RECAP: Free Neal Caffrey

Recap Free Neal Caffrey

I watch pretty much every show on the USA network. The 'USA formula' is fun, fluffy, and full of likable, eccentric, characters. Burn Notice , Psych , Suits , the dearly departed Monk . . . but there's just something about White Collar that makes it stand out from the rest for me. Last night's third season finale, titled 'Judgement Day,' was firing on all cylinders, and yeah that cliffhanger the cast has been teasing was a doozy. In fact, it's probably the most effective season-ender the show has ever done.

The episode is cleverly structured around Neal's ( Matt Bomer ) commutation hearing. Each act opens with an interview, as Neal's friends and 'co-workers' -- and Neal himself -- are asked one by one whether or not his sentence should be commuted, whether or not he should have that anklet removed once and for all. But the big underlying question behind it all -- and this is a question the show is asking as well is -- has Neal changed? Is it like Agent Kramer ( Beau Bridges , in a menacing turn) believes, once a con, always a con? Kramer is determined to sabotage Neal's hearing, both because he doesn't believe Neal has the right to go free, and because he wants to forcibly remove Neal back to DC so he can use Neal's talents for his own career gains. The weird thing about all this is that according to the letter of the law, Kramer is right. Neal is still a con-man, and he's committed many, many, many crimes that he has yet to be sentenced for, including the theft of the infamous Raphael that no one has ever been able to find. So Kramer goes after the Raphael.

And this is where that nifty thing called character development comes in. Over the past three seasons, Jeff Eastin has managed to evolve these characters little by little. So yeah, Kramer is technically right about Neal, but the show is positing a different, more grey interpretation of Neal's character. Neal has reached a place in his life where he doesn't want to run anymore, and he tells Mozzie ( Willie Garson ) so when Mozzie reminds him that he still has an out if he needs it -- it turns out Mozzie only returned half of the NAZI U-Boat treasure. The other half is hidden away, just waiting for the two of them to make their escape. But Neal doesn't want to escape. For the first time in his life, he has a sense of purpose, friends . . . a family, and those things outweigh any joy he might get from the con. As he tells Peter ( Tim DeKay ), it really doesn't matter to him if his sentence is commuted. Either way, he'll show up for work on Monday morning because that's where he belongs.

As for Peter, over the course of the show's three seasons (two years in the show's world), he's gone from the man who captured Neal, to Neal's partner and friend. He's been wavering back and forth on what he's going to say at Neal's hearing for the entire back half of season three: should Neal's sentence be commuted? Peter knows he stole the treasure, and Neal confessed his entire criminal history on their night of immunity. So does he follow the law or his own feelings about what is right? He finally comes to a decision while arguing with Kramer. He's angry that Kramer is interfering in his and Neal's life, and he angrily confesses that he believes Neal shouldn't be set free yet, that he should finish out the rest of his two year sentence -- but he shouldn't be imprisoned for the rest of his life. Obviously his personal feelings are getting in the way here. His love for Neal as a person, and his understanding that Neal is really not a bad guy -- and yeah, that Neal has changed -- means that Peter is willing to overlook all of Neal's crimes in favor of his own personal justice. As he tells Kramer, Neal acts like a criminal because no one has ever stopped treating him like one. In the real world, this argument would not fly -- but because it's Neal, and we know it's all based in truth, Peter's argument has emotional resonance for us. As it's always done, the show has fun implicating us as viewers with Neal's crimes. We want Neal to get away with it, but only because we feel he's earned it.

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So back to the Raphael. Kramer has decoded a bunch of Neal's old prison letters to Kate, and he's close to finding where Neal stashed it. He has a Main Street address, but no zipcode. In order to thwart Kramer, Neal decides to return the painting to its owners, and that makes Sarah ( Hilarie Burton ) very happy. She has the last piece of the puzzle, the zipcode, and she puts herself on the line to give Neal time to recover the painting and return it to her before Kramer catches on. Unfortunately, Kramer quickly surmises what the two of them are up to, and the only way Neal is able to evade capture is through the help of friends, including Sarah and Diana ( Marsha Thomason ), two women who both condemned Caffrey's actions, but now support him and even endeavor to conceal his criminal activity. It's like this sort of cosmic balancing act. As Neal becomes a better person, he corrupts everyone around him, you know, in a good and happy way.

But despite all the hullabaloo surrounding the recovery of the Raphael, Kramer still makes his move. Just as Peter is about to testify at the hearing, Kramer approaches him to say he's bringing Neal in anyway, for a host of other crimes, and that Neal will be going to DC. Peter accuses Kramer of acting out of revenge. While the two are arguing, Neal approaches from behind and sees the two of them. With a very slight shake of his head, Peter warns Neal off, and Neal knows it's over. It's a nice moment between the two of them, as they both implicitly understand that Peter is giving Neal permission to run away, and Neal instinctively knows that it's because he thinks there's no way Neal can win this time. So Neal cuts his anklet and boards a plane with Mozzie and his Hawaiian dashboard girl Lolana. It's actually kind of a beautiful sequence. In light of new events, Peter changes his testimony. Even as Neal is cutting his anklet and boarding that plane, Peter tells the inquiry that Neal's sentence should be commuted, that Neal Caffrey should be free. And of course, we know this isn't what he was going to say, but things are different now, because he really does believe Neal should be free, although maybe not in any sense that the inquiry or Kramer would understand.

The season ends on tragedy. Neal has finally escaped, but it's a hollow escape, and you can see it in Bomer's eyes that the price of freedom was a little too high for Neal this time, as he flies away from his new life, his new sense of purpose. And Peter -- who has spent a great deal of his professional life making sure that Neal Caffrey is brought to justice -- lets him go because he doesn't believe it will be justice that Neal receives.

I don't think anyone is positing that White Collar be included in the list of The Greatest TV Shows EVER or anything, but it's a fun show that accomplishes exactly what it sets out to. It's not afraid to move the status quo around and present its characters with new challenges, and it's allowed its characters to grow and change well within its procedural framework. Do I believe that this cliffhanger will forever ruin Neal and Peter's lives? No. Do I believe that somehow he will quickly be welcomed back into the fold at the beginning of season four? Yes. But I also believe that -- like the show has done in the past with other big changes like Kate's death -- these events will not leave the characters unchanged, and the show will be all the better for it. Can't wait for season four.