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Taxis, Fraud, and All That Jazz: White Collar “Empire City” Review

By on February 6, 2013
Willie Garson as Mozzie the cab driver (Image © USA Network)

Willie Garson as Mozzie the cab driver (Image © USA Network)

White Collar took a break from its somewhat angsty seasonal arc for a lighthearted and mostly standalone episode last night with “Empire City,” which saw Peter, Neal, Diana, and June going undercover in Harlem’s legendary Cotton Club to uncover a fraud scheme. In addition to the fun of learning that Mozzie drives a taxi (who knew?), it was particularly enjoyable to hear Diahann Carroll, as Neal’s landlady June, crooning some lovely jazz standards in this entertaining but unlikely plot, which was directed by star Tim DeKay.

Mozzie (Willie Garson), as it turns out, has somehow procured a legitimate NYC taxi medallion with entirely legal paperwork (that is, if you ignore the false identity that it’s registered under), which is extremely useful for gathering information on his various schemes. As we discovered last week in “Brass Tacks,” the mysterious key from Ellen’s evidence box (which could bring down the officials responsible for framing Neal’s dad) is actually a representation of a NYC skyline, and Mozzie is helping to find its exact location by ferrying Neal around New York in his cab.

While driving Neal (Matt Bomer) back from yet another dead end in the search for the elusive skyline, Mozzie is outraged to discover a yellow cab with his own taxi medallion number (which he paid an enormous sum of money to purchase) and he pursues the other cab in an adrenaline-charged vigilante chase over Neal’s plaintive objections (“Can you at least turn off the meter?!”). Not surprisingly, the chase ends with Mozzie in handcuffs after running five red lights, and Peter (Tim DeKay) is called to help sort out the mess, where he finds Mozzie has a legitimate complaint (if not a legitimate ID).

Neal and Mozzie (Matt Bomer, Willie Garson) are confronted by Peter Burke (Tim DeKay) (Image © USA Network)

Neal and Mozzie (Matt Bomer, Willie Garson) are confronted by Peter Burke (Tim DeKay) (Image © USA Network)

“Hal Hoover is just a guy trying to make an honest living!” Mozzie protests, on behalf of his fake identity.

“He’s neither honest, nor living,” Peter points out in reply. Good guy that he is, though, Peter gets Mozzie off with a fine, and agrees to pursue the case of the stolen taxi medallions.

Posing as an agent of the Taxi & Limousine Commission (TLC), Peter visits Luke Dusarque, the owner of the company where the fraud taxi is located. With information from the company’s trip logs and the fake taxi’s GPS, Peter, Neal, and Mozzie find a probable location for the illegal medallion sale: The famous Harlem nightclub the Cotton Club, which is being prepared for a grand re-opening by brothers Delman and Angelo Wells. Delman, it turns out, is an ex-con, and Angelo works at (drum roll) the TLC!

What follows is a convoluted and hilarious ruse to infiltrate the Cotton Club for evidence in the TLC medallion-selling scam. Peter and Neal introduce themselves to Delman as entertainment industry moguls representing 60s jazz singer June Ellington (how terribly convenient to have a classic jazz singer available for this sting!), and they try to convince Delman to hire June to sing at the club’s big opening event. Peter’s wife Elizabeth is able to lend her event-planning expertise to the team again this week, as she spots the financial discprencies in the Cotton Club’s books (not nearly enough linens for the reported headcount! Where’s that money going?) and Agent Diana Berrington (Marsha Thomason) gets hired as one of the club’s sexy cigar girls, allowing her to locate the safe in Delman’s office. The safe oh-so-fortuitously turns out to have a voice-activated lock (released by a line from “Harlem on my mind” sung by Delman, and conveniently recorded by the FBI van when Diana’s bug picks it up). It’s apparent from listening to their conversation that Angelo has another medallion sale scheduled with Dusarque, to take place during Friday’s opening night. It’s also clear that Delman is ignorant of Angelo’s plans, but if the evidence is found in his safe Delman will be the one arrested.

June (Diahann Carroll) belts out the standards at Harlem's Cotton Club (Image © USA Network)

June (Diahann Carroll) belts out the standards at Harlem’s Cotton Club (Image © USA Network)

Neal comes up with a plan to replace the actual medallion in Delman’s safe with one made of ice, which looks identical but will melt just a few minutes (ensuring that Dusarque will confront Angelo in the club). We’re treated to a wonderful montage of Neal working his magic on the frozen fake medallion, accompanied by Diahann Carroll’s beautiful voice as June and Mozzie get to work in the recording studio to make a demo LP for Delman (which will secretly hold a hidden track of Delman’s musical safe-opening phrase).

The plan comes together for the big opening, with a few requisite rocky moments (of course). While June sings “Harlem on My Mind” as her opening number, Neal plays the hidden track on her LP to open Delman’s safe, and swaps the frozen medallion for the real one. Diana stalls Delman in the hallway long enough for Neal to escape through the transom (whew!), and the exchange is made. When Dusarque tries to leave he finds his tires slashed; Mozzie then picks Dusarque up in his own cab, only to feign engine trouble until Dusarque notices the melted medallion. Dusarque storms back into the club and demands the real medallion … but this time the exchange between Angelo and Dusarque is witnessed by several FBI agents. And all of this is accompanied by June’s fine belting redition of “Some of These Days”!

With Angelo and Dusarque taken down, the search for the key’s skyline resumes. Acting on a hunch, Neal returns to a pier in Queens where he used to watch the sunset, before being caught by Peter and sent to prison. Peter, meanwhile, is tracking Neal’s movements from his electronic anklet readout, and can see exactly where he is. With Jones’ help, Peter finds a view of the skyline from Neal’s pier. Unbeknownst to each other, Peter and Neal discover the secret at the same time: the skyline matches the key, and the key points to the Empire State Building!

There’s a lot to like about this episode. In addition to the fun character moments and twisty plot that we’ve come to expect from any episode of  White Collar, the show’s New York City setting is particularly highlighted this week. Tim DeKay’s love of the city is apparent in his direction of the episode, and it’s gratifying to see the location used to such full effect. From the yellow cabs, to the smoky nostalgia of the Cotton Club, to the sweeping city skylines, “Empire City” is a homage to everything New York.

Mozzie (Willie Garson) and Neal (Matt Bomer) discover the key's secret (Image © USA Network)

Mozzie (Willie Garson) and Neal (Matt Bomer) discover the key’s secret (Image © USA Network)

What does that NYC icon, the Empire State Building, mean in the search for Ellen’s evidence box? And who will find it first, Neal or Peter? We’ll have to wait two weeks to find out.

White Collar returns Tuesday February 19 on USA.