Today I shall take time out of my busy schedule (attempt to do something related to moving house; feel exhausted; collapse on sofa) to check in on White Collar once again after another 4 episodes. I considered leaving this review until the mid-season break in another 2 episodes’ time, but a) I want to speculate and b) next week I’m offline so will be late catching up on the mid-season finale.
Therefore, thoughts on Neal’s inner angel and demon after the jump…
…the angel being Peter and the demon being Moz, I think. On the one hand, that seems like exaggeration – Peter’s not perfect and Moz is certainly not evil – but on the other hand, they’re playing those roles more consistently than they have in previous seasons, and it interests me how they’re being used to sway Neal’s plans and emotions.
Peter is obviously Neal’s shining light, the person who believes he can be a law-abiding force for good in the world, and he has lost a lot of what might not have appealed so much to Neal at the start as we’ve gone along. A lot of that has been slow-burning, with him slowly unbending more and more regarding the rules, Neal’s criminal tendencies and general spontaneity when working a case, but ‘Veiled Threat’ tweaked a part of Peter’s character that’s always irked me into something much more pleasing and much more Neal-aligned: his behaviour around women who are not Elle. They haven’t totally rewritten his character, but watching him approach the speed-date as a case, scouting out weaknesses beforehand and presenting a much more appealing picture than Neal’s shallow charm was deeply enjoyable to watch. Having him as someone who does not lack charm but simply does not rely on it as much as Neal does makes him a much more interesting foil, to me. So here we are, in a position where he is not quite someone Neal would ever aspire to be – still rather strait-laced, enjoying the simple pleasures of life – but definitely someone he can respect and whose good opinion matters deeply to him.
Moz, on the other hand, is being very cleverly written and played such that he is clearly pushing Neal in the wrong direction, but has not gone so far as to be unlikeable. He’s misguided, certainly, but he’s doing what he thinks is best for his friend. It’s hard to tell where there is a little bit of selfishness in there too – whether he simply wants Neal as his own friend with no other loyalties – but he’s certainly not letting himself care about Neal’s issues with leaving or suggest any compromise. (Surely an obvious option would be to wait another year and a bit until Neal is free of his tracking anklet? That would make immediate pursuit considerably less likely, and allow him to keep his own identity so long as they could keep themselves far enough removed from the fencing of the stolen items that nothing could be proven.) His irritation with Neal half-confessing he doesn’t want to leave was clearly played to put him in the wrong as far as the audience is concerned – he just doesn’t want to hear it. He says that ‘this isn’t who we are’ but doesn’t offer an alternative other than ‘we are people with money on a Pacific island.’ Which sounds nice, obviously, but doesn’t help Neal in the slightest with his current dual identity, neither of which is that person (yet).
So where does that leave Neal? Stuck between the two of them, swinging back and forth a bit like an erratic pendulum with some sort of magnetic charge that varies according to the time of day. He seems to follow Moz mostly out of habit, with a goodly helping of loyalty thrown in, and probably underneath it all an unstated certainty that being a con-man is his calling. If he had stayed in prison until the end of his original 4-year term, I don’t think there’s even a hint that he wouldn’t immediately have picked up where he left off – just with a little more caution and cynicism, perhaps. If asked to his face, I think he’d still aver that he’s a natural criminal and is merely held in check by his tracking anklet. (Can you tell that I just really wanted to use the word ‘aver’ there? It’s a nice word.) But his inner conflict has certainly ramped up a gear this season thanks to the possibility of imminent escape and millionaire-dom, and it’s beginning to show on the surface in intriguing ways. On the one hand he goes along with all Moz’s plans unquestioningly, he seems not to notice when he describes his current existence to Jones as the definition of having it all, and he tells Peter to his face that he never hit rock bottom and by extension has never wanted to stop being a con artist. But on the other hand… well, he does that last one. He has been flagging up to Peter that something is not right all through these episodes, making occasional meaningful statements about how it’s hard to say goodbye and generally acting like someone to whom every little reminder that he and Peter work well together is a little saddening. It finally crossed my mind last week, as he sat across the table from Sara cueing up the treasurecam, that Neal wants to be caught this time. His actions over the last three episodes in particular make that evident – that he would honestly try to convince Scott to turn himself in, that he would make it quite so evident to Sara that he’s thinking of running (and that he would keep the knowledge that Sara now definitely knows too much to himself, not telling Moz as far as we know), that his only moment of enthusiasm regarding the treasure was when he realised Peter still had a copy of the manifest and it became a simple contest of wits for him to find it – all actions pointing towards a Neal whose found family is far more important to him than the lure of money and the high life. If there was a way for Peter to catch him and take away temptation without putting him back in prison or implicating Moz, I honestly think Neal would breathe a sigh of relief and be subconsciously grateful.
The question in my mind is whether the show will let him get off that lightly. I’m hoping it doesn’t – I’m hoping it forces him to face himself and admit consciously that, given the choices he has in front of him right now, he’d rather stay and serve out his time than betray his friends and uproot his life again. The phone conversation between him and Peter at the end of As You Were had me almost punching the air with joy for the tiny step it took in that direction. Obviously it was lovely to hear Peter haltingly offer to be there for him, to help him if he can, because Tim DeKay can make Peter super-adorable, and Matthew Bomer also absolutely nailed the guilt, uncertainty, regret and confusion on Neal’s face as he was forced to confront exactly what he was doing, but above and beyond that we finally had Neal taking some responsibility, some agency for his criminal actions back from Moz. Choosing to withhold information from him – it’s a minor thing, really, but it shows Neal wanting this to be his choice, wanting to stand independent of his two competing mentors and decide which person he wants to be. Unfortunately for him, neither of them is going to let him forget that they both see themselves as the person in the lyric I’ve quoted as the title of this blog (from ‘Being Alive,’ a song from Company which is rather more about love really but hey – heterosexual life partners count too), and he’s not going to have spare time to sit around on his own and ponder the choice.
Whether he’ll choose right? Well, that’s where it comes down to more pragmatic television concerns, I suppose. There’s no show if Neal’s a) back in prison b) in hiding on a Pacific island or c) a tame FBI puppy-dog. There’s particularly no conflict for the end of next year as he approaches the end of his sentence if he completely sides with Peter now, so I don’t expect that. I expect some form of halfway house solution, involving returning at least some of the treasure (the obvious option would be everything on the manifest), and probably using Sara to grease the wheels of doing so. But I’ve never been great at predictions, and honestly I’ll allow the complete opposite of that so long as Neal is conscious of the choice he’s making and faces up to the consequences of it.