I don’t have time to write a lot about this episode, but wanted to get a few quick thoughts out that have been milling around my head since I watched it, before the season finale comes along and makes them either real, moot or otherwise uninteresting for the next 6 months or so (boo). So, after the jump, a few thoughts on the implications of converging characters, and whether a tv show can ever have them.
White Collar has, in my opinion, done a very excellent job balancing the characters of Neal and Peter against each other over two seasons so far. There have been a few mis-fires, such as Peter’s early complete incapability around women, which thankfully got toned down to ‘just not very comfortable turning on the charm and likely to over-compensate,’ but on the whole the two characters are equals, and have more in common than the set-up of the show might lead you to believe. The show has relied on it since the pilot episode, since Peter first said ‘you know how much I like smart’ and destroyed the idea that these two are opposites, replacing it instead with the thoroughly enjoyable truth that they both see something admirable in the other. I remember thinking at about the s1 mid-point that I’d better enjoy their partnership while it lasted, as surely it would inevitably be destroyed sooner or later for the sake of drama. Because doesn’t every tv show have to do that to every friendship sooner or later, especially one as clearly predicated on the conflict as this?
These days, I’m not so sure. I have built up an odd amount of confidence in the character writing of this show, and it is beginning to feel like we have come too far now for Peter and Neal ever to fail to understand each other again. However… however, I do think there is likely to be change ahead. It is perfectly possible to understand someone and still be their enemy, after all – certainly to understand them and not entirely like what you know.
In the latter half of this season, the show has been more obviously drawing attention to the possible life choices Neal is going to have to make at some point. Moz and Keller have both drawn attention to how he is starting to sound a little like Peter at times, Peter himself has openly brought up the topic of who Neal wants to be when he grows up, and Neal himself seems like he’s walking a bit of a tightrope, trying to convince himself he can be certain things without giving up other parts of himself. This latest episode was the most blatant so far, making Neal fully assume an FBI agent role while Peter got to be in the midst of the lying/thieving/not-being-in-the-van. It was completely true to both characters how comfortable they were in each other’s roles, but that’s exactly what it felt like – roleplay. They both enjoyed playing each other’s roles, but take that out of the equation and Peter doesn’t get the same joy out of sneaking around as Neal does, just as Neal doesn’t get the same satisfaction out of doing things by the book and with the correct paperwork in place that Peter does. The show is very good at covering up that gap between them for the sake of an enjoyable plot, giving them both reasons to enjoy swapping roles – not least the obvious one-upmanship inherent in their little game of ‘I can be a better you than you’ – but the gap has been getting smaller over time, and something’s got to give eventually.
Fundamentally, I simply cannot see Neal ever becoming an FBI agent. Reality aside – there’s no way the FBI would even consider such a thing, right? – he just couldn’t. It is as plain as day that if Neal came up against a criminal something like himself, who steals with style, doesn’t kill people and generally doesn’t harm victims on a personal level, he’d never want to actually arrest them. He’d just want to challenge them, not necessarily in legal ways. It is equally plain that Peter would never enjoy forgery, undercover work or breaking into banks just for the sake of monetary gain and taking on the world. He will only do any of that in the cause of protecting others. Therefore, the trajectory that their two characters have been on towards each other since the pilot has to break down at some point, and I am beginning to think that this might be the point.
In supporting evidence, I give you the timescales of Neal’s 4 year prison term. We know he can bide his time for the sake of not having to be on the run, and he’s survived 2 years in quite a companionable working relationship. With Kate gone, and every bit of normal logic saying he should now stay the course in his ankle monitor, the show loses any tension at all of the ‘unpredictable Neal’ variety – and that’s one of its best and deepest wells to return to, since he is dangerous when he breaks, and it’s one of the few bits of real drama this set-up has. If I were writing the show, I’d do my best to keep wild-eyed, hot-headed Neal on my list of available characters.
I also think there is a good mine of potential storylines exploring the real differences between them more than has been done so far. If we can accept now that Neal and Peter are not only friends, they are pretty much family and nearly admittedly so (Peter offering full immunity for past crimes just to get Neal to work with him, Neal giving up a $2.5 million link to Kate just for proof that Peter’s alive), then there are a lot of fairly meaty dilemmas that you can now throw at them without completely breaking the friendship (and the show). What happens, for example, if one of those case files on Peter’s desk turns out to be a con that Moz has pulled? What happens if Neal ignores the law at a point when it matters and destroys the case against someone as a result? Again, if I were writing the show, I’d want to play with those ideas, because they look like the sort you could get a lot of mileage out of. I don’t want the two of them to be at loggerheads every week, because that’s no fun, but I think it would be rewarding to more fully examine the ways in which they will always disagree on some things.
And I just feel like we might be approaching that tipping point, what with all the heavy hints that Neal is reforming in recent weeks and all the perfect harmony between the two of them since mid-season. It feels like solid ground from which to take our next leap into the unknown.
– that said, as I observed last week, I’m still very wary of their cliffhangers. So whatever happens at the end of the finale, tell me off if I get too annoyed about it, okay?
– I’m surprisingly on board with Neal/Sara. I tend to think that Sara is actually the role model that a reformed Neal could follow (Peter will always be too high a standard to live up to), what with her job outwitting criminals and collecting large paychecks when she does, and the writers have done a good job bringing her around from the antagonistic shrew they introduced her as to someone who could actually sympathise with Neal’s situation. For a show I consider rather weak on the female character side, I was particularly pleased with the ‘I’m sorry’/’don’t be sorry’ moment because it just seemed… right. For both of them. That she’s as uncertain of herself as that, and that he would reject such a pretence.
– Peter grimly pouring a bucket of sugar, and no cream, into Neal’s ‘cream, no sugar’ was beautiful. As was every moment of them using each other’s role to highlight how wonderful they are (‘had it not been for Agent Burke here, I’d still be in prison. Rotting.’/’I know Neal seems intimidating, but he’s very useful in cases like yours. In fact I think he’s the single most valuable asset we have here at the Bureau’).
– I appreciated how very little effort Neal put into making his FBI badge. Nice grace note there that says Peter will be much less annoyed with him about it if it isn’t a good fake…
– I said I didn’t have time to write a lot, didn’t I…? Oops.