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Monday, October 21, 2013

WHITE COLLAR finds a way to go on, but "At What Price"?

Article first published as WHITE COLLAR finds a way to go on, but "At What Price"? on TheTVKing.

The fifth season premiere episode of USA's White Collar asks "At What Price" is it OK to break the law. Basically, Peter (Tim DeKay) is in jail and Neal (Matt Bomer) gets him out of trouble. But to do so, Neal has to reach out to an old rival, who demands a high price in return. Peter suspects something fishy, but can't prove it, eroding the truth between the guys.

Not that things between Peter and Neal have been great for awhile. They did get to the point where their friendship seemed solid a couple of years ago, prior to the Nazi treasure incident, but ever since then, they haven't been able to find stable ground. Neal tries very hard to be a good man, but does cross the line from time to time. And Peter, as much as he is personally fond of Neal, has a high moral standard he must uphold, which Neal does not live up to, so they just can't get in sync.

Peter does not uncover Neal's wrongdoing in "At What Price," but strongly suspects the truth - that Neal has found a way off of his anklet, and stole gold coins. Now, Peter is at the point where he does believe Neal would only do this with a good reason, and so doesn't dig hard to find out the truth, knowing it would spell the end of them working together. But he does take measures to make sure it can't happen again.

Neal, for his part, is being sneaky. I'm not saying he shouldn't have saved Peter, being the only one in the position to do so. Yet, Neal has to know he can't be honest with Peter about this, and every lie between them, no matter how well intentioned, further erodes their connection. It's a bit depressing and frustrating.

Peter's solution to their fragile arrangement is to assign Neal a new handler. Who that will be, we do not know yet. However, this will shake up the dynamics of the cast. Will this new person be someone who catches Neal in his tricks, thus ending the premise of the series? Unlikely. That means they will seem dumb compared to Neal, a near-certainty since Peter is the only equal Neal has, the one man who could catch him. This makes for an uneven partnership that cannot last.

The other option is that Neal's new partner will be a bad guy whom Peter and Neal must team up to fight. But this has been done so many times, it would be disappointing to see White Collar go there again.

That leaves no obvious good options. Whether Neal's new partner is smart, dumb, or evil, none of these scenarios will make for a good story. Peter could assign Neal to Jones (Sharif Atkins) or Diana (Marsha Thomason), but that seems like it would defeat the purpose of putting emotional distance between Neal and his handler, since they know Neal, too, even if they don't have the friendship Peter has with the criminal. I must say, despite the new direction this could provide, it's hard to get enthused about the turn.

I do want to see what happens when Peter begins to uncover more of Neal's secrets. Generally, this finding out Neal did wrong sparks disappointment from Peter. Because Neal saved Peter's career, though, he will have earned even greater affection from Peter's wife, Elizabeth (Tiffani Thiessen), and that could put a strain on Peter's marriage if Peter seeks to punish Neal for actions that led to Peter's freedom. The alternative, the Peter stays in the dark, is even worse, as Peter would begin to lose credibility. "At What Price" walks that fine line of Peter not quite catching Neal, but leaving viewers suspecting that he could. This is the balance White Collar needs to maintain.

There are some really fun bits for Mozzie (Willie Garson) in "At What Price." He is sometimes wasted on the show, but watching him load gold into a baby carriage or try very, very hard to bite his tongue about conspiracy theories being real, is hilarious. I wish he were used this well every week.

It's also pleasing that the foe from Neal's past whom Neal works with Curtis Hagen, a.k.a. The Dutchman (Mark Sheppard). Sheppard is a terrific character actor who is welcome on any show, and because he was in the "Pilot" of White Collar, it nicely ties back to the series' roots. I hope his arc is longer than a couple of episodes, even if it causes a lot of trouble for the plot.

I am not sure why I am so unsatisfied with White Collar at present. "At What Price" is a fun and intriguing episode. Yet, I can't help put feel that they traded one easy escape for situations where more will be needed. I hope I am surprised and the show manages to deftly be brilliant, but there are so few signs that it can be right now. It's like the premise is almost played out, and any way to go from here will be forced. I feel bad having these doubts, since I like the series, but can't shake them after watching this premiere.

White Collar airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET on USA.

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