Mid-season premiere: White Collar, “Burke’s Seven”

White Collar is a program that gets a good deal of mileage out of the general likability of its characters and the chemistry the actors have with one another. The overarching “mythology” of the series is not awful or completely muddled like the last few years of Burn Notice, but it’s also seemingly less important as well. Jeff Eastin and his team tried hammering home a certain kind of storytelling in season one with that terrible mid-season cliffhanger and thankfully they’ve backed away from nonsense like that ever since. And even then, the episode-to-episode narratives didn’t always hang together consistently.

But the first half of season two, which aired last summer, was fantastic. The writers figured out how to make white collar crimes more compelling on a procedural level — oftentimes by wrapping them up in “normal” crimes like murder and whatnot — and the chemistry between the whole cast, not just Matt Bomer and Tim DeKay, improved. Despite a goofy cliffhanger that I can’t really hate on because this is a USA series and there’s always some dumb finale bit that gets resolved in three minutes when the series returns, White Collar was good enough to make my top 25 of 2010. This is a big honor.

That’s all a long-winded way of saying that I’m super excited to have the White Collar crew back in my life. This is especially true for an episode like “Burke’s Seven,” which fully relies on the audience’s desire to simply watch Neal, Peter, Mozzie and company hang out, crack wise and catch bad guys. As the title suggests, this is an episode that uses every lead character in a fairly successful manner in hopes of bringing down not only the guy who shot Mozzie in the fall finale, but also his boss. Peter shows Neal that he can run a pretty great con/sting when the shooter Larson gets him suspended for evidence tampering, Jones finally gets to know what the hell is going on with the music box and Mozzie’s murder, Neal and Sara (returning Hilarie Burton) continue their flirtatious partnership and even Elizabeth gets a few good ideas in. It’s a full team effort to bring down Larson, including costumes, gimmicks and a whole lot of trickery. This kind of approach to the case is very Burn Notice-y but I don’t really care. When your series has a number of charming actors who look good in costumes or with aliases, it’s a good route to take.

Though it is the built-in framework, the series has been good at moving away from any sort of antagonism between Peter and Neal in season two. Instead of their mistrust in one another being a melodramatic plot device, they’ve figured out how to play it for light-hearted fun more often this season and I’m glad that continued here in an episode that could have gone off the rails otherwise. The two of them run into problems when they don’t trust each other and therefore it was great to see them both agree with the other’s logic throughout this episode. This is an obvious statement, but their partnership works well because Neal helps Peter let loose a bit and Peter forces Neal to play it straight more often and the series has been doing a great job of making sure the comfortability between DeKay and Bomer actually translates to a comfortability between Peter and Neal. Smart.

Moreover, I continue to gush over Hilarie Burton’s Sara Ellis. There seemed to be some weird backlash towards her in the summer episodes that I just didn’t understand and I hope that goes away after this episode because she is simply infectious in the role. I unfortunately watched all of One Tree Hill during its first six years and most of that probably has to do with Burton. She’s a surprisingly good performer, particularly when called upon to be both flirtatious and strong-willed. I would much rather see Neal try to unlock her mysterious brain than continue to mope over the seemingly lifeless Kate. Well, of course she’s lifeless, she’s dead. But living Kate sucked too.

On a macro level, there’s also a lot to live about “Burke’s Seven.” This episode introduced two major mysteries that I assumed would be the catalysts for a lot of nonsensical drama over the next half-dozen episodes. You know, because that’s what USA series do. And things started right down that path when the original baddie Larson started ranting about how he was hired by an EVEN BIGGER BAD GUY just as these kinds of series do. Then Mozzie started talking about how the music box code created an equation for “something” that I also assumed wouldn’t be figured out before the penultimate episode. But you know what? “Burke’s Seven” (sort of) handled both of them by the end of this episode! Larson’s boss is presumably the same guy who has patented use of this equation thing: Neal’s jedi master of crime, if you will. Not only do these reveals avoid any sort of delayed answers to questions we ultimately don’t really care about, but they allow the series to dive into Neal’s past, which has always been one of the most intriguing cards the series hasn’t played yet. This is exciting.

I’m willing to go out on a limb and say this is probably the best episode of White Collar yet. It not only rests on the casts charm and chemistry, but doesn’t worry about holding onto frivolous answers when the audience knows it will be moving on to something else right after. This is a smart episode and most importantly, a fun episode. So good to have White Collar back.

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