Two installments into this summer’s action, it’s safe to say White Collar has sprung back to form after an uneven, overly ambitious second season. And for an episode that hinged on decoding arcane puzzles involving sundials, fake wills and bogus forgeries of priceless manuscripts by Danish astronomer Tyco Brahe, “Where There’s a Will” is a conspicuously interpretable title.
There’s not a ton to gripe about beyond that discrepancy. On the heels of last week’s superlative, series-best “On Guard,” tonight’s follow-up was nearly as riveting and twice as fun. With Peter and Neal still silently matching wits and suspicions over the stolen Nazi-sub art, the pair gets back to business as usual, trying to settle a dispute between brothers Josh and James Roland (real-life siblings Chris and Danny Masterson, the latter initially appearing almost unrecognizable) over their wealthy father Nathaniel’s bogus will. The late, eccentric patriarch, whom Neal describes as Howard Hughes-esque, has outlined an elaborate treasure hunt across the city that will lead to their actual inheritance. Unfortunately for all involved, daddy’s head security man (a typically creepy Bill Sadler) has some sour grapes over being denied a loan to help float his business, and decides to kidnap Danny Masterson’s daughter Savannah in exchange for the loot Nathaniel left behind.
Phew. Got all that? I didn’t see the abduction coming, and it threatened to overcomplicate an intriguing premise, but I love what a craggly asshole Sadler can be (best demonstrated during his crotchety participation in Project Greenlight), and his emergence as the episode’s villain was probably less contrived than Scooby-Doo-ing one of the Mastersons as having orchestrated the crime. I also found myself needing some more background on Nathaniel, rather than just taking Neal’s Howard Hughes exposition as a guarantee of his eccentricity. I mean, the scavenger hunt made for super-cool viewing, but unless the guy was batshit crazy, paranoid or both, would he
really have turned his kids’ inheritance into an excuse to play the world’s most challenging game of hide the Afikoman?
Elsewhere among the cast, Tiffani Thiesen, fully returned from last year’s pregnancy, continued to play more of an instrumental role, providing Peter with an investigative ally to offset Neal’s partnership with Mozzie. And oh, poor Mozzie, the butt of multiple jokes Peter rat-a-tated out at the expense of his height. But for the first half of this episode, anyone in Tim DeKay’s way was going to get plowed out of the scene. Never before has the veteran character actor seemed so self-assured on-screen (during Tell Me You Love Me, he seemed downright frozen). Whether childishly envying Neal for embarking on the treasure hunt or slyly reminding Mozzie that he’s constantly inside his head, Peter was flat-out funny and nimble, and kept the first 20 minutes on its toes when the whole good will-hunting shenanigans could have gone either way.
But alas, let us not forget the arrival of Collar’s latest recurring guest star—and another potential female distraction for Neal—the great Anna Chlumsky, aka the actress formerly known as My Girl Vada Sultenfuss. Hot off guest stints on 30 Rock and sibling USA drama Covert Affairs in the past few years, the Chlums-ter pops up as D.C.-based FBI agent Melissa Matthews, whom Peter’s recruiting on the sly to look into the stolen Nazi art and make sure Neal’s not up to something. “Where There’s a Will” concludes, naturally, with Neal posing as an Interpol agent, sidling up by a liquored up Melissa and wooing enough info from her to deduce that he and Mozzie are, like McCaulay Culkin in My Girl, poking at a beehive and about to get stung.
The fresh start showrunner Jeff Eastin and his writers have opened up for themselves after two long seasons of booby-trapped, tenuously connected storylines has really put this series back on track. There’s a palpable excitement to watching Neal/Mozzie’s cat-and-mouse game with Peter (and now Melissa), the open-and-shut cons are off to a great and original start, and DeKay and Matthew Bomer’s chemistry as colleagues is still sharp—their detective work makes Linden and Holder on The Killing look like they’re searching for Carmen Sandiego—even if they are indeed on guard around each other outside of case work. And while the Mastersons, Sadler and Chlumsky may amount to a ragtag lot if there ever was one, it’s great to see the level of featured talent rising to the central leads' genuine star presence. There is reason to be skeptical about how rewarding the endgame to all this will be, but to restate how I left off last week, it’s starting to look as if White Collar has regained its stride and could have serious legs.
• To use another Killing analogy, Sara is starting to feel like this series’ Bennett. Although I’m assuming they’ll put her more front and center in the coming week. (I still can’t believe that’s the same Hilarie Burton who hosted TRL, or understand how she looks 47 in this show.)
• I wish James Rebhorn was a more consistent presence in the cast. Love that guy.
• White Collar isn’t always as subtle as Caffrey himelf, but Neal’s foreshadowing glance at Gelles as the agents carried him away in cuffs was a nice touch.
• On a similar note, I like that Peter’s scene with Savannah in the beginning wasn’t a
throwaway. Action and banter no longer need to be separately developed on this show.
• Is it time to start the “Give Jones more to do!” Facebook petition yet?
• Awesome location scouting, re: the Planetarium, and great use of the space. So to speak.
• “Did you know that Tyco Brahe kept a bald clairvoyant dwarf named Jepp?”
• “Honey, do you wanna go grab some mirrors and go play with Neal?” “Yes!”
• And yes, I tried to locate various iterations of KidnappedSavannah.com, and no, it
doesn’t appear to exist.