve got a burn notice on you. You’re blacklisted.” When you’re burned, you’ve got nothing: no cash, no credit, no job history. You’re stuck in whatever city they decide to dump you in. You do whatever work comes your way. You rely on anyone who’s still talking to you: a Trigger Happy ex-girlfriend; an Old Friend who used to inform on you to the FBI; family too — if you’re desperate. Bottom line: As long as you’re burned, you’re not going anywhere.

My new favorite binge-watch-while-reading-essays TV show is Burn Notice.  If you are unfamiliar, Burn Notice is the story of a “burned” CIA operative named Michael Westen who is stuck in his hometown of Miami trying desperately to get his government job back and to figure out why he lost it in the first place.  In the meantime, he freelances, using his particular set of skills (yes, I did write that in Liam Neeson voice, thanks for noticing)  to help people in difficult situations.  So what we have here, folks, is a highly (and expensively, as he points out) trained operative, flying solo without his accustomed institutional support, spotty and uncertain income, and an unaccountable desire to get back into the very organization that burned him.  Sound familiar to anyone?
Truly, I have been watching the show for pure entertainment for two and a half seasons (if you have watched all seven, back off for now, okay?).  And boy is it entertaining!  The writing is clever; the episodic plots have that detailed, con-artist sensibility that makes the audience feel smart; the cast is composed of alarmingly good-looking badasses.  All of the things that make for a good spy story are in play–Burn Notice is my kind of fantasy.  Then last night, I watched the episode entitled “The Hunter,” which has an appealing “The Most Dangerous Game” subplot, and more importantly, in which a broker of mercenaries tries to convince Michael that he needs such a broker because “a man with [Michael]’s skills is extremely valuable, and [the broker] wants to make sure that does not go to waste,” as “he is operating in Miami with no resources, no operational support. That’s no way to live.  It’s not safe.” Indeed.

And with that, I dropped the essay I was grading and had a long think about this. Watching the show, I share his girlfriend’s frustration with his obsession.  Why would he want back in to an agency that has treated him so poorly? Left him at the mercy of his enemies and guys like Strickler (above)? Especially when he has found a way to make a living and use what he knows?

Oh dear.  I think I know why. Because to Michael, the skills he has, the rescues he engineers, and anything he accomplishes means nothing without the imprimatur of legitimacy that his old job provided.  Without that, he does not know his own value. He insists that he needs that protection and cover to make his work really worthwhile. Of course, the subplots of each episode demonstrate the flimsiness of that theory. He is far more valuable to the people he helps, his friends, and his family than he ever could be to the Agency. And yet…

And yet.  I sit here reading 51 essays, after my children are in bed, after my husband is in bed, with only the dog and Michael Westen for company.  I blog and I stew and I try to write when I can. The University, like the Company, does not really care how or when I get the job done, just that I do it.  They have no particular investment in me or my skills.  Like Michael, I’m ultimately expendable in service of bigger institutional goals, and I know it!  But I’m still here.

I left to get a PhD, then came back to the same job, just knowing that this time they would appreciate me, cultivate me as an asset. This is not going to happen.  No matter how many articles I write, classes I teach, committees I serve on, or programs I direct, I will never really be a Company Woman.  But did I ever really want to be?

The second season finale finds Michael Weston in a helicopter with a group of dark-suited representatives of a shadowy, unnamed government agency that has recruited him against his will do do their dirty work.  The leader of this group argues that without their protection, information network, and money that Michael will be at the mercy of every enemy he has ever made, and so will his family.  He insists that no amount of individual spycraft can keep him safe the way they can.  Should Michael refuse the offer, he says, “There’s the door.”  A straight, long drop from the helicopter into the ocean five miles from Miami Beach.  Michael chooses the plunge over the servitude.

Me?  I’m still sitting in the helicopter, waiting for a push.


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