The more things change, the more they stay the same. As we move into the second of the final six episodes of White Collar, we don’t have much time to waste, so it’s important the storytelling stay to the coattails of the original characters and their relationships, but also give us one final plot arc that can carry us there. So far, so good, in my opinion. Neal Caffrey is accepted into the Pink Panthers thanks to his little — and literal — stunt last episode, and he reminds Agent Peter Burke that he’ll only help bring down the Panthers from the inside if the FBI signs a contract declaring his freedom once the job is done. And he means it, as he makes it clear to Peter that this time it’s non-negotiable; and even as Peter assures him he’ll get the signatures, Neal reaffirms that Peter’s word isn’t good enough this time. Ouch.
The case really kicks off when Neal discovers his old nemesis Matthew Keller has already become a recent member of the Panthers, and that Keller has a benefactor. Neal’s not wrong to be jumpy about the surprise encounter, as Keller could very easily out Neal as a Fed asset and not only ruin Neal’s chance at freedom, but potentially end his life there and then by untrusting Panther security. But Keller, surprisingly, keeps the Neal’s cover and vouches for him. (Credit goes to Matt Bomer for expressing the barest hint of that wary and mistrust so fleetingly on his face. The man can do subtle). Panther leader Alan Woodford wants Neal to steal a rare stamp while it’s up at private auction, which seems to menial a task, but when Peter finds out Keller is involved he immediately tries to put the kibosh on the entire case. We know he’s extra sensitive to Keller’s proximity because Elizabeth is pregnant (and Keller kidnapped her years ago, which rightly leaves Peter a little freaked out) but Neal doesn’t know about the baby and is emphatic that they continue with their plan; he admits, to Peter’s horror, that he’s willing to risk his life for his freedom. We’re left with no doubt that this time Neal is all in, that he’s done with having the Feds (via Peter, often) promise him freedom, dangle it in front of him like a carrot, only to yank it away and find a technicality to keep him under their thumb. As the series comes to an end, they’ve certainly upped the stakes, so that when the finale airs, whatever resolution we get, it should ring true to Neal’s stand so far this season – he either gets the freedom legitimately or he creates it himself.
When Mozzie finds out Keller is involved, he’s none too thrilled, either. Neal mentions, offhandedly, that people like Keller get too involved in what they want, and they don’t notice the ground giving way beneath them, so it was without hesitation or guile that Mozzie spoke for all of us with the gently sarcastic “people like Keller…”
To make the con work so, Neal can steal the stamp, Peter has to get in on the action. Since the private auction hostess, Bianca, wants to meet all her bidders in person, but it appears she has trust issues and rather than deal with Neal’s philandering cover, Nathaniel Dietrich, instead demands to meet his father, Elias. Cue Peter coming to the rescue of the “interview” that’s going south fast, striding in with hat (!) and glasses, looking ever the statesman and damn near refined enough to be Nathaniel’s – let alone Neal’s – father. Peter wins over Bianca with some not entirely concealed truths about his role as a father trying to mold and often manage his son. Bianca believes this to be papa Dietrich speaking, but we all know it’s unspoken truths from Peter about his relationship with Neal these past 5+ years. Maybe it was the hat and glasses, or just that Tim DeKay really has the heart of Peter Burke on his sleeve, but I definitely felt a little moved by the scene. It might be considered trite or cheesy, but if you’ve been a fan all these years, it’s hard not to flashback through all the times Peter risked himself to save Neal or make sure he was safe.
While at the private residence, Neal identifies that the auction items displayed in the house are locked down tight by the best of the best security system, and informs Peter his plan is to make a distraction during the auction to trip the alarm in the ensuing chaos. I’d be 100% down with this plan and its outcome except that once the theft is made, we see the display case where the stamp was — empty save for 2 hors d’oeuvres forks propping up the case. It’s unlikely in those very brief moments Neal could have actually propped up the case and nabbed the stamp, but even if he did, his fingerprints would have been all over the utensils. Good thing we don’t have time to waste on details like that, and Neal is able to convince the private seller’s security to search Bianca, where they find the empty stamp case after a bit of sleight of hand from Neal.
After the event, Peter says there’s no luck on the Feds returning the stamp to Neal to make the next play with the Panthers. Neal is none too happy about that, as his entire case for freedom is made by continuing his con within the Panthers. Ruffled feathers notwithstanding, Neal proceeds to forge the stamp, leaving a small message for Keller to recognize when he does the authenticating for the Panthers. The ruse works and Neal pulls Keller aside to get the explanation for Keller’s involvement in the Panthers in NY, when according to the Feds’ report from the Russian government, he’s still in jail there. Leave it to Keller to cut a deal with Interpol. Neal suspected it when Keller scratched his left wrist frequently — unlike bulky anklets, Interpol uses embedded RFID chips to track their assets — and is not pleased to learn that Keller’s goal is the same as his: take down the Panthers from the inside and earn his freedom. Leaves us to wonder how that’s going to work out, as surely each agency, FBI and Interpol, would want to credit their own asset and team for the win when the time comes, but it should also prove fun to watch.
In the end, Neal gets 2 surprises when he meets Peter at the Burke’s place. Peter has managed to get the contract signed by the Attorney General – it’s binding – and he tells Neal about El’s pregnancy. Neal is amazed on both counts and things certainly look up for our fave con-man, but we know that can’t last. There will no doubt be great scenes of Keller and Neal working together for their shared goal, but at some point, one or the other asset will need to roll over for the other, or risk being bowled over instead. This is our show, after all, so it’s unlikely Keller will have the happiest of endings; but the question then becomes will the outcome be enough for Neal, or will he really want more than freedom, as he alluded to Moz in the first episode.
White Collar airs Thursdays at 9/8c on the USA Network.