Contributor: Gregg Wright
The previous season of “White Collar” ended with a rather good hook for the following season. With the Vincent Adler/music box story arc, which has driven the show’s serialized material since the very beginning, now finally over, season 3 had to find something equally interesting to drive the next chapter of “White Collar”. Unfortunately, the season premiere is a bit of a disappointment. Here’s why.
The unconventional partnership/friendship between con man Neal Caffrey and hard-nosed FBI agent Peter Burke has been a core element of “White Collar” from the start, and it may be the single most appealing aspect of the show. Their friendship has been tested in the past, but never to any major degree. The final moments of the season 2 finale looked to change all that by providing something that threatened to completely destroy all the trust they’d built up with each other. Peter is too familiar with Neal to accept that he’s reformed, and was now almost certain that Neal has stolen the collection of art and valuables for himself.
This was a great development, because we do slightly share in, or at least can understand Peter’s suspicions, even if we’re also well aware that Neal has changed significantly since the pilot episode. It was an interesting role reversal. There were a number of clear indications that Neal was becoming more and more like a cop all the time, and we got to see Peter take up the con man role more and more often. There was even an episode where Neal and Peter had to switch identities, further emphasizing the role reversal theme.
But in the back our our minds, we still wondered how much Neal had truly changed. And when we discover that a mysterious benefactor had stolen the art collection himself, and gave it to Neal as a gift, we’re left with the potential for an intriguing scenario in which Neal must decide what he’s going to do with it. Will he embrace his new identity as Peter’s partner? Or would he fall back into old habits?
The reveal of who stole the art and gifted it to Neal was as abrupt as it was disappointing. Apparently, Mozzie stole it, seemingly all by himself. Now I don’t mean to downplay Mozzie’s abilities as a con man. There’s been ample evidence that he’s on a similar level to Neal, though without the good looks and charm to fall back on. But I still think it’s ridiculous that Mozzie is supposed to have pulled off such a massive theft so easily. Something like that would have required enormous planning, and help. And yet Mozzie just acts like it’s nothing. The reveal is so overly casual. I was expecting something completely different. And worst yet, Neal seems pleased and appreciative of Mozzie’s actions. For me, it felt like Neal might as well have just stolen the art himself, making it difficult to sympathize with his being upset over Peter not trusting him.
It’s clear that Mozzie is still operating more outside the law than Neal, so I don’t find it unbelievable that Mozzie would have the motivation to do something like this. But I just can’t accept that Neal would go along with all of this so readily. He’s forgetting the lesson he tried to teach Ford, con man and old friend of June’s husband; that there’s no such thing as “one last score”. There’s only the next one. Neal’s actions now make no sense. Perhaps if the intent was to suggest that Neal’s return to crime was a result of Peter’s loss of trust in him, and his sense of alienation from his friends and co-workers, then the scenario might have made sense. But this was not done. Neal and Peter end up back at work together, with Peter still just as suspicious of Neal as before, and Neal still annoyed that Peter won’t trust him. And now Neal seems willing to just drop everything and leave, not even mentioning his current relationship with Sara Ellis. The set-up for this decision is non-existent, and runs counter to all of Neal’s development thus far.
The episode does make up for a lot of this with Neal’s decision to use his and Mozzie’s getaway vehicle to save Jones and apprehend the criminal-of-the-week. And I could see how this might have been intended to show us that Neal can’t let go of his new life and responsibilities. But it’s only a half-victory, because after it’s over Neal and Mozzie go right about planning their next big escape with the loot. I did think it was interesting that Peter essentially conned Neal into thinking that he trusted him again, which I think ties in well with Neal’s abilities/knowledge rubbing off on Peter. But it’s unfortunate that Peter is actually right to not trust Neal.
Of course, I won’t deny that the episode had its moments, and managed to be entertaining and fun in spite of its glaring flaws. But what’s kept me watching “White Collar” is the surprisingly good serialized elements and character development. And if that fell apart, then I could see myself becoming bored with the show. So hopefully the writers can find a way to improve on the situation and take things in a more interesting direction than they seem to be headed in now.