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Burn Notice and Life’s Dead Ends

Burn Notice and Life’s Dead Ends

For the past four years, Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) has been looking for answers on USA Network’s Burn Notice. Piece by piece, he has worked his way up the ladder through all the middlemen. With every achievement, his desperation for an explanation as to why his life has been turned upside down has increased. This week, in the season five summer premiere, he got to the one person left who could finally give him his answers. Despite his emotional need for answers, he held it together through interrogation, planning, execution (complete with explosives) and the resourceful getaway we have come to love and expect from him. He didn’t just want answers; he needed them. And we thought that this time he was going to get them.

Michael spent the last four years of his life in a holding pattern, and finally reached the person who could answer his questions—only to find that person dead. For all his resourcefulness, this dead end was unexpected. Now we know there is no more need to pursue answers. The past is gone and everything that was normal before may never be normal again. Michael can only move ahead into whatever the next phase of his life will be. The real question that remains is, what will he do with it?

We’ve all been there; not as burned spies, perhaps. But we’ve all wondered why we didn’t get into the college we really wanted to go to, why we didn’t get that great job or promotion, why that relationship didn’t work out or why that friend or relative got sick, died or just walked out of our lives. These are the hard questions. If we haven’t already asked them, we will at some point. As we wrestle with them over and over again, there is usually another question that follows: Why did I work so hard or invest so much time if this was never going to work out? We think we could move on if we just knew why.

One of the most difficult and hated truths about life is that a lot of us don’t get our answers—and it’s not for lack of effort in trying to find them. We, like Michael Westen, may very well spend years looking for answers about our past that we deeply need. We’re just on the verge of getting them, only to find that all we will get to soothe our pain is the assurance that the past is the past and the future is ours for the making.

As far as I know, there is no formula for slogging through all the unanswered questions in life. There are two major options: We can either get tangled up in our questions, or find a way to move forward in spite of them. The exact path to moving forward may vary for each of us, depending on where we need to heal and what we need to lay aside. But whatever it takes, I hope we each find our way forward rather than missing the rest of our lives while we are waiting for answers.

Rachel Decker writes a bi-weekly column about television for RELEVANT magazine. Check out her blog at

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