A few thoughts on the second half of White Collar’s second season to date, together with some musings on the perils of over-thinking, below the jump.
White Collar is a show I specifically mentioned in my post a few weeks ago regarding spoilers, and there was a reason for that: of all the shows I watch, White Collar seems to be one where my enjoyment is most strongly influenced by foreknowledge of plot or character moments – and where it even seems to be influenced by speculative discussion of the show with few spoilers involved. There has been a very strong correlation in season 2.5 for me so far between episodes which I know nothing about in advance and episodes which I deeply enjoyed with few quibbles. And I wonder whether this is something to do with the structure of the show, with its strengths and weaknesses compared to other shows.
White Collar’s strength, undoubtedly, lies in its central characters and the dynamics between them. These may not always be written or acted perfectly, but they are generally several levels of quality above other aspects of the show (let’s not look in the direction of episodic plotting or product placement integration at this point) and often allow me to excuse or overlook other things that really bug me. (I cannot quite believe that after 28 episodes, there has still been no dialogue between regular female characters, even when there were obvious opportunities for it. Gah.) Give me a good Neal and Peter scene, or even a good scene with any combination of Neal/Peter/Moz/El/Diana present, and I will forgive a lot of other sins.To destroy my enjoyment of the show, therefore, it is my enjoyment of this type of scene that must be destroyed for me to find an episode as a whole unsatisfactory. That can occur when there are simply very few scenes of this type, with more focusing on the week’s plot or bad guys, but it can also occur when something that technically ought to have been a good scene fails to live up to its potential on some level. And that, I feel, is where spoilers, speculation and my own bias towards character arc can come into play.
Spoilers for this show come in many forms and are very easy to find online if you go looking (and sometimes even if you don’t). One that I have previously succumbed to with the logic that it’s not really like a normal spoiler because you’re getting enough of the truth to avoid getting the wrong impression is the script page sneak peeks posted by Jeff Eastin on his twitter feed in the week before a new episode. Now don’t get me wrong – I love that he does this. It’s a perfect way to grab attention, it sheds light on a bit of the creative process in a very unassuming way, and he makes sure never to spoil major twists or plot developments. I have, however, stopped following the links of late, in part because of how little I enjoyed Burke’s Seven (2×10), which is in a special position as being the episode of this show I have most consciously spoiled myself for. I read 3 different script pages before the episode aired (I think), I discussed hopes for the upcoming season with people on the TWoP forum thread, and I generally ended up indulging in a lot of daydreaming about the show’s midseason return because I mis-timed my obsession cycles and found myself ready for the show to return about a month before it actually did.
As a result, I knew the following three major things about Burke’s Seven before watching it. And with each thing comes an aspect of the episode that I felt was tarnished as a result:
– I knew that Peter would be suspended and that Peter and Neal would round up a team to sort it out. Given other things I knew, plus the size of the core cast, it was easy enough to work out who most of that team had to be. Therefore, the joy of watching Peter finally bring Jones into the fold was stale by the time I saw it, as was the otherwise pleasant little moment of El involving herself. And of course on the larger scale, the main joy of that plot was the mere idea of Peter and Neal assembling (or rather formalising) a proper little team who were united behind them, which had no surprise left at all by the time I saw it.
– The actors delivered lines differently in the show to how they did it in my head when I read the script. This was a big one. The con/sting exchange in front of their team was one of the script pages tweeted, and that one was delivered reasonably close to how I imagined it, but the scene by the docks with Neal suggesting Peter run a con in the first place (and Peter agreeing so quickly he didn’t notice) was very differently emphasised and played in my head. Both of those were script peeks (http://twitpic.com/3p57zw and http://twitpic.com/3ouosp), and both of them were the Neal/Peter meat of the show that I usually so much enjoy. I’m not saying that my brain interprets their scenes more effectively than the show itself does (though obviously I am saying that for me, but it wouldn’t be true for the rest of the audience), but just that by settling one interpretation of it in my brain, I lost out on the joys of what they actually did with it (which I’m sure were there – plenty of other people liked this episode). The other thing that one script peek did was draw attention to an egregious oversight that I might have missed if I hadn’t known there was a cut line which had at least attempted to make it less ridiculous – the fact that El was apparently able to convince the man on the phone that she was his wife/girlfriend simply because she sounded female. Whereas Neal impersonating a man had to have voice alteration software. In the script peek (http://twitpic.com/3p5k9i), Sara had a line about adding static to the call to make El’s voice less recognisable, and listening to the call makes it sound like that was still done, but the line disappeared. Knowing it had been there just made the thing it should have been covering up for even more blatantly obvious and annoying.
– Relatedly, knowing some of the plot in advance just made the plot holes completely inescapable. There’s a script note that says ‘make it seem really unlilkely and therefore super-cool that Larsen manages to break into the FBI.’ Well, they didn’t manage that and I might not have thought about it otherwise. But apparently he got in by stealing a swipe card? Oh, and wearing a hat. Let’s not forget that. It should be easy as pie for Neal to break into the FBI now if they ever shut him out… It was also the height of convenient coincidence that Larsen would be planting Peter’s fingerprints at the exact moment that the FBI burst in on them. Hmm. Oh, and I await the complaints of my regular commenter cheeky regarding the horse-related scenes whenever she eventually gets round to watching this episode…
There were other more minor things as well, but that triptych – destroying the pleasant surprises in the plot and character arcs, plus exposing the episodic plotholes, really prevented me finding almost anything to like in this episode. Add to that the knowledge that Hilarie Burton was becoming a regular recurring guest star, plus the hatred that many people on the TWoP forum thread seem to feel for her and Sara, and the only remaining enjoyable scenes between her and Neal were also tarnished by association and second-guessing how other people would react to them.
Since that experience, I have stayed away from script peeks and TWoP discussion and been much happier for it. Had I known how much Kate there was going to be in Forging Bonds, I would probably have been wincing in anticipation and enjoyed it a lot less than I did. As it was, I was interested in those scenes for the purpose of trying to figure out whether she really had been playing Neal all along (one of my favourite pet theories) as well as the joy of seeing a much more naïve, younger Neal (which I thought Matt Bomer did an excellent job with). What Happens In Burma was really an exceptionally silly episode on many levels, but I loved it for the reveals regarding Neal’s father – which are exactly the sort of thing I would have ruined for myself in advance if I’d known about it. Because of course Neal’s father being a dirty cop dovetails perfectly with his relationship with Peter – almost too perfectly, if I’d had time to think about it beforehand. Very convenient backstory creation, and yet I was won over by how it played out within the episode, including the meta commentary on Peter and Neal’s ‘patriarchal’ relationship by Moz (I almost feel he got the wrong word there, but I think what he’s trying to get at is a cross between paternal and patriarchal, so I’ll allow it. Especially from someone who’s apparently never heard anyone else say ‘plebeian’ out loud). Similarly, Countermeasures was an excuse to get a lot of pretty people onscreen in a very pretty location (is that the first time they’ve shot in the real interiors of June’s house since the pilot? That wasn’t a set, I’m sure. It was beautiful, anyway) and to push the character arc angle of Neal modelling himself more on Peter these days. As an episode story it really didn’t hold together well – and neither did Payback, which basically revolved around Keller taking an awful lot of risks he had absolutely no reason to take since he could apparently escape quite easily anyway. Whilst he’s undoubtedly the grandstanding sort who enjoys wrapping up several pieces of revenge and crime into one, going to the effort of kidnapping an FBI agent just for the joy of messing with Neal whilst simultaneously planning your escape from prison seems a bit much like effort. (Especially as it resulted in more focus on his transfer between prisons, which surely is an extra risk to incur? Why not wait to mess with Neal until after he’d already escaped?) But I found myself thoroughly enjoying all of those episodes with very few qualms, and so I think my resolve was the correct one – stay away from spoilers for this show, however mild, because what my brain builds on them is too likely to be more satisfying than the actual output a procedural show with its focus on pyrotechnics and Nazi crockery is able to regularly produce.
But then I hit the one remaining problem – my own willingness to speculate, to play out how I want the character arcs to go in my head and to imagine future plots and scenes. The damage caused by that is perhaps less severe, mostly revolving around the fact that I want Peter/Neal dynamics to progress more quickly than they actually do – or than, indeed, they actually can if the show wants to keep going at least until the end of Neal’s 4 years. This manifests in slight disappointment whenever Neal refuses to see something that’s right in front of him in terms of character progression – for example, the scene in Payback where Moz asks if Neal is really willing to trade the ring for Peter’s life. Now, quite obviously the answer here is ‘yes.’ I would have liked Neal to be in a place where he could simply admit that – that Peter is more important to him now than the memory of Kate, and indeed would be getting to the point of rivalling Kate even if she were still alive. So I was disappointed when he reverted to hackneyed phrases and a justification of what he ought to do, rather than simply admitting that. But… it’s right that he shouldn’t. Or perhaps can’t, even to Moz. Or… and see, this is the problem. I just spent 5 minutes staring into space trying to justify Neal’s fears of betrayal and wondering how they could potentially play out in future as part of the path towards Neal eventually being a free man again. So if, in future, any of the vague little scenarios I just came up with actually turn out to be part of the canon arc, they will feel a little stale to me. But… but I can’t stop myself doing that. Half of the fun of any tv show, for me, is doing that – letting the characters live in my head in between episodes, bedding themselves in and being there for me to tell stories to myself with when I get bored. I’m not a fanfic writer or reader, but it’s important to me that my favourite characters exist somewhat independent of their shows, and that I claim some level of ownership over my interpretation of them. I’m never going to be able to stop doing that, but I think if I avoid ‘official’ spoilers I should be able to accept the reality.
So, in the spirit of having my cake and eating it, let’s indulge in a little speculation here before we head into the last two episodes of the season…
– Is Vincent Adler playing them? It seems extremely likely to me given what we know of him. I suspect the distress signal leads them to something that he wants retrieved but can’t or won’t involve himself in stealing. FBI or Neal digs it up? Maybe it’s then easier to steal (or will put something else in motion that he wants). The bad guys on this show are usually pretty good at playing others – Neal being no exception to that rule – so I’m looking forward to seeing what Adler’s true motivation here is. (It better not be Nazi crockery.)
– On a related note, is Alex playing them? Given what we learned in Forging Bonds, I no longer suspect Kate of completely playing Neal – for one, she doesn’t seem quite smart enough, and for another there was no hint that she knew anything about Neal’s arrest in advance (which was the main thing I’d suspected her of). However, given that she knew Adler from her past I’d say there’s a high probability she knew he stood behind Fowler – which is almost a certainty if we consider that she called someone from the plane who wasn’t Fowler and got herself blown up for mentioning that the plan seemed to be going awry. But Alex… well, Alex has always been a touch on the shady side, and has frequently done things that don’t seem to make a lot of sense. Now, a lot of this could be down to the usual slight gaps in plotting, but it still seems a bit too much of a coincidence that she had both the music box and the key in her possession for a day or so at the end of Season 1, and ended up returning both of them to Neal – separately, and at different times that would prompt him to do different things with them. She also knew Adler, and one of the very few things that wasn’t wrapped up neatly from the flashback storylines of Forging Bonds is what her ‘second chance’ with Adler was and how she got back in his good books. The fact that her next scene involves sleeping with Neal and introducing him to the idea of the music box? When we know that Adler knew who/what Neal was (and Alex ‘guessed’ it in that scene)? It all seems very suspicious right now. As does her presence in Neal’s apartment at the end of Point Blank when the show clearly built up ‘ooh is Alex going to shoot Neal and turn out to be the bad guy?’ then defused it by having Peter show up, but never actually addressed what was in Alex’s bag – she just shimmied away out of the apartment with no consequences. It seems to me that Neal is being fed a lot of the information and clues about the music box to get him to do the right things with it at the right time, and Alex has been instrumental in some of that feeding. It may all turn out to be nothing (especially as generally speaking the truly ‘bad’ people on this show are 99% male), but I’m suspicious.
– One tiny non-detailed spoiler that I have run into for the end of the season confirms the show’s usual tendency to have a sudden cliffhanger/plot twist before it goes on hiatus. Sigh. I’m not looking forward to that, as it’s generally something this show cannot pull off, and although they’ve been getting better I wish they could dispense with them entirely. Peter as potential Ring Man was easily the worst so far, of course, but neither the exploding plane nor Moz being shot generated any worthwhile tension in my opinion as in the first case I didn’t care if Kate died and in the second case it was far too obvious that Moz wouldn’t. I do, at least, appreciate how quickly they resolve these cliffhangers when the show returns, with minimum fuss and without insulting our intelligence, but it bugs me that the show feels it needs to play those games at all. I will therefore go into the finale prepared to switch my brain off at about minute 35 and ignore the annoyance of anything that comes after…