A lot of answers get revealed in this week's White Collar - and in the tradition of the best mysteries, giving those secrets away only makes us more interested in asking further questions.
After getting his name from Julian Larsson last week, Peter is doing some research on Vincent Adler, and it's not pretty; there are plenty of newspaper clippings on how Adler disappeared seven years ago following an elaborate Ponzi scheme. He's surprised when, among all the copy, he finds a picture of Adler with Neal in the background - surprised enough that he decides to pay Neal a late-night visit, wanting to know how the two know each other. Neal replies that he just connected the dots himself, and says for the second time in two episodes that Adler is "the man who made me who I am today." This piques Peter's curiosity, and he wants to know more, but Neal balks and Peter knows why. Telling him the truth would mean copping to crimes he doesn't know about. Once he gets Neal's assurance that he hasn't killed anyone, Peter puts his badge on the table and tells Neal that he'll give him full immunity regarding anything he says until sunrise.
Deal made, Neal produces the fractal that Mozzie was able to construct from the equation he figured out from the music box. He tells Peter that he's seen one before in Adler's office, and that to get from him to Adler, they have to start with Mozzie. "Why am I not surprised?" Peter asks, settling in for a long story.
Eight years earlier, Neal is just arriving in New York, and comes across a guy running a game of three-card monte. He's easily able to outsmart the guy at his own con, which draws the attention of none other than Mozzie, with a bad toupee and goatee to boot. After sending a local kid (played by Willie Garson's son Nathan) to follow him, Moz tracks Neal down at his tiny apartment. When Neal asks warily where his partner is, Moz replies, "I left him. I need an upgrade." Thus, a beautiful partnership begins.
("Mozzie had a goatee?" Peter says, laughing. "Only to distract from his toupee," Neal replies.)
Mozzie is impressed by Neal's "exquisite" bond forgeries, and has dreams of grandeur for the two of them. He proposes a long con which he refers to as "the Everest of swindles." The mark? Vincent Adler.
Peter tells Neal that those same fake bonds were the first time that Neal popped up on his radar. We find Peter working at a tiny desk in the FBI office bullpen (with that same ridiculous moustache, even), as another agent drops the file on a stack of them piling up there. "Stop hoarding all the new cases, Burke," his partner chastizes him, but doesn't want the case when Peter offers to give it to him, even though Peter points out these particular bonds have never before been forged. His loss. Reviewing the work, Peter says to himself, "I think this guy has a future."
"What was my nickname?" Neal wants to know, almost giddily. "Every case has a nickname." He gets Peter to admit it was "James Bonds," sending both of them into a simultaneous impression of Sean Connery. Gloating, Neal adds that while his file may have been just one in a stack of cases, it was the one on top.
We flash back to Peter and Elizabeth just having moved into their house - or rather, Elizabeth is doing the moving while Peter is still paging Neal's file. Even she's impressed by Neal's handiwork, but advises her husband to lose the facial hair.
Detour aside, Peter steers Neal back to the story of how he went after Adler. Watching him on the street, Neal tells Mozzie that he's the CEO of Adler Financial Management, running a top hedge fund. Mozzie adds that Adler made a hundred and fifty million dollars the previous year, and tells Neal to "know thine enemy." When Neal asks him what the con is, Mozzie reveals that Adler puts a percentage of his profits into a tax-free account in the Cayman Islands, and that they're going to reroute his next wire transfer once they obtain his account number and password. However, to get such sensitive information from such a powerful guy, they're going to need to get very close to him over the next five months. That's where Neal comes in.
Step one is making contact at a very expensive charity dinner. To afford a plate, Neal has to cash in a few more of his forged bonds - and doing so gives Peter his first visual on his future partner. Neal leaves a bank in Midtown with the five thousand dollars, and a lollipop from the bank teller. Yet literally feet away, Peter is briefing the bank manager about the forgeries. To defuse the situation, Neal brazenly walks up and interrupts their conversation, playing the part of a concerned customer. Peter is none the wiser, not even when Neal gives him the lollipop as a parting gift.
Mozzie isn't thrilled, but Neal tells him that now they know who's after them and what for. He's unbothered, thinking up his first alias off a piece of junk mail - Nicholas Halden. Armed with cheap wine in an expensive bottle and a suit swiped from Mozzie's dry cleaners (although he admits "I don't know if I'm a suit guy"), he arrives at the charity dinner and comes face-to-face with Vincent Adler for the first time.
Vincent Adler is played by Andrew McCarthy, which makes me a very happy girl indeed. I first took notice of him when he appeared in a direct-to-video B-movie called Perfect Assassins alongside Robert Patrick, and I've been a fan of his ever since; in fact, I owe him for inspiring me and curing one of my worst cases of writers block a decade ago. He's even had a great novel written about his mass appeal. I am always glad to see him in something, as I really think he should be around a lot more often. It's certainly a different experience to see him working his charm as a man that we know will do some pretty horrible things.
Neal doesn't know any of that yet, however, and persistently tries to charm Adler, even though the man brushes him off twice. It's in practically stalking him that he meets Kate Moreau - who's working as Adler's personal assistant. He's immediately taken by her, and the two strike up a conversation over art and their attempts at making it. She correctly pegs him as there to cozy up to her boss, tipping him off that his first challenge is rearranging the seating chart, and wishing him good luck. Neal switches seats with Adler's date, which doesn't make him happy, but is able to persuade the boss to take a chance on him.
Some time later, now working for Adler, Neal's assignment is to find out who's been snooping into the man's recent art purchases. He tries to ask Kate out but she reveals that she has a boyfriend who's asked her to move to Chicago with him, and she's leaving the next month. Shot down, he later meets with his boss in Adler's office - where he sees the fractal for the first time. He tells Adler that he's identified the culprit and that she believes she's arriving for a job interview. Who's the suspicious party? None other than Alex Hunter (Gloria Votsis). Adler doesn't waste any time cutting through her facade, showing his ruthless side as he gets right in her face and terrifies her while a shocked Neal looks on. He finally dismisses her, then gives Neal an impressive bonus, which Neal decides to turn around and invest in Adler's hedge fund.
"You didn't know it was a scam," Peter interrupts.
"No," Neal admits. "My goal at the time was to prove my loyalty to Adler. The job became my life."
"What happened to Alex?" Peter asks.
Neal sees Alex with her boyfriend as he leaves Adler's building. He's in mid-longing gaze when Alex interrupts. "Buy me a drink and we'll talk," she tells him, and becomes his rebound girl. Yes, they've slept together, unfortunately. What's more important is that she tells him that she knows he's a grifter, and furthermore, tells him about the music box. Neal tells Peter that she'd been chasing it for years, and would leave him a paper flower if she ever needed his help. Alex disappears after that, and Kate turns up on Neal's doorstep, having changed her mind about which man she wants to be with.
He should be happy, but he's not. The next morning, Mozzie tells him that the FBI now has a sketch of him circulating. "It's time to finish this job and move on," he informs a perturbed Neal.
Neal goes into the office, where Adler has him fit for his first tailored suit on a whim. Their resulting conversation shows us that it's Adler who gave Neal his predilection for the high life. He also notices that Neal and Kate have gotten close. The reminder of Kate only makes it harder for Neal to turn on the charm, tell Adler there's an irregularity in his offshore account, and ask for the information he needs to complete the con (while scrambling to hide a newspaper on his boss's desk which happens to be turned to said sketch). "I trust you," Adler says, giving him the password - "ANCIENTLYRE" - and telling him to go to the bank before it closes that day. This scene also introduces Neal to the idea of wearing a hat for the first time.
Later that day, Neal and Kate go for a walk in the park, and he decides he'd rather stay with her than go to the bank. Mozzie is understandably upset, and blames Kate, but Neal says she's not going to break his heart. Neal and Kate continue their relationship in earnest, but are rocked when they see on the news that Adler has disappeared with all of his money - and theirs. "There was only a dollar left in" his account, Neal tells Peter. "The password was an anagram for 'Nice try, Neal.'" He was figured out a long time ago.
The news report also draws the attention of a now clean-shaven Peter, who runs into newbie Clinton Jones in the bullpen. Jones wants to join his newly forming white collar crime task force. Jones notices that Peter still has the lollipop that Neal gave him the year before. "Unfinished business," he says. "I get it." With that, Peter begins to think Jones might be the right fit for his team after all.
Kate is flipping out at being broke and unemployed, but Neal promises her that they'll get it all back. In order to do that, he has to tell her who he really is, and what he really does. She becomes his second partner in crime, assisting him and Mozzie with their cons in order to survive. Just as they're reasonably back on their feet, Alex leaves a flower and a tip leading to Copenhagen, so Neal tries to convince Kate to take a vacation with him there. She doesn't want anything to do with the music box, however, and he goes to Copenhagen without her. The music box was there, he says, but "it was a three-person job. Without Kate, it fell apart. Alex ended up in a French hospital and I barely escaped."
"But everyone thought you had the box," Peter notes.
"I didn't correct them," Neal replies, saying that when he returned to New York, Kate was gone and he began to pull off larger cons in order to get her attention. This, of course, only helped him get more attention from the FBI.
By now, the task force is up and running, including the newly-arrived Diana Barrigan, who advises Peter to put pressure on Kate. They know where she is, even if Neal doesn't. Peter realizes from Kate's movements that she's hiding from Neal, and plans to use that to their advantage. Cue Mozzie arriving at Neal's apartment to tell him that one of his contacts knows where Kate is. "This smells like a trap," he warns, but Neal doesn't care, letting his heart lead instead of his brain.
True to Mozzie's warning, when Neal arrives at the storage facility, he finds Kate - but barely has time to reconcile with her before Peter and his agents come storming in to arrest him. With his quest for his true love finally resolved, however, Neal tells her "it's okay," and surrenders peacefully. Much to Peter's bewilderment, he offers a hand to the FBI agent, thanking him for that last stolen moment. "I never would have found her without you," he says, and Peter shakes his hand before Neal is led away in handcuffs, bringing us back around to the pilot.
"You know the rest," Neal tells Peter, "so what do we do next?"
"We know what he wants most," Peter replies.
"It must mean something. It must point somewhere," Peter insists. He also spots another piece of origami, telling him that Alex has been there that same day. Neal tells Peter that Alex believes the fractal is in fact, an antenna, with a shape that corresponds to a specific frequency for an emergency beacon.
"You're telling me that if we build a real one of these and hook it up to a radio, it's going to lead us to something worth all of this?" Peter replies, still in disbelief. "Then I guess we have to find it first."
"Forging Bonds" has the unenviable task of condensing years worth of history into three-quarters of an hour on screen, but series creator Jeff Eastin and his co-writer Alexandra McNally manage to do just that. All of the major characters we've come to see in the last season and a half make an appearance here, even if it's just a minor one. Although the narrative has to take some inevitable skips forward for time's sake, by episode's end, we're right back where White Collar started from, so we can easily connect what we've just seen to the pilot and feel as if we've come full circle. That's a masterful writing job, and I commend them for it.
It also gives us another reminder, in the simple flashbacks, that the show's greatest strength is the chemistry between Matt Bomer and Tim DeKay. Even in those small scenes, which could easily just be throwaway filler between flashbacks, we get a sense of how their relationship has evolved. They've come to the point where they can sit down one night over drinks and talk...even if they're talking about crimes and conspiracies, but they're talking. We've seen them grow to become friends over the last season and a half, and it's a pleasant reminder of how far they've come.
If there's one thing that doesn't work here, though, it's that the women in Neal Caffrey's life continue to be the most weakly drawn in the series. It's nice to see Alex return, but I found it somewhat predictable and disappointing that she ended up in bed with Neal. There's nothing in that scene she couldn't have said with her clothes on, so what's the point of having her sleep with him? Certainly there's a woman in Neal's life (June excepted) that doesn't want to get into bed with him, regardless of how charming and handsome Matt Bomer is.
The flashbacks for Alex seem like they come too late for me. I never really bought her as the love of Neal's life, because we never got the chance to see things like this in season one; we didn't get the chance to buy into that relationship beyond what Neal said about her. It was mostly told, not shown. What I saw was Kate playing Neal as much as she was being played, and that made me dislike her. Seeing her honestly in love with him now doesn't have much effect on me because I can't forget what she's going to do to him later. It's the same way with Adler; Neal may not know the monster his boss is, but we all do. That works for Adler, as we're not supposed to like him, but with Kate, it works against her.
That one element aside, however, this episode really does answer most if not all of the burning questions White Collar fans have had about how our characters got to this point - and by episode's end, we're ready to find out what the next step is in pursuing Adler. The episode reveals the big picture to the audience and makes us smarter for it right at the time when we know we're going to need that information for whatever comes next. Its perfect timing and tight, yet informative writing make this episode a particular stroke of brilliance.
For more White Collar, check out the show category at my blog, DigitalAirwaves.net.