This week’s episode couldn’t have been titled anything other than “Compromising Positions.” From Neal and Peter straddling both sides of the law and Peter straddling Sara (more on that in a bit), to Mozzie’s identity nearly becoming public record and a federal prosecutor being extorted with incriminating photos, virtually all players get psycho-emotionally contorted. There was a noticeable step back from all the recent gravity of Ellen’s murder and Mozzie’s teary puppet-show dramatization of his orphaned abandonment. “Positions” is, at many turns, the funniest and broadest of just about any White Collar caper. It also continues to suggest that Neal might be more influential on Peter than the other way around. It’s a dynamic that corporate/political “fixer” Landon (Perrey “Mrs. Ari” Reeves of Entourage fame) cautions Agent Burke “will cost you everything.”
Only moments later, after the case had been closed, Neal heads out to “run an errand,” which is always thinly veiled Caffrey-speak for “do something afoul of the law.” You’d think Neal would be able to tell when Peter’s offering glib permission, particularly since he’s so good at predicting his partner’s interrogation techniques. Alas, he goes off to conspire with the elusive Sam (Treat Williams, bringing some gravelly mystery to the role), so obsessed with uncovering the truth behind his father’s imprisonment that he’s seemingly unaware of Peter’s justified suspicions.
It’s a genuinely interesting tension between the two leads, and one that’s begun to subvert their tepid bromance and speak to some very basic truths. To paraphrase the promotional tagline from Boardwalk Empire, you can’t be half a con man, or a part-time FBI authority. Peter’s become so consumed with protecting and reforming his consulting CI that he’s essentially abetted Neal’s own private fixations. Only Neal’s missions are neither from God nor the Academy. When Landon adds admiringly that Peter remains above the law while those around him break it, Neal’s subsequent clandestine meeting is a reminder that he’s no exception. And for our fedora-favoring hero, his first encounters with the shifty Sam reinforce that working with the law doesn’t necessarily make you safe.
The idea that Sam and Neal will expose bad apples within the good guys’ ranks, and that Sam himself still has to earn ours and Neal’s trust, is a solid enough foundation to really build from in the coming weeks. It won’t be satisfactory just to open with the continued fallout of Ellen’s death and then tack on a couple related minutes at the end to make things structurally sound. The pressure surrounding Neal’s search will need to be evident with increasing urgency, thereby simultaneously tightening the screws on he and Peter’s ethically ambiguous friendship. The superfluous cons ought to become even more incidental to the unresolved drama, and “Positions” hinted at a great start. By looping in Sara and integrating Landon as a kind of unlikely moral arbiter on the main characters’ actions, things already feel a bit more uncomfortable.
And as stakeouts go, this was one of the most entertaining of the season. That’s less because of the alleged crime being investigated—condo developer Victor’s (the talented Nicholas Turturro, here reduced to a lot of stock incredulous facial tics and crude crime-boss demeanor) attempts to manipulate environmental samples and hires Landon to extort the prosecuting attorney—than because of how it compromised the White Collar undercover operatives. Watching Neal and Elizabeth curate a staged, lusty photo shoot with Peter and Sara (it’s a long story, but involves counter-extortion) is almost unbearably humiliating for their subjects and uproariously enjoyable for Neal and Elizabeth. In the preceding scene, as they iron out who would watch and/or participate in this awkward lovers’ swap, there’s a snappy, old-timey exchange of double entendres that perfectly flaunts the show’s ease with classic screwball dialogue.
That terrific pairing of successive comedic set pieces begs for more of that physical humor and witty banter. Truth is though, Collar’s onto something pretty gripping right now. As always, the question is if it can double down on the conflict while making both Peter and Neal’s motivations clear and distinct. “Compromising Positions” inches closer to that ideal, and at least makes us laugh en route to what should eventually be an all-business conclusion.
- Jones is becoming quite the comic relief.
- Steve Tabernacle might Neal’s least believable-sounding alias, though he has used it with success.
- Zinger for Elizabeth, while trying to choreograph Sara and her husband’s hookup: “I feel like a limo driver—on prom night.”
- Of course Shepherd dines at Momofuku.
- Mozzie’s Parisian auto-diary. Classic. Would be surprised if excerpts weren’t already up on the show’s website.