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.
Will Mozzie leave Neal behind if Neal chooses to stay with Peter and the others? Mozzie engages in far more criminal activities than Neal currently does. While Neal mostly leaves his previous profession behind, or generally uses it to help the feds, Mozzie still routinely breaks laws, or so it can be assumed. How else would he maintain his network of contacts? Neal may be ready to settle down, but Mozzie is definitely not as season three begins. If Neal chooses to stay, he has a big project in convincing Mozzie to do so, too. Otherwise, Mozzie may leave the series before long.
Peter is more devious in “On Guard” then in virtually any other episode of White Collar to date. Not only does he suspect Neal and blatantly confront him, but Peter also makes secret backup plans with Diana. Peter makes nice with Neal after the painting scrap passes the test. But Peter knows Neal well enough to figure Neal could pull off a switch if he wants to, and Peter may be none the wiser. It’s a healthy degree of suspicion, and one not undeserved by Neal. However, it’s also a darker side of Peter than usually exhibited. Peter has fun toeing the line with Neal occasionally, but seeing him acting so two faced is relatively new.
The stakes in the game between Neal and Peter, as well as all the people they care about, have certainly never been higher. With these behind the scenes maneuvers coloring every word they say or decision they make, this season will surely be the most exciting yet!
The plot device of beginning a story at the end, and then working back up to those events has become cliche and tired. It often spoils a twist, or is just plain unnecessary. Yet, in “On Guard,” it is brilliant, and builds fantastic suspense. It is hard to believe what is being seen as the new season of White Collar begins and it seems like Mozzie and Neal are fleeing Peter. Yet, there is no other ready explanation of the scene. As the events of the episode unfold, all hints point to initial judgements being correct. It is very late in the hour before it’s clear that the beginning is a fake out. As such, this is the best example of the hook that comes to mind, and it is welcome when used to such good effect.
The case of the week story seamlessly lends itself to the larger arcs, which makes it feel a part of the larger episode, not forced in just to fit a formula. Take note, procedurals and other USA dramas. This is how it’s done.
White Collar continues its third season Tuesday nights at 9 p.m. ET on USA.