Mapping out a solid individual episode of a series these days can be just as challenging as scripting a feature-length film—maybe even more so. Like any movie worth its inflated ticket price, a memorable hour of television needs a theme that connects its characters and dovetailing scenarios, but it also needs to serve the show’s greater ongoing storylines. In the case of “Pulling Strings,” writer/story editor Channing Powell accomplished both those criteria deftly and entertainingly, even if the details of tonight’s actual con and the sideshow goings-on between Peter and his in-laws ranged from confusing to corny.
“Pulling Strings” is all about restoration. More pointedly, Neal looking to restore his freedom; Diana seeking to restore familiarity in her relationship with new fiancée Christie (Side note: That exchange between Diana and Jones about New York having just legalized gay marriage was a bit superfluous and “Characters Unite Month” PSA-ish, but whatever); token baddie Bailey Chase’s pursuit of a modified Stradivarius violin and stealthy new direction for his insurance-investigation firm (a particularly limp detail of the episode); Jones’ efforts to use fancy FBI technology and refurbish key security footage in the Stradivarius case (his Six Million Dollar Man reference is pretty funny); and Peter and Mozzie’s efforts to restore Peter’s disastrous birthday gift for Elizabeth and aid his tenuous relationship with father-in-law Alan (a not-at-all 78-year-old-looking Tom Skerritt).
Got all that? Excellent. Meanwhile, lurking G-man Agent Kramer (Beau Bridges, more or less looking 70 years old) is back to pester Neal once again and possibly impede his commutation. By episode’s end, he’s successfully intimidated Diana into all but implying through body language that she, Peter and Jones have covered for Neal’s transgressions. It doesn’t seem like his attempts to manipulate her into resenting Peter and the bureau for sticking her on constant Caffrey duty have taken hold, but it was smart to introduce the stress of her impending wedding to make it plausible if/when she eventually cracks. It’s hard not to root for Neal, and even more difficult to suspect that he might not go free. Still, those couple of scenes between Kramer and Diana, and Kramer generally playing both sides by cozying up to Neal, are a smart way to add intrigue to the season’s biggest question mark, and without eating into an already dense investigation into McKenzie and somewhat undercooked shenanigans at the Burkes’.
The biggest development in “Pulling Strings?” The possible, and inevitable, restoration of the couple formerly known as Neal and Sara (Hilarie Burton, finally returned and earning her spot in the credits). The good news: Her wardrobe is less blinding this go-round. The bad news: She seems to have gone on the Madonna diet, and her noticeably more sinewy frame is a bit off-putting (unlike the curvy-and-loving it Tiffani Thiessen, who looks awesome but was also bold for acquiescing to her character’s belly high white denim). Turns out that McKenzie is Sara’s boss and former fiancé, and she’s hired Neal and the boys to uncover why Bryan’s behind the theft of a centuries-old violin. Naturally, it’s so he can outfit it with a special fiber-thin string that doubles as some kind of doodad that will ascend his company to the threshold of tech-development superiority and can help build an elevator to space (seriously).
Something about Sara continues to feel just off. Her flirtation with Neal is a bit cold and contrived. Her one-liners and tepid euphemisms fall short of being either smoky or screwball-y, and it’s never exactly clear where her games end and the real woman begins, even though she’s always quick to reprimand Neal for his deceitful ways. Maybe she’s simply not a well-written romantic interest, or she started out as just a one-week foil, fans responded to she and Neal’s fleeting chemistry, and they’ve strained to make her integral to his future plans ever since.
Fortunately, Neal and Mozzie have a more relaxed and natural rapport than ever, and are very snappy and charming in their scenes together (Neal calling Mozzie out on categorizing them as “flim-flammers” is a highlight). And even though all the in-laws hoo-ha is a bit dull and keeps Peter and Neal apart most of the episode, it’s just as enjoyable watching Mozzie bail Peter out of awkward family drama and woo Elizabeth’s blowhard dad with fabricated tales of out-deconstructing Derrida. And if forced to break down “Pulling Strings” in a nutshell, it’s once again an example of the show’s terrific rotation of writers and producers flaunting just how good they’ve gotten at making White Collar tick, despite occasionally leaving audiences scratching their heads about exactly what the hell is going on.
- First Frankie Whispers, now Ari the Voice Box. Who’s next? Fritz The Cat?
- What does keep Neal in those fancy ties? If the FBI subsidizes him, it can’t be much more than a consultant’s actual base salary. Have they detailed this before and I missed it?
- Can you say wedding episode?!
- Neal wouldn’t “want to come face-to-face” with tai chi expert Chase “in a very slow fight.”
- Tom Skerritt stares. Reminded me of how Van Alden in Boardwalk Empire looms.
- The Dr. Huxtable line is a given, but is funny coming from Diana.
- Peter’s a “bad boy.” Ew.
- Sara really broke up with Bryan based on a difference of opinion in their company’s direction? What a weirdo.
- Wouldn’t Peter feel less pressure after Elizabeth hated her parents’ gift?
- Mozzie watches cat videos on YouTube. While drinking red wine.
- That agent Wesley = nerd alert.
- Was that Better Off Ted’s Malcolm Barrett as the ticket-taker?