“On the Fence,” is the penultimate of this season’s White Collar, which airs on USA. The series is trending somewhat serial this year, and this episode does much to help that along.
Neal’s (Matt Bomer) old partner, Matthew Keller (Ross McCall), returns. This time, he wants the Nazi treasure, figuring Neal must have it, considering Neal’s recent spending spree. The spree in question is from a recent episode where Neal spends a crook’s money, not his own, but Keller doesn’t know that. The problem is, Keller’s arrival interrupts Neal and Peter’s (Tim DeKay) attempted take down of artifact smuggler Raquel LaRoque (Eliza Dushku, Dollhouse, Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Add to that, Mozzie (Willie Garson) gets a little jumpy, and fences a piece of the Nazi treasure on the manifest Peter has to pay for an ordered hit on Keller. Keller escapes anyway, and now Neal and Mozzie may be exposed.
There’s a lot going on in this episode. Normally, it would be easy to complain that the case of the week interrupts the much more interesting arcs about Keller, Nazi treasure, Sara (Hilarie Burton) and Neal’s relationship issues, and Peter’s investigation into the stolen art. But with Dushku, viewers have no grievance, as she delivers her customary grippingly fun performance. Dushku takes what little screen time she gets, and spits out a fantastic, memorable performance. Then her character gets drawn into larger arcs, making her more valuable to the story. Her subsequent arrest, but Neal keeping her stolen item safe for her, opens the door for her return. Plus, with Neal newly single, she steals a steamy kiss right in the FBI office. Wonderful all around.
Of course, it’s hard to root for Neal and Raquel to get too close when Sara is still nearby. Burton’s recent upgrade to main character this season means she and Neal cannot be forever over yet. Her doubts about their relationship are not without foundation, but surely, she is figuring out just who Neal is by “On the Fence.” At the beginning of this episode, the couple is done. But after talking to Mozzie, Sara knows Neal’s feelings for her are real. And she knows Neal has the treasure, but isn’t selling it, even when he could be. She is going to realize that Neal doesn’t want to leave her or Peter or being a good guy behind. This sets up a reconnection for them, though it may be too late in the summer run for a happy ending by next week.
A nagging question is whether Neal will choose Peter or Mozzie. It’s definitely about the people and the life they represent, not the legality of the choices, that is dogging Neal. As far as Mozzie is concerned, Neal has made his decision, and that’s to stay with Peter. Keeping the manifest a secret is a severe betrayal against Mozzie, and the criminal is not happy about Neal’s actions. Will this mean the end of their partnership? Might it lead to Peter and Neal hunting down Mozzie? That would be an incredible twist, as long as there is some believable way to keep Mozzie in the fold. The series would be sorely lacking something without Garson’s brilliant, surprisingly nuanced, performance.
“On the Fence” is the first episode in a while where Neal seems to have one over on Peter. After Mozzie steals the art, dragging Neal into a dangerous act that he doesn’t want, Neal is watching his back. Peter suspects Neal and Mozzie, and while hoping he’s wrong, is keeping a close eye on their activities. This puts Peter in a position of power over his partner, who is playing defense. But in “On the Fence,” Neal not only gets to play the Raquel case his way, he also takes the offensive when trying to trap Keller. His decision to keep the manifest a secret gives him renewed confidence, and lets him take control in that area as well. As such, Neal is back in a grand way, rather than hiding scared.
White Collar‘s summer season ends next Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on USA.