Mid-season finale: White Collar, “Countdown”

I’m kinda-sorta coming out of my self-induced new series hiatus to talk about the mid-season finale of White Collar. I HOPE YOU PEOPLE UNDERSTAND THE SACRIFICES I MAKE FOR YOU. But seriously, hiatus or not, I’d feel remissed to not talk about one of my favorite series as it comes to a temporary stopping point in the middle of its third season.

If you go back to my review of the season premiere, you’ll see that I wasn’t particularly fond of the initial set-up and direction of this season’s story. I loved the way that season two built up the bond between Peter and Neal and especially enjoyed how the second half of season two explored Neal’s desire to be less like a criminal and more like a lawman. Turning him back the other way felt like a betrayal and even though that was entirely the point, I didn’t like it. And the first four or five episodes of the didn’t squash any of my concerns. That opening stretch of episodes was really rough and generally seemed like a regression to the middling aspects of season one.

Thankfully though, the last handful of episodes have been tremendous and there’s one reason for that: Neal realized that he didn’t want to be a criminal anymore. Again. While the issues and secrets between he and Peter still existed — and still do, even after “Countdown” — the series’ writing staff made a really smart move in exploring Neal’s internal struggle through his relationship with Sara. At the end of season two, Neal had just come face to face with a major foe, one who just happened to kill his longtime love. At that point, I can kind of understand Neal’s perspective. He spent nearly two years (at least in our time) being the good guy, trying to do the right thing, etc. and ultimately, it didn’t lead him anywhere better. Kate died and although Adler was vanquished, the pain was still raw. Throw in the accusations from Peter about stealing the art before Neal actually knew that he stole the art and it makes some sense why Neal would turn his back on all of that.

But with Sara in the picture, Neal recognized the value in becoming a better, law-abiding citizen. The risks were not only professional, but personal. He had a lot more to lose if he decided to go along with Mozzie’s plan to pack up and run away. He wanted to keep Sara in the loop and invite her along for the ride, but deep down, Neal knew that Sara wouldn’t go for it and more importantly, she shouldn’t go for it. She cares about the difference between right and wrong and although he likes to pretend otherwise, so does Neal. So while I was still disappointed in the fractured relationship between Neal and Peter, I did appreciate that the series figured out another way to pull Neal back from the brink of making a massive and probably misguided choice to re-join the criminal elite. And once Sara figured it all out and kicked him to the curb, Neal realized that the only way he could get her back or even start to live the life he so clearly wants to live is by avoiding Mozzie’s big plans. Unfortunately, that means fracturing yet another relationship and bringing all sorts of consequences down upon himself and as this episode shows, others as well.

White Collar isn’t an overly complex or thematically dark series, but these last few episodes (including “Countdown”) have been relatively bleak. Neal has woken up to the fact that he probably made the wrong choice by going along with Mozzie and the treasure to begin with, but it’s basically too late. Peter’s not-so-subtly hunting them down, Sara’s gone and Keller is still out there hoping to make a play. Throughout “Countdown,” Neal tries to make the best of a terrible situation and tries to play both sides to clear his name and keep those important relationships, but it doesn’t all work out. He keeps Peter and the FBI temporarily off his and Mozzie’s trail through a very cunning but wholly unbelievable plan that involves skydiving between skyscrapers and onto a NYC street and he does his best to convince Mozz that he’s not interested in the treasure or the criminal life anymore. But that doesn’t stop Keller from showing up at the last-minute to kidnap Elizabeth in hopes of leveraging her for the treasure and it sure as heck doesn’t stop Mozzie from following through on his threat to take the treasure and run.

If you’ve watched the series since the beginning, you know that White Collar has a problem with cliffhangers. They’re always overly cliffhanger-y and dramatic and the series quickly backs away from them whenever it returns for more episodes. So we know that Keller won’t kill Elizabeth and we know that Mozzie isn’t going anywhere. White Collar isn’t that kind of series. However, these two cliffhangers are definitely the best the series has put forth thus far in its two-and-a-half seasons on the air, both because they’ve grown naturally out of all the stories that came before and because they represent the big consequences of being Neal Caffrey. He should have never, ever gone down this road and now there’s all sorts of trouble that he can’t just fix with a cocked hat and a smile. This is the darkest and bleakest things have gotten for Neal and the series works best when it gets a little heavier. I’m still not entirely happy with how this story got started, but White Collar has done a really wonderful job of convincing me that it is the right way to go now. I can’t wait for the final six episodes.

Other thoughts:

  • I still kind of hate Keller. I understand his purpose and the construction of the character, but Ross McCall just doesn’t fit with the series’ usual rhythms and energy.
  • I love how this half-season has developed interesting arcs and angles for Mozzie. He’s no longer just the witty comic relief and instead is beginning to fill the “shades of gray” role that the series isn’t too comfortable putting Neal in. Though Neal is the protagonist and theoretically “less criminal,” the series has done a nice job of showing Mozzie’s side of things. He’s taken control much more often and it’s been wonderful.
  • Tim DeKay was very good in the final moments here. Can’t say the same for the weird “shocked and stunned” visual markers.
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