USA’s White Collar begins season three this week with “On Guard.” As season two ends, Peter (Tim DeKay) is certain that Neal (Matt Bomer) steals the art off the German sub, then after putting his own paintings in place, blows up the warehouse. “On Guard” starts with Neal and Mozzie (Willie Garson) making their escape from Peter on a plane. Then the episode flashes back four days. Neal passes Peter’s lie detector test, claiming he doesn’t know who, if anyone, stole the art collection. Neal soon learns Mozzie is behind it, and is preparing for the two of them to leave the country with their bounty, despite this being a betrayal of Peter’s trust, which seems to evaporate anyway.
While Mozzie is getting ready, Peter puts Neal on an assignment, where Neal will help a criminal smuggle stolen money, and Peter will show up and arrest the perp. The plan falters when Jones (Sharif Atkins) is captured by the bad guy. Neal covers by providing Mozzie’s plane as a backup getaway plan. Mozzie is upset, but goes along with it so that Neal can save Jones’s life. Peter arrests the villain. Mozzie tells Neal that they must now sell a piece from their theft to pay for their next escape attempt. What they don’t know is that Diana (Marsha Thomason) has found a manifest, and Peter instructs her to look for anyone selling an item from the collection.
During all this, Peter has Elizabeth (Tiffani Thiessen) test the scrap of painting he finds near the burning warehouse. Mozzie and Neal get wind of this, and plot an elaborate scheme to get a hold of Peter’s sample before it goes to the lab. Neal recreates the same picture with period paint that Mozzie scrapes from their stolen artwork. Neal also repaints his own picture, the piece of which Peter finds, and is suspicious because of. With the test “confirming authenticity” of the burnt painting scrap, Peter appears to apologize and give Neal a break. Or does he?
Normally, an episode synopsis can be written in a single paragraph. In “On Guard,” that seems impossible, as so many important things happen. Which is appropriate for a season premiere such as this one. White Collar has gotten deeper and more exciting with each season, as it begins to unfold longer arcs, mysteries, and machinations in the struggle between the two main characters. One can be forgiven for believing Peter and Neal are almost best friends, until this episode. Now they are more suspicious of each other than ever.
Which sets up a really nice cat and mouse game that will likely go at least through the summer. Peter has caught and arrested Neal twice, the second time at the very beginning of the series. Thus far, White Collar has only shown them working together. Viewers will now be privy to what Peter is like when hunting Neal, and how Neal manages to evade him… until he doesn’t.
Has Neal fundamentally changed as a person over the first two seasons? It’s a debatable question. Perhaps the old Neal, who is strictly criminal, would never sacrifice a getaway with a huge treasure load for an FBI agent’s life. Or maybe because Neal is working with Jones, and they have a bond of a sort, Neal cannot let him die. It may be a different story if Jones was a stranger. Or maybe Neal is enjoying working with the FBI so much, being part of a team, having friends he can trust, he is looking for any excuse to call off Mozzie’s escape attempt. Only time will tell where Neal’s heart really lies, which keeps the series and the character interesting.