A White Collar Community
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Let me preface this by saying (as all of these articles do) that I am a fan of White Collar. I've watched the show since it first premiered. And other than a few wobbly issues here and there, I have thoroughly enjoyed it. There is a lot to love about this show, and so much of it works. But as good as the show is, it does have its flaws. And one of them in particular reared its ugly head in the Season 5 Premiere.

I'm referring here to the writers' latest move to restrict the show to the original box that it came in. Namely that Neal Caffrey is a criminal working for the FBI, and he is overseen by a handler/friend who never completely trusts him. And while the lovable Caffrey spends most of his time assisting the FBI in their investigation, he will moonlight as a thief/forger/conman/general criminal and rogue often enough to remind us that he is a thief. This season started in a very interesting place: Peter was being held in jail, awaiting trial for the murder of Senator Terrence Pratt (no relation of mine, I assure you). Neil, on the other hand, was a trusted FBI consultant who wasn't in the process of committing any crime, and had no plans for committing said crimes in the future. This was a very unusual situation for this show, as things have always been the other way around. There were so many possibilities for what the writers could do with this... And then faster than you can say "Hello boys," Neil had gotten in bed with the devil and Peter was back to being a shining beacon of white, bright, goodness.

But, is this really the best thing for White Collar? Does it even makes sense that these things would happen? Before I answer these questions, walk with me for a moment as we examine the previous four seasons of the show.

In the first season, the writers first introduced us to their brilliant new character dynamic: a criminal and FBI agent, both lovable and endearing, worked together to solve crimes. But here's the catch: while both of them were starting to become quite friendly, neither of them could trust the other. You see, Neal was trying to find his girlfriend, Kate, who had disappeared without a trace. She had come to say goodbye and break things off with Neal (who was in prison at the time), and that had given him a reason to break out. So he used his "freedom" working for the FBI to secretly track her down. It soon became clear that someone in the FBI was involved/behind her disappearance, so he couldn't trust anyone in the FBI, even Peter. And naturally Peter couldn't trust Neal because he was a criminal, obviously.

In the second season, Neal and Peter got along together much better, and had become genuine friends. However, Peter found it hard to trust Neal, since the thief clearly had his own agenda when it came to avenging Kate's death. However, they mostly worked together through this season, ultimately teaming up to take down Vincent Adler, the real villain behind Kate's death. The season ended with a newfound trust between them. Well..almost. The warehouse that held the treasure in it blew up, and a piece from one of Neal's paintings fell down to the ground. Peter found it and suspected that Neal had been behind the whole thing.

In Season Three, we learned that Mozzie was actually behind the whole thing, and now he and Neal had the treasure. If you recall, this season was mostly one where Neal made a lot of plays behind Peter's back for his own self-interest. He and Mozzie did several things to keep the treasure hidden, and were planning to leave with it and make a fresh start somewhere. But then Neal made a surprising revelation (at least, it was surprising to him): he didn't want to leave New York. He liked it there. In fact, he liked working with the FBI. He was in the midst of his own renaissance. Even better, he was about to serve out the last of his sentence. He was going to be a free man. And he told Peter that even with the anklet removed, and even with his newfound freedom, he still planned on coming into work the next day. Because that's what truly made him happy.

And then Kramer showed up. He wanted Neal for himself, and was going to acquire evidence on Neal that would put him away for far longer. Peter realized that his former mentor just wanted to use Neal as a tool, and didn't care at all about doing the right thing, so the season ended with Peter signaling to Neal that he should make a run for it. And he did.

Finally, in Season Four (last season), a whole lot happened. Neal returned to New York, and after jumping through a few hoops everything was back to normal. Except now he had another big mystery on his hands. That of his father's shady past. The important thing about this season, though, is that Peter and Neal trusted each other for the most part. Sure, there were a few sections here and there where Neal didn't think that Peter cared about his interests more than that of the FBI, but it usually took only a couple of episodes for them to be back on track again. In fact, Peter actually assisted Neal and Mozzie with a few illegal investigations in order to take down Senator Pratt. And it turned out that Peter was on Neal's side more than his own father was. For the first time, a season of White Collar ended not with Neal in some sort of trouble/distress, but with Peter having to face several consequences (even though the case against him was extremely weak).

So there you have it. Now, I'm sure that a number of you are wondering why I've just sloppily recapped the entire series up to now. Well, the point I'm making is that this show is chalk full of moments where Neal is so close to moving on to something better (or at least something else), but is then pulled back into being a prisoner and a criminal. On no less than two occasions (the end of Seasons three and four), Neal was about to be a free man, or in the second case a trusted member of society who had no aims for anything illegal in his future. Only for these goals to be crushed and for him to be returned back to square one. And on too many occasions to count, Neal and Peter have gone in and out of being bff's and being entirely mistrustful of each other.

It is painfully clear that the writers are doing everything they can to maintain that stellar character dynamic that they first came up with back in Season One. But stellar as it was, does it really belong in the show now? I mean, look at what happened in the introduction to the fifth season. Neal went from being a trusted and good dude, to teaming up with a murderer in order to commit a crime that the White Collar Division were almost certainly going to look into. And Peter went from being a guy who went above and beyond to help his best friend and landed up in jail trying to do the right thing, to a man who was completely cleared of all charges, got a promotion, doesn't fully trust Neal anymore, and is going to make someone else Neal's handler.

How did this happen so quickly? For starters, why did Neal get into bed with the Dutchman in the first place? If it was a matter of forging his father's confession, why didn't he do that in the first place? And why did he so fully guess everything about the Dutchman's plan only after he had done the deed. I know I can't be alone is seeing the heist being a set-up from miles away (especially with the episode titled: "At What Cost"). Neal practically walked into the Dutchman's trap blindfolded. I realize that he'd do anything for Peter, but the Caffrey I've seen on my screen for the past four years would never be so stupid or reckless. Even when people he loved were in mortal danger, he had plans and counter attacks. Is it just me, or does this look like a hasty, and out of place, way for the writers to put Neal back in the dog house?

And then there's Peter. He got promoted literally minutes after he walked back into the office. Don't you at least wait a week after someone's gotten out of jail before making them the head of a division? I realize I don't really have the experience here to know one way or another, but don't they at least give someone a breather from jail to let the suspicion waft away a bit? Seriously, that guy rose even faster than Neal fell in this episode. It's mind-boggling.

Now, don't get me wrong, it's not like I want to see Neal walk the straight and narrow for the remainder of this show. On the contrary, I love watching him steal, scam, and forge. However, 1. I want it to be on his terms and for his reasons. None of this: "steal this painting or your friend dies" stuff. Think about Season Three when Neal and Mozzie were doing criminal things because they had an actual treasure to protect. Now there was a reason to break the law. They got so much joy from admiring all that art, and from thinking of themselves as its owners. It was for this reason that they pulled off arguably the most epic heist of the entire series (remember the parachute jump in "Countdown?") Yep, this is White Collar at its best, when Neal is stealing something for a reason that is ultimately his own.

But where was the enjoyment in Neal's latest heist? Sure, I bet he had some fun with it; it must have felt nice to steal something again. And it was hilarious how Mozzie had to argue with someone about how conspiracy theories were all wrong. But they were ultimately doing this because a villain had told them they had to do it. And because of that Neal was forced to derail his own team to that his actions weren't discovered. Think about it: immediately before this episode, anyone who called Neal Caffrey a no good thief who couldn't be trusted would have been very wrong. But a mere forty minutes later and they're suddenly entirely justified. Neal Caffrey is now a "thief" again. But he is a thief against his own will. Is that really what you want Neal Caffrey to be?

Which leads me to: 2. Don't constantly make Peter the "good guy" and Neal the "bad guy." He technically served his time and should have gone free a while ago. And yet he's still kept as a prisoner because a select few people in the FBI are corrupt. Even Peter keeps on reminded everyone that Neal is a thief, even though these days he only steals things on orders from the FBI, or if he's got a gun to his head (both figurative and real instances of this have occurred). We've seen Peter do bad things for good reasons, and he gets rewarded for it. Why is it that when Neal does the same he often gets punished for it? Does White Collar really want to make its main character the show's punching bag? Neal watched the woman he loved die, lost a long-term girlfriend/lover, lost the treasure of his dreams, was betrayed by his father, and has been imprisoned for the entire series thus far. Peter on the other hand has sustained a constant, loving marriage with his beautiful wife (way to be just about the only guy on television to do that, btw), has had an overall successful career, hasn't lost a single important person in his life, and spent about five minutes in prison before rising up higher than ever before. Really? At least give Peter even a little of the pain so that Neal can have a little break.

Here's what I would like: I want this show to move forward. The writers have dragged the whole "Neal Caffrey is a criminal who's a prisoner in his own home and Peter Burke's the saintliest saint around who feels guilty when he doesn't submit the right paperwork, and yet they somehow are the best of friends even though they're opposites" thing out as long as they could while keeping the events on this show believable and genuine (with a few exceptions, notably the Season Five premiere). But now it's time to start a new thing. Like: "Neal Caffrey is a good man with a shady past who will often pull off epic capers and cons for good reasons and is content with the illegal things he does and Peter Burke is a good man who will occasionally bend the law when the law is clearly not doing the best good it can in a given situation, and not surprisingly they're the best of friends because of their long-term partnership and comraderie that has grown over more than four years of working together, as well as the fact that they're actually pretty similar people when it comes down to it."

And by all means, let them have arguments and fights from time to time. Let them mistrust each other here and there. But make the reasons for the tears in their relationship actually make sense. Don't make Neal and Peter have a falling out because Elizabeth told Neal to do whatever is necessary in order to save Peter from not being able to be an FBI agent again, and he actually did that. That's just silly. Again, look to Season Three for an actual reason for them to mistrust each other. Granted, Neal has changed as a person and is no longer into stealing things from people for the sake of stealing things (he no longer can be labeled as simply a "thief." Unless the writers want to pretend that four seasons of character growth haven't happened). So it's not like he should start stealing random paintings on a whim.

Here's a thought though, why not have Peter do something questionable? After all, he did just spend a good stint in jail. Maybe he had to do something in there to survive. Isn't it stereotypical for inmates to not like members of law enforcement who are unfortunate enough to walk among those that they could very well have put away? Who knows, maybe he had to get in bed with some bad people himself. Or are we just going to simply forget that he ever spent time in jail?

Anyway, what do you think? It's clear that I think that this show is trapping itself in the same box season after season, when it could just move on to a possibly better box. But what about you?

1. Are you happy with the latest turn White Collar has taken?

2. Do you think that Neal was acting like himself when he got into bed with the Dutchman?

3. Do you prefer Neal as a prisoner, or would you like to see him freed of his sentence?

4. Do you think that Peter is doing the right or wrong thing by distancing himself from Neal?

Also feel free to discuss anything pertaining to where the show should or should not go in this season, as well as whether or not you agree with my interpretation of where this show has been and is going. Regardless, we'll be finding out more about where this show is headed in two days.
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