In my review of the White Collar season two finale, I wrote the following:
But for whatever reason, this series has a problem with its cliffhangers. This might sound weird, but I think the White Collar writers try too hard to make their cliffhangers cliffhanger-y. With any cliffhanger, there’s an obvious intent to shock and surprise the audience, hoping those feelings with convince them to come back for more in the next season or half-season. But good cliffhanger writing balances the shock value with logic, believability and character consistency. The White Collar writers have clearly nailed the first half of the equation, but they’re still figuring out how to execute the second half…
…But the cliffhanger of “Under The Radar” betrays all that work the season has done. Adler’s been taken care of, the nonsense with Alex and the music box is now complete, but now Peter believes that Neal stole all the precious art found in the Nazi submarine. And as the final scene of this episode suggests, Peter might be right. Whether or not he actually did the stealing himself — a question that is more problematic based on the note and key left in his apartment — Neal knows exactly where all the art is. It’s in his possession and he’s told Peter that it’s not, so the trust built up over the season is now gone. Perhaps Neal has been running a long con this whole time, perhaps he just stumbled into this and figured it was best to get his final, bloodless revenge on Adler for killing Kate. But nevertheless, this is a troubling development.
The season three premiere, “On Guard,” works so hard to squash the issues between Peter and Neal and avoid the issues I raised in that review so many months ago, which is great, but only furthers the point I made in the first of the two paragraphs above. Much like the first episode after the terrible “Peter might be evil!” cliffhanger and the less terrible, but still goofy “Mozzie got shot!” cliffhanger, “On Guard” doesn’t want anything to do with the developments presented in the previous episode. Within a few minutes, it is revealed that Mozzie was the one who snagged all the paintings for Neal, not some further omnipotent force. The decision to answer that big question so quickly is a welcome one, but it sort of expresses the big problems with the MAJOR brand of cliffhangers that this series likes to use. On one hand, answering the question now avoids dragging it out across multiple episodes. But on the other, quickly dispatching of that obstacle undercuts putting that obstacle in Neal’s way to begin with. Cliffhangers are tricky, man.
But even separate from the answer of who stole the paintings, this episode tries unbelievably hard to make it seem like one thing was going to happen, when in reality, we — and the series — knew it never was. Neal and Mozzie’s plan to move the paintings and make a run for it makes logical sense in the moment, but we all know that the series is never going to take that step because it would severely alter what White Collar is about. Similarly, it appears fairly clear to me that the series’ writers are less interested in overt Peter-Neal tension than they suggested they were at the end of season two.
As I noted in the S2 finale review, so much of that second season was about Neal’s progress and maturity and totally subverting it in hopes of returning to the more conflicted, suspicious dynamic between he and Peter seems misguided to me. I understand the value in building up a character only to have him revert back and exploring the boundaries of this complicated friendship, but White Collar became a much better series when the two lead characters had a more comfortable relationship. “On Guard” suggests that the writers more or less know that so they squash 80 or 90 percent of the tension between Neal and Peter (through a lot of obvious machinations, I might add) so that the series can return to its typical weekly equilibrium next week. Nevertheless, I will be interested to see how this season plays out, especially on a weekly basis. Without an outside threat like Fowler or Adler, the series will need more internal drama between Neal and Peter to survive and again, I’m still weary of that thread within the story. Matt Bomer and Tim DeKay can certain handle the heavier scenes, but their chemistry is so electric and palpable that it seems wrong to derail that for constant reminders that their characters don’t trust one another.
Make no mistake, though: I still really like White Collar and was very happy to have these characters back in my life. Although I found this episode to be problematic on the macro level, there were a number of enjoyable individual moments that made “On Guard” a moderate success. Neal and Mozzie plotting together is always a good thing and I especially liked how they brought June’s granddaughter into the mix (perhaps she’s a new recurring character) and Neal’s maneuvering to both avoid Jones and then get the week’s criminal onto the plane was well-executed.
Perhaps if White Collar stopped trying so hard with its cliffhangers it wouldn’t have to do episodes like this one.
- Hilarie Burton is a series regular now, but didn’t get much to do here. That makes me sad. Same goes for Marsha Thomason too, really.
- Tiffani Thiessen plays the middlewoman between Peter and Neal very well, but I especially enjoyed Elizabeth’s attempts to subvert Neal’s investigation. She’s smart.
- Just a programming note: I’m planning to write about White Collar each week, just as I did in season two.