Season finale review: White Collar, “Judgment Day”

As I was watching last night’s White Collar season finale, I just wanted to re-link to the piece I wrote about the series six weeks ago. “Judgment Day” embodied most of the things that make White Collar so great: The plots twists and turns didn’t exist just because it was a finale, they instead worked to pay off a season’s (and really, a series’) worth of character development. And thankfully, the finale avoided the stingy cliffhanger problem that Collar has had throughout its run. Those final few moments, while frustrating, made sense on a narrative and character level. Sure, “Judgment Day” still fell victim to a little bit of USA Network-itis in that Peter has to chase Neal yet again, but again, the reasons behind why the story is headed in the way it is headed make a lot of sense.

The back-half of season three is probably the strongest stretch in White Collar’s young history. In the series’ post-Keller world, a big, bright end-point was introduced in Neal’s hearing and every episode in this run carried the characters and the narrative closer to that conclusion. Although I really love White Collar’s ability to craft a fun standalone episode about some priceless artifact, the series really works well when its primary concerns are the characters and their relationships with one another (shocking, right?) and these episodes are further proof of that fact.

Kramer poses a threat to Neal and Peter not because he wants some treasure or because he has captured someone’s star-crossed love. Instead, his goals are pretty simple: He admires Neal’s skills so much that he wants to use him as a tool in Washington D.C., and he’ll take any measure to get Neal there. White Collar has a tendency to make all its non-Peter FBI superior characters out to be obvious villains, but these last few episodes did a nice job of keeping Kramer out of that track. He is clearly the antagonist and by the end of the episode he is manipulating circumstances too much. However, his interest in Neal only reaffirms Mr. Caffrey’s great skills and reminds us of how respectful Peter treats him.

With the hearing in mind, many characters had to consider where they stood with one another. Neal’s journey to self-discovery encountered a few bumps during season two, but it’s been pretty clear that he wants to be a “good guy.” This string of episodes presented Neal with the circumstances that showed him what could be waiting for him on the other side of freedom. He told Peter the truth, he reconnected with Sara and he found himself caring about Diana’s wedding. By the time he makes it to the hearing in “Judgment Day,” I totally believe Neal’s speech about wanting to stick around New York, working for Peter and keeping the family unit in-tact. And unlike in the past, Neal only turns to criminal activity when it is absolutely necessary to protect those close to him, like Sara or Peter.

As Neal finally confirmed that he wanted to be the guy we can see that he already is, the other characters struggled with their feelings on Neal and his freedom. Peter has been covering for Neal ever since Keller kidnapped Elizabeth and he has also grown accustomed to having Peter around cracking cases and being a friend. These recent episodes got great mileage out of Peter wrangling over what he was going to say to the committee and “Judgment Day” forces us to wait until the last minute to actually hear Peter’s decision – and it still comes after he has aided and abated Neal countless times and more or less told him to run again.

Peter is smart enough to know that Neal running again is definitely a problem, but in the moment, his emotional attachment to Neal overtook him. Just as Neal’s grown to see Peter’s perspective, Peter now sees the world less in black and white. It is telling that although Peter gave Neal the go ahead, the latter was still broken up over the possibility of having to do so. Peter ultimately chose friendship over his job and now he’ll have to sacrifice more of his straight-laced lifestyle if he wants to keep Neal safe.

One of this episode’s strengths is how it didn’t let Neal off the hook for some of the things he has done. White Collar is a story where the past keeps influencing the present and with the various interviews, characters were given the opportunity to speak about Neal and his progression as a person. I liked how the interviews (with Sara in particular) mentioned that Neal is and can still be a pain in the ass, and sometimes even worse. The characters in this story have memories and although Neal is charming as hell and extremely “good” now, Sara and Peter remember the times when he wasn’t. For a story about a con man, this episode featured a whole lot of honesty. Neal wasn’t let off the hook.

As I’ve said time and time again, White Collar tends to struggle with its cliffhangers. Either they come out of nowhere or they undercut episodes and episodes of previous character development. Thankfully, the closing minutes of “Judgment Day” don’t do that. Neal choosing to stay, only to have Peter tell him to run is a cliffhanger dictated entirely by the characters and their connections with one another – and it all makes sense. It is now confirmed that Peter and Neal are on the same side, they just have to figure out how they are going to work together to avoid major consequences (and I’m sure they will because, c’mon, this is still a USA Network series).

Moving forward, White Collar could take this story a number of different directions. Jeff Eastin has said that next season will begin out of New York, which suggests that Neal will be on the run for at least a short period of time. I would bet that he and Peter will have to work to subvert Kramer (and perhaps get him in real hot water) and tension like that could force Peter to take even more illegal action. All in all, this was a very satisfying finale and a really strong close to the season. This is how a USA Network series’ season should finish. 

Other thoughts:

  • The mystery regarding Neal’s parents is very intriguing. It is curious to me that the series has waited this long to get into its lead character’s past in any substantial detail (not that Collar has avoided it completely, of course). I hope that A.) Season four spends some time focusing on Neal’s parents but B.) Doesn’t have his father be some surprising villain. No thanks there. 
  • Despite some very shoddy green-screen work, the Roosevelt Island sequence was really fun. White Collar makes great use of its NYC setting. 

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