Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

White Collar: “Diminishing Returns”

Illustration for article titled White Collar: “Diminishing Returns”

If Freud was more patriarchal, he might have opined that if it’s not one bother, it’s your father. Small boys and grown men alike spend lifetimes measuring up to their proverbial “old man,” or in Neal’s case, dodging their messy personal history entirely. As we learn in “Diminishing Returns,” that cat-and-mouse game with his inherited past has defined our protagonist since he was barely old enough to write, let alone decipher nuances of left-handed signatures.

The final few minutes of this season’s third chapter—in which Ellen divulged the full story behind Neal’s father landing in prison for confessing to the murder of a fellow officer—were not only its most grounded and emotional, but also laid out a blueprint for the next several episodes to come. These revelations also pardon much of the two-part premiere’s shortcomings, since the larger narrative thrust is clearly aimed at resolving Neal’s past, not jeopardizing his future.

Does all this make it easier to swallow when Hughes ostensibly slaps Peter on the wrist with a probationary stint in the evidence room? Or that Neal is not only back with the Bureau, but allowed access to high-priority unsolved cases that date back years? Depends how badly you crave consequences for Burke and Caffrey. Chances are, not terribly. And perhaps that’s why the ongoing stolen-treasure fiasco was doomed to fizzle—White Collar needed to go inward, rather than use its success as a chance to reinvent the genre.

The best scenes in “Diminishing Returns” were between Neal and Peter, specifically the conversations in which Neal finally stopped hiding aspects of the past from his proven ally. Notably, he revealed that he grew up in Witness Protection with Ellen and his flaky mother under the alter-ego Danny Brooks. Or in other words, he’s never truly lived as Neal Caffrey. Even Caffrey’s actually his mother’s maiden surname. For the first time since Collar debuted, the two unlikely BFFs are operating with total transparency, personally and professionally, and we’re unspoken witnesses. Feels good, doesn’t it? It does to them, although only to an extent. Neal’s still struggling with the mystery behind dear dad’s shady arrest, and Peter’s doing hard time in the aforementioned evidence room, lorded over by the tyrannical Agent Patterson (Brett Cullen).

Some of the funniest and most cliché bits come from Peter’s new environs. When he first learns of the reassignment and forebodingly quips, “How bad can it be?” it’s almost inevitable that we’ll get the subsequent Evil Dead-like, panicked zoom on Peter and the avalanche of itemized boxes behind him. Although his consistently bitten lip in dealing with the overbearing Patterson provides charming comedic tension.

Meanwhile, back at FBI HQ, Neal’s swamped himself, but with files on David Cook, a suspected bank-and-jewel thief Peter had been hoping to re-investigate. The case itself gets comparatively scant airtime, which is only a shame since Cook is played by great character actor Michael Weston, best known as the terrifying psychopath who kidnapped, drugged and generally menaced poor David on Six Feet Under. Weston specializes in portraying a certain flustered, oddly loveable nut-job, and he’s fun to watch during his few scenes with Peter, who’s yet again breaking the rules and doing secret undercover work to nab Cook.


Elizabeth re-emerges as well and instantly answers any lingering questions about where she stands on her husband’s recent breaches of protocol. Naturally, she’s not only supportive of Peter’s escapades, but she also has useful info on which diamond shop Cook is imminently targeting. As she, her husband, Neal, and Diana hovered around the Burkes' living room, conspiring to get their con, it almost felt like the gang was back together. Except there was one key partner in absentia. Fortunately and unsurprisingly, Mozzie decided to seek comfort in he and Neal’s partnership and fly back to the mainland, just in time to assist “the suit” and pals in their little scheme.

This is both compliment and criticism, but it’s hard not to occasionally wonder what things might be like if there was no FBI affiliation, and all the major players were just part of some rogue, Scooby-Doo gang of Samaritans with a curious fascination for crimes of leisure. Alas, it’s a bit too late to rethink the premise, and “Returns” is a halfway-great episode that only partly functions to complete sweeping Cape Verde into the rear-view. If the rest of this season stays dedicated to Neal’s self-discovery, devises enough clever procedural scenarios to distract the characters and us, and ensures the female demo of continued, gratuitous shots of shirtless Bomer for no reason, White Collar might remain the sturdiest cable hour of its kind.


Stray observations:

  • You can’t help but chuckle at Caffrey’s ridiculous “you handsome bastard” glance at the mirror.
  • So, basically, Peter’s now the Collar equivalent of that lady in the basement on Dexter.
  • If the writers knew the Mets would be collapsing at this very moment, would they really have gone for yet another dig on the orange-and-blue?
  • A bit weird that gym-nut Cook habitually smokes, but we’ll let that slide. It was fun watching Peter up to his old tricks busting the real bad guys.
  • This show’s always good for some Easter Eggs, and it just so happens that Burke’s alias, Peter Morris, was the name of a Welsh baseball player for the Washington Nationals in 1883. A reach? Maybe, but as this script emphasizes, Peter is quite the baseball enthusiast.
  • Good thing Diana and her lady went ring shopping at one of the six locations serviced by that water-cooler company. Phew.
  • I picture a kid named Danny Brooks with more of a newsboy kind of look, but I guess fedoras will do.