It feels like old times on White Collar. Matthew Keller is still in the picture and making life hard for Neal Caffrey; the only difference is this time is that the end game has everything at stake for both of them. When Neal goes to a park to meet what he thinks is the Pink Panther gang, all he finds is Keller, who tells him that Panther honcho Woodford is out of town but has left them an assignment – one that they have to work on together. This doesn’t sit well with Neal, for obvious reasons, but when he finds out that the only way to pull off the new job is to win the trust of a pretty young woman, Neal really doesn’t like it. The young woman in question, Amy, works at Atlas Tech, a security firm, and is the executive assistant to the head of the company, Mr. Grant, so she’s their means to accessing the company vault. There’s a file in the vault that Keller and Neal need to copy before Grant gets back from his business trip in three days. Normally, this isn’t a big deal but bless Neal’s sweet heart, he reads Amy from a distance and can already tell she’s a good, friendly person and isn’t deserving of being conned. As Neal takes the lead and charms her in a farmers market (and charms the hell of out of everyone watching, too. Seriously, Matt Bomer sells the scene so well I almost forgot he was Neal “the conman” and not Neal “the chef”), Keller seals the deal by coming on to her strongly and insultingly (Keller was just being Keller. As Neal says to him later, “watching your side is physically painful”) letting Neal come to her rescue. It was such an easy 2-man job, and part of me already felt bad for Amy and her ignorance to it. Neal manages to plan a date with her, so the con is indeed on.
Meanwhile, Agent Peter Burke and his White Collar team have figured out that the only way Keller can be making the Panther meetings without his RFID chip setting off sensors is that he’s got his own handler from Interpol nearby manning the switch. Peter and Agent Diana Berrigan follow Neal and Keller to the farmers market where Peter finds Keller’s handler, Luc, a pensive Frenchman who thinks he’s got the upper hand in this joint CI partnership. Peter makes it clear that this is American soil, and it’s the Fed’s case, so if Interpol wants to play along, great, but Luc’s suggestion that Neal work for him, with Keller, is not an option. I love it when Peter gets all possessive with Neal! I mean, as his oft times partner and full time CI, there’s no question Peter wouldn’t give him up, but his emphatic refusal is appreciated.
Let’s pause here to marvel at how well director Sanford Bookstaver plays out the scene in Neal’s loft as Neal tries out a salad he’ll make for Amy. The scene opens tight on Neal’s face in concentration, and after a beat the camera pans and follows his hand as he sets a sprig of greens on the meal he’s plating. Just as you catch your breath over such a simple yet finely crafted moment, there’s the wink and nod to the name on Mozzie’s janitor uniform when he comes in to show Neal what he’s found scoping Atlas. Bookstaver has an eye for the different and for finding small ways to make off the rack scenes feel bespoke. On his janitor rounds Moz has found that the vault needs biometrics to open, as in iris and fingerprint scans. So Neal will need Amy to have a need to open the vault room and he’ll need Keller’s help with that. Since she doesn’t have time to take lunch breaks and he needs a reason to enter the Atlas offices, he decides to surprise her with lunch at her desk. The surprise works and she’s smitten. Something tells me that in another life, or at least another time, this is exactly how Neal would court a girl he likes, so the authenticity rings true. When Keller makes an appearance as a security guard, Amy is freaked enough that she check the vault, allowing Moz to sneak in before the door closes when she leaves.
The reason I mentioned that this episode feels like old school White Collar is that when Mozzie enters the vault and finds the oldest floppy disk ever made (literally!) and a c1970 computer – not the shiny, USB equipped modern one he expected – it felt like one of the old cons, where instead of double crosses and grave misdirection, our gang is simply stonewalled by something as benign as incomplete intel. So, of course Moz has to steal the floppy which sets everyone off – Peter, because it means the Feds actually committed theft, and Neal, because it means when the disc is missing, Amy will get the blame for it at work. In a fun scene at the Burke’s, leave it to Moz to figure out how to get the old tech talking to the new tech (“DOS, meet Dot, Dot meet DOS”) so the team gets the data they need.
Cut to a wonderful scene of Neal doing everything he can during dinner at his place with Amy to bore her and keep her uninterested in him. His reasoning is that, at least, when he gets the disc back before the night is over, he can plant it on Amy so she’ll find it later and put it back. Sure, she’ll figure out she’s been conned, but maybe if she doesn’t have any interest in him, it won’t sting as much. The problem is, as he tells Peter when he gets a status update, Neal really likes Amy and she likes him. And to be fair, they would make a really cute couple and I believe in their relationship after just 2 days more than I ever believed in Rebecca and Neal in the entire last season. The scene is painfully awkward and funny, as Neal tries to be boring, and gets even funnier when June plays her part and interrupts them with every intention of staying for dinner. Well done by all involved.
Sadly, before Peter can return the disc to Neal, Luc steals it from Peter’s briefcase and sends Keller off to Amy’s place to leave it there. Amy rushes home after she gets a call that her boss is back, earlier than expected, and an important file is missing from the vault. Keller being Keller (again!), he gets caught when she comes home and he pulls out a knife and threatens her. It’s good and bad that Neal was still nearby as he busts in and stops Keller, but not before Keller comes clean and tells Amy about the con and Neal’s part in it. She’s crushed, as is Neal. And if you look at from her perspective, it’s rather sinister: Neal is the handsome, suave partner, and Keller is the slimy, bullish one. No doubt 2-man cons on women really do happen like that all the time. Before leaving Neal gives her his best advice on how to turn it around and make the situation work for her. Problem is, it’s essentially blackmailing her boss, and she can’t go through with it. She tells Neal the next day that she quit and is going back to Iowa. He and Keller have ruined NYC for her forever, and the hurt, bitterness and disappointment she feels is not lost on Neal.
The Feds get what they want and decode the data from the disc (it’s an algorithm to randomize flights from certain cities and airlines, so no one knows the actual flight details) which they assume the Panthers need for their next big heist. Finally, Keller meets with Neal to remind him that even if Neal takes down the Panthers, their reach is broad and deep: Even if Neal gets his freedom, each day would be a potential day the Panthers might strike at someone Neal loves. I think this might be foretelling the end of the series. I’m not ruling out that if the threat of Panther retribution is imminent, Neal may have to flee or fake his death to get them to back off. It may not be what he wants, but it might be what he needs to do.
Catch White Collar on Thursdays at 9/8c on USA.