A Plotline that Clearly Wouldn’t Go Anywhere

White Collar: Season 3, Part 2

Should Neal Caffrey have his sentence commuted? That is the question raised by the third season of White Collar, but, frankly, it’s also a non-issue. The show works on the dynamic of a con man working, under work release from prison, for the FBI. If that con man no longer has reason to work for the FBI then the show doesn’t even exist. The series has pointed out, time and again, that Neal likes to cut corners and play the criminal role (sometimes to actually be a true criminal). The show can’t change that because then there wouldn’t be a show.

That’s the thing about raising a plotline like this in the third season of a series. The internet exists, we understand when shows are getting renewed or when they’re likely ending. A change like this would be something reserved for a series finale, not the middle of a series. Without giving us a clear idea of what the show could be like after a major change, there was no way something like this could actually happen. Considering there are three more seasons after this, I don’t feel like it’s a big spoiler to note that, no, Neal did not get his sentence commuted.

What’s silly about this whole plotline, which guides the back half of the third season of the series as its overarching story, is that it comes where it does in the show’s run. It’s not just that there were three more seasons (which, while we could have guessed a fourth was coming the audience wouldn’t have known two more would be in the offing) but also where this story happens in the direct continuity of the show. The previous half season had Neal working against Peter and the FBI to keep a treasure trove that didn’t belong to him. And then, suddenly, the FBI wanted to think about commuting his sentence. That doesn’t really make logical sense.

From a character perspective it also doesn’t work. Neal hasn’t really changed. The whole plotline about wanting to keep that Nazi treasure clearly shows he’s still a criminal at heart, no matter how many cases he solves for the FBI. Neal getting out of his prison term is something he should earn, and at this point in the series he hadn’t earned it. Hell, as we well know, there was a Raphael painting that he stole years before that he still hadn’t returned (although that will come up later in this half season). The good that he does hasn’t yet been shown to outweigh the bad. It’s the wrong time in the series for this story.

And it’s also the wrong time in the story for Peter to be on board with Neal getting an early release. He just, an episode earlier, found out that Neal knew where the treasure was, had been working with Mozzie to keep it, and these actions directly led to Elizabeth being kidnapped so that someone else could try and get Neal to give up the treasure. As shown, time and again, Elizabeth is Peter’s whole world. There is absolutely no way Peter would even be willing to work with Neal again after all that, let alone actually be on board with the con man being set free.

Anyway, that soap box out of the way (now that we can finally discuss spoilers from the previous season and how they apply to this one), the show does get a lot of mileage out of our two criminal protagonists having a ton of loot. As soon as they get it, Peter suspects that Neal stole the treasure. Neal can legitimately say he didn’t, because it was Mozzie that did the deed without Neal knowing, but just having it makes Neal as much an accomplice as anyone. So the first half of this season is the cat and mouse game between Neal and Peter as the FBI agent chases the con man once more.

The series formula is hardwired at this point and essentially it boils down to: Neal loves working with Peter and he enjoys working with the FBI, but Neal is always going to be a criminal, and so Peter will always be chasing after him for one reason or another. Whether it’s because Neal is pursuing the mystery of Kate, or chasing the music box, or Nazi treasure, or keeping said treasure, Neal is going to be Neal. And that works. The show’s overarching story can get the best mileage possible when it’s Peter against Neal. Neal doing something sneaky, trying to pull and dast one, develops so much tension for the show.

It only fails when the series isn’t able to actually deliver on the overarching story in the end. I felt the reveal of the Nazi treasure was silly at the time (and problematic when you think about it), but the idea that Neal and Mozzie would want to keep the treasure does make sense. The only issue is that, if they keep the treasure and get away with it, well, then the show isn’t really the show anymore. You can’t have White Collar if Neal and Peter aren’t working together. Any talk of one of the two riding off into the sunset to have a retirement can only work if you know the show is ending. The show isn’t going to end halfway into its third season. So, clearly, something will come up that will delay Neal being able to sell the treasure, or will force him to lose it, or some other twist. That’s the way serialized storytelling like this works.

In other words, it doesn’t really work. While the main plots of the shows various episodes are great – Neal and Peter go on a treasure hunt to find a kidnapped girl, or Neal and Peter help Mozzie escape his past as well as Chicago gangsters, or Neal steals the ill-gotten gains from another con man and goes on an illicit spending spree with Sarah – the overarching plot does, at times, feel perfunctory. There are interesting moments, like when Neal has to hide the evidence of a Degas that Mozzie sold from their stash, and then parachutes off the top of a building just as Peter is about to see him, but for the most part the big plotline just… exists. I could live without it.

I think maybe if the overarching plots weren’t so central to the storytelling of the show, I’d like them better. The show started with the mystery of, “what happened to Kate?” and that was a complete dud. Then it’s been trying, ever since, to find a storyline that has worked and, as of yet, hasn’t quite found anything that could hold the show. The police procedural elements have been solid, with some fantastic case-of-the-week episodes that far outside anything in the serialized story, and that really just goes to highlight the issue with White Collar: it would be better if it didn’t try so hard.

Look, serialized storytelling has its place. If Neal and Peter had a big bad they were chasing, some master criminal that was leaving them clues, Riddler-style, after certain heists, it would add an air of mystery and give them someone to chase. While the show can get tension out of Peter mistrusting Neal and Neal being the dirty criminal, it feels like that can only go so far before it becomes dull. We’re in the third season now and, well, it’s dull. I’d rather watch them chase the Dutchman, or Adler, or some other con man than watch them futilely chase each other. They’re the leads of the show and the series is never going to get to a point where that changes, so it should stop pretending otherwise.

As I’ve said before, White Collar is fine when it plays with its overarching storylines. Those, though, aren’t what I’m here for. I’m here for the cases each week because that’s where this show really shines.