On paper, the premise of White Collar is this: An extremely talented thief and con artist gets caught and must assist the FBI in bringing down other criminals. But in practice, it's more like this: Everybody on earth falls in love with the same guy. Seriously, it's become a bit of a running joke that basically everyone Neal encounters ends up developing a huge friendship crush on him (if not more than that). Heck, this week it became clear that even Neal's primary enemy, Agent Kramer, deep down just wants to spend more time with Neal. That is definitely the most plausible motivation for a villain on White Collar, to be honest. Wanting to hang out with Neal is kind of the reason we all WATCH this show, right?
Fortunately White Collar is a deceptively clever (and deep!) show, so that running gag turned into a bit of a tragedy in "Judgment Day," which was a pretty killer, game-changing season finale. The latter half of the season had been building up to Neal's commutation hearing, and throughout the episode we saw various co-workers and friends (including Elizabeth!) testify before a panel about Neal's character and whether or not he deserved to have his freedom back. Many of them testified in earnest—Sara, June, Elizabeth, and ultimately Peter all enthusiastically backed Neal's commutation while Jones did not (though only out of deep respect for the justice system). June's speech was particularly moving, as she uncharacteristically emoted about how she wished her husband was still alive so that he could've met her surrogate son Neal. It was a touching scene, but only moments later she bragged to Mozzie that she "nailed it." Probably White Collar's best recurring theme is that any lie is a white lie so long as the teller of that lie is awesome. This show glorifies lying more than anything I've ever seen—it's like liar porn, basically—so even a manipulative display of fiction by June still comes off as touching. That's how cool she is.
Quick question: Which bakery does Elizabeth shop at? This was some Cake Boss type stuff.
The main heist element of "Judgment Day" called back to a lot of past plot threads, specifically the missing Raphael painting and Neal's coded prison letters (which gave the address of the painting's location!). After Neal learned that Kramer intended to dredge up details of this crime by subpoenaing Sara, she covered for him by claiming she had the Raphael in her possession. This meant Neal had to venture outside his ankle-mandated radius in order to retrieve the painting before Kramer could charge her with obstruction of justice.
After hopping a gondola to Roosevelt Island, Neal arrived at a mysterious older woman's apartment and we learned more about Neal's past than ever before. Apparently his detective father (who is still alive) was once a good man who nonetheless turned "evil." Uh-oh! Looks like White Collar's new big theme is whether Neal will arrive at the same crossroads as his father. It's unclear how it transpired that this woman came to raise Neal, but he hadn't seen her in years, at least not since he stashed a certain priceless, rolled-up canvas at her joint. (Which, incidentally, Neal's ex, Kate, opted not to take). But even though we didn't have all the details of their relationships, the scene still felt emotional and real. But that was beside the point: How ridiculous was the view from her balcony?
Upon Neal's exit from the building, Peter intercepted him and they shared a gondola back to Manhattan. That's when Peter's "inside man" Diana tipped him off that Kramer and the NYPD were waiting on the other end and Neal decided to jump onto a gondola traveling in the opposite direction! Typical Neal. I think this was supposed to be a thrilling moment, but the green screen was so hilariously bad that it ended up just looking charming. Aw, White Collar. Just stick to billiards.
The endgame had to do with Neal racing back to return the Raphael to Sara, but Kramer stayed one step ahead and intercepted him in the lobby. His ultimate goal of nailing Neal for additional crimes, extending his sentence, then transferring Neal to Washington D.C. seemed to be coming to fruition. Fortunately Peter and Sara conspired to have her wealthy boss secretly purchase the Raphael and then claim that Neal had merely been hired to authenticate it. Arrest avoided! Or had it been? Later on, just before Peter was to testify on Neal's behalf, he learned that Kramer still intended to throw the book at Neal for the gondola incident and it looked very likely that Neal would not only not get his sentence commuted, he'd probably also be whisked away to a much worse city. So in one of White Collar's best moments yet, Peter connected eyes with Neal from across the street and sent an unspoken signal: "Run."
As Peter testified before the panel, we saw Neal hurriedly pack his things, cut off his ankle bracelet, and hop a plane with Mozzie to Hawaii, where Mozzie had stashed a sizable amount of the U-Boat treasure. Peter's panel testimony was interrupted with the news that Neal had broken his anklet. We never learned what their verdict would have been or what would happen to Neal and Peter's friendship. But the power of the cliffhanger didn't have to do with the question of how Neal's legal troubles would continue; it had way more to do with that subtle smile on Neal's face as the plane carried him away. Was he, deep down, thrilled to be back in the game? Had he conned all his friends after all? Heavy stuff!
I've joked to people that White Collar only pretends to be a serialized drama when it's more just a fun hour of television anyone can jump in on. But this season finale proved that White Collar has a lot more going on beneath the surface and its willingness to shake up its premise to this extent is one reason why it's one of the most underrated shows on TV. Who knows what'll happen when Season 4 premieres this summer (aside from hopefully tons of scenes of the cast chillin' in their swimwear in Hawaii), but I have a feeling this episode's emotional repercussions will be felt for a long time.
And in conclusion...
... Were you shocked that Agent Kramer was such a jerk?
... Did you like when Sara seemed downright impressed that Neal stole the Raphael?
... Didn't those two cakes look so good?
... Do you think Neal will ever work for the FBI again?