[SPOILER heavy – proceed with caution]
So we pick up Season 5 just 6 weeks after last season ended: Neal Caffrey’s father, James Bennett, has murdered corrupt Senator Pratt and by design left FBI Agent Peter Burke holding the smoking gun, literally. Peter was taken off to prison, James walked out of the scene – and Neal’s life – and we were left to wonder what machinations could ever help Team Burke to free Peter…
But first, I’d like to consider the title of this episode, “At What Price.” We immediately assume the rest of that unspoken sentence is “to get Peter out of prison,” as that is our pressing matter. Although a common phrase, the connotation is usually that if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it. And in everyday situations, it implies that the object or service in question is desirable, but the price is retail, a set value, that you can either afford or walk away from — and occasionally negotiate. Although Neal has seemingly endless means of resources, or can get them, the title begs the question, will it be enough?
The pre-credit montage of visitors to Peter in prison was a clever means of setting up the stage six weeks later: Neal still feeling guilty for his father’s actions, Agent Clinton Jones’ news that fellow Agent Diana Berrigan is pregnant, and Elizabeth Burke making her steadfast assurances that justice will prevail and Peter will get free.
The episode really kicks into typical White Collar gear with Mozzie’s best job yet: cracking the monitoring code to the anklet which makes Neal appear to not leave his apartment, even as he heads out to meet the mysterious person behind a message offering to help free Peter. Let’s just start with the cheering now: Yay for the return of Curtis Hagen! You’ve got to love a show that does a 4 season call back to their pilot, to bring a very clever, very useful character back into a main story arc of the new season. Hagen tells Neal that if Neal gets a confession from James, Hagen can get Peter off the hook. Quid pro quo, he just needs Neal to do a little smash and grab of gold coins as payment when it’s done. Cut to a great scene of Mozzie and Neal making the voice recording of James’ confession. Neal has to put voice to the imaginary confession of his father, and like pulling off a bandage too slowly, you can see the discomfort in his eyes as he says the words he deeply wishes were truly coming from James. This joins perfectly with Peter’s reaction as he hears the confession played at his indictment: The total surprise and slight confusion of its existence is written all over Peter’s face. Oh, show, you’ve already got me dreading the day Peter finds out it was Neal (kind of really hoping he never does!).
Peter’s back in the White Collar division, and he’s been given a promotion and is now running the department. The implication is that he may move on to better things down in D.C. When Peter thanks Neal for getting James’ confession, it’s clear on both men’s faces how they feel: Peter is immensely grateful and truly believes Neal got the confession legitimately, while Neal couldn’t look guiltier without an actual tail tucked between his legs. One might think after all these years that Peter would recognize that particular visage on Neal, but I put it down to his unbridled enthusiasm at being off the hook and out of prison. When Peter meets Neal at his apartment later that evening to tell him about the promotion and possible D.C. job, he also admits that he expected Neal might have resorted to unlawful measures to get him out and is essentially proud that he didn’t. In signature Neal style, he neither confirms nor denies this, and doesn’t look him in the eye when sips his wine. It was hard to watch, since we know Neal did what he did for Peter, for El, for everyone who knows Peter was innocent, and yet it puts Neal firmly back into the red ledger, with the first of 2 nice set ups for this season. After all, if it was ever discovered that the confession was fake, things for Peter and Neal would be catastrophic; personally and professionally.
We get the caper of the week, as per Hagen’s deal, which made great use of Mozzie’s conspiracy theorist mentality and of Neal’s ability to blend in as a NY firefighter (insert myriad jokes about Matt Bomer being “smoking hot” and “Neal could put out my fire any day” here, thanks). Of course it never goes exactly as planned, and the boys need to revisit the fire station in order to collect the coins they stole for Hagen, now stored in a compressed air tank. Not too difficult, except that the case is now on Peter’s desk and he wants one last go around with Neal in catching the thief. As always, the writers have a fun time showing us Neal’s ability to talk the FBI into chasing red herrings, but the twist here is that Peter, never to be underestimated, hones in on the truth a little too quickly and far too close for Neal’s comfort. Props to director Stefan Schwartz for closing in on Neal’s face, just as Peter’s closing in on his image on their video monitor. I almost expected to hear an audible swallow from Neal, or see an awkward loosening of the tie. But good as gold, Neal goes along with Peter’s hypothesis and we continue to a fun little scenario of Peter’s jacket being used to put out a kitchen fire; Neal and Mozzie using a fire hose and a baby stroller to grab the coins; and another brief moment where Peter is left puzzling on Neal’s lack of presence in the room. You know, the kind we’re used to, where Neal’s gone just a little too long, and his reason for being so is not quite as solid as Peter would like.
As the cast and creators of the show have been hinting, this season will bring us back to near level setting between Neal and Peter. Where Peter had slowly built his trust in Neal, and trusted himself to be able to navigate the gray areas between right/wrong (or as I consider it, lawful/unlawful, as Neal’s intentions are usually from the side of “right”) he has new doubts about what his favorite Con buddy may be up to. We know Peter’s doubts are well founded, but it’s sort of sad to know that Peter is coming at this from a default position. Two steps forward, one step back.
A couple of nice twists help round out the episode. In the first, Neal provides Hagen his coins, and Hagen provides Neal his blackmail CCTV footage of clearly breaking into the safe to get the coins. A Con has been conned! He can’t get out of line with Hagen or it’s a double bind: Hagen helped him get Peter out of prison and Hagen has damning footage of Neal’s theft. Safe to say I nodded in approval at that, and it neatly sets the stage for Hagen to play puppet master to Neal, leaving open all sorts of wicked possibilities for getting his blackmailing jones on. As Mozzie put it so nicely, Neal has an FBI handler and a criminal handler. Natch.
The final scene was the toughest to watch as a fan. Peter again goes into his default doubt mode, suspecting Neal of being off anklet and having a part in his release from prison. El puts the hammer to the nail when she tells Peter he’s emotionally involved again (it’s Neal, guys, we’re all emotionally invested!) and he decides a change is in order. When Peter tells Neal that he’s going to bring in an outside handler, one impartial to Neal — one who will see him as he is, a criminal — he’s upset enough to actually put his beer back in the fridge unopened! That should be clue enough that this is a serious change for their relationship. He goes on to clearly note that he’s made mistakes by getting too involved with Neal, and you can see the hurt that’s registered on Neal’s face when he’s getting this game changing news. Peter’s only words of comfort are that he feels this is in Neal’s best interest and that Peter doesn’t want him going back to prison. Small comfort indeed. I will add that one of my favorite lines is from Neal, noting how he feels strange when his anklet’s not on, like something’s missing: He’s gotten used to it. And that, at least, is something we find comfort in.
If one considers the hold Hagen has on Neal, and Peter’s decision to put Neal at arm’s length and bring in a new, unbiased handler, we can bet this season will be a tough one for our favorite Con. He’s already proven he’ll do what he must to ensure the safety and well-being of Peter and his friends, but he’s also now in a precarious position of being one servant to two masters. At what price? More like, “at what cost” if you ask me.