Dangerous “Family Business”: White Collar Mid-Season Premiere Review
After far too long a hiatus, White Collar returned to our screens last night with an episode that provided some much-needed closure to one season-long storyline, while uncovering a plot with even more deceipt and mystery.
A tense relationship between father and son plays a major part in this episode, as Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer) is still reeling in the wake of the unsurprising reveal at the mid-season break that “Sam” (guest star Treat Williams) was actually Neal’s father James all along. Bomer and Williams do an excellent job portraying two damaged men; Neal’s guarded expression shows his reluctance to trust the father who deceived him, and James is convincingly tentative as the guilt-ridden father who is afraid of being rejected by his son. Neal’s FBI partner/handler (and sometimes protective surrogate father) Peter Burke (Tim DeKay) is also unsure of James, who lied to them all about his identity and claims that he was framed for the murder that ruined his career and sent his family and his partner into Witness Protection over thirty years ealier. Sepia-toned flashback scenes show a happy family (with cute three-year-old Neal wearing his policeman father’s uniform hat … awwww!), before a foolish theft by James allowed his corrupt supervisor to blackmail him into working for the Flynn family of Irish mobsters. When Peter and Neal tell James that Dennis Flynn, Jr., the son of the mobster he used to work for, is who they believe killed James’ former partner Ellen, James is determined to help bring Flynn down.
The FBI has evidence that Flynn is attempting to re-enter the family whiskey business, but he’s doing it through counterfeiting high-end liquor (and not very well, as Neal and Agent Jones find out with a quick taste test during the briefing). Neal is an expert at alcohol counterfeiting (“Of course your resumé includes whiskey counterfeiting,” says Agent Berrigan), and he convinces Peter to allow him to inflitrate Flynn’s operation.
Willie Garson delivers his usual delightful performance as Mozzie, enthusiastically helping Neal with the flavor forging while insisting that they “taste the wares … repeatedly,” in a thinly veiled attempt to get Neal drunk enough to talk about his daddy issues. Despite Mozzie’s prodding Neal remains hurt and broody, and not just about his father. He is upset that Peter wants to arrest Flynn only for distribution of counterfeit whiskey rather than for Ellen’s murder.
With a little help from Peter’s event-planner wife Elizabeth (Tiffani Thiessen), Neal is soon installed in a booth at a micro-distillery tasting event, where he easily convinces Flynn of his counterfeiting prowess. Flynn, however, doesn’t seem willing to hire the apparently legitimate businessman Neal is portraying … that is, until Elizabeth ad-libs a confrontation accusing Neal of forging his distillery license, convincing Flynn that Neal might be his kind of people after all, and causing Peter to brag “My wife saved the sting!” (Tiffani Thiessen is always enjoyable when she shows up, but it’s even more rewarding in episodes like this, when Elizabeth has a believable role in the story.)
Urged by Mozzie, Neal reluctantly accepts a dinner invitation to Elizabeth and Peter’s that James is also attending. James is concerned about Neal going undercover with the Flynns, and tries to warn Neal how dangerous they are. He tells the story of how he was framed for murder by Dennis Flynn, Sr., who kept a whiskey box behind his bar that contained a gun he had used to kill a cop. James says Ellen had evidence that will clear him, but Neal stubbornly refuses to believe him on just his word.
Neal shows up for work at Flynn’s distillery and gets right to work counterfeiting the family whiskey, complete with providing a person to forge the perfect hand-blown glass bottles: Mozzie, who is more muti-talented than we have even imagined! Neal gets recklessly enthusiastic while trying to uncover evidence, and discovers a whiskey box containing a pistol behind Flynn’s bar. Neal is sure that the gun is the one that killed Ellen, and he’s now convinced his father is telling the truth.
Peter, who is not happy with Neal playing fast and loose, enters the operation himself by posing as a member of a rival mob family interested in distributing the counterfeit whiskey, consulting James for information on the mobster he plans to impersonate. After Peter leaves, James tells Neal that the Flynns were actually working for the cops, and that he was threatened by someone very high up in the Police Department who said he would kill Ellen, Neal, and Neal’s mother if James didn’t plead guilty and turn State’s Evidence against Flynn. If Flynn is captured, Neal says, they may be able to uncover the conspirators and James can finally come out of hiding.
Later at Flynn’s distillery, Peter shares a drink of Neal’s whiskey (poured from Mozzie’s work-of-art blown bottle) in the office bar. Flynn lets it slip that since he now has surveillance footage showing exactly how the counterfeit work was done, he is planning to kill Neal and Mozzie. Peter gives the signal for the FBI to send reinforcements, and grabs the pistol from the whiskey box to stop Flynn. Neal brilliantly foils Flynn’s gunmen through the creative use of an exploding bottle of whiskey (BOOM!) and Flynn is taken into custody. Peter is satisfied that his recorded conversation, along with the recovered gun, will be enough for charges of attempted and actual murder against Flynn.
James’ information about a highly placed conspiracy seems to be confirmed, though, when Flynn is soon murdered by another jail inmate, despite only a few people knowing he was in custody. Peter is concerned that with a plot this deep it will be hard to keep James safe, and urges Neal to have his father leave New York while they locate Ellen’s evidence to prove his innocence.
The final scene between Neal and James is heartfelt and poignant. Matt Bomer is anguished as Neal begs his father to leave town. James refuses, insisting “I’ve left you too many times,” but Neal interrupts, “They got to Ellen, they got to Flynn, and they almost got to you.” Neal finally convinces James to go to a safe house of Mozzie’s, but before his father leaves Neal blurts out, “I want you to a be a part of my life.”
Treat Williams plays this exchange perfectly, as the tough guy veneer finally cracks and James pulls his son into a long-overdue hug. With tears in their eyes, both men seem incapable of saying the words “Good bye,” and Neal flashes back to his three-year-old self, standing at the door as his father leaves for work.
“Bye Dad!” Little Neal waves, and his handsome young father smiles. “See you soon, buddy,” he says as the door closes. (Oh my goodness. I definitely need more tissues.)
The fourth season of White Collar continues to demonstrate some of the best writing and acting currently on television. After three seasons of mostly lightweight caper stories, the emphasis on deeper character interaction this season is a welcome change. And while there’s still plenty of the twisty plotting and humor that originally drew us in, we’re now even more invested in finding out what happens next!
Don’t miss White Collar, Tuesdays at 10 ET/PT on USA.