This week's episode of White Collar has a bit to live up to: it follows after the outstanding "Countermeasures," boasts the return of bad guy Matthew Keller (Ross McCall, last seen in Season 1's "Bottlenecked"), and must satisfy the added anticipation that comes with there being two weeks between installments.
Neal and Peter are not happy that Keller is trying to score a deal by pitching information about national security, especially he will only talk to the two of them. Both of them call BS, but are obligated to visit him anyway. In the relative discomfort of his cell, Keller invites Neal to play a chess match with him, while confiding that he doesn't want to waste away in a supermax prison. He asks if they're familiar with the French term for "move of last resort," and offers up information on a maker of false passports in exchange for not being shipped off to a tougher home. Of course, this all seems way too easy, especially when Keller hints at this being the start of a longer relationship between himself and the Bureau. He's definitely playing an angle.
Peter is embarrassed when he forgets to pick up the dry cleaning the next morning. This starts a minor tiff between himself and Elizabeth, but because they are awesome, even their fights are cute.
Neal tells Mozzie about his meeting with Keller, who thinks it'd be nice if the other man was suffering. Obviously, Keller doesn't have any fans. In the course of their conversation, Neal says "I've moved past Kate" for the first time, adding, "She'll always be a part of me, but I have to move on." He's had almost an entire season to grieve, so it's an appropriate time for him to get his closure and move forward (as long as it's not immediately into a new relationship wherein he forgets Kate ever existed, but I digress). I'm glad that unlike many shows, White Collar treated Kate's death with the appropriate amount of gravity and allowed Neal to mourn her loss; I might not have liked her character, but I'm very tired of shows that kill off characters and expect the audience to be shocked or disappointed, only to have the other people on the show later acting like everything is fine. Neal's grieved and now he can continue to move his life forward.
He moves directly into a meeting with Peter, who has fingered the guy Keller's giving up: Jason Lang (The Unusuals' Adam Goldberg), his former partner. Everything becomes clear: by giving up Lang, Keller gets his revenge and tweaks Neal at the same time. On the way to Lang's photography studio, Peter tells Neal about his dry cleaning mistake, and the potential underlying marriage woes. Neal being Neal, he tells Peter exactly what to do without missing a beat before he walks into the studio and deduces that Lang has equipment that can be used for forging passports. When Peter tries to ask Lang about that, however, he takes off and when Peter pursues him, he's greeted by some thugs who shove him into a van before Neal can get to him. Guess who's behind the abduction? Keller, who calls Peter's dropped phone and tells Neal that if he stops playing along, Peter is a dead man.
Despite being in a constructed cell, Peter is unruffled, telling Lang that Keller isn't to be trusted and that it's best if he cuts his losses while he can. Neal is much less calm, going back to jail and introducing Keller to a wall. Keller tells Neal that he owes two and a half million dollars to the Russians, who are waiting for him at his future home, and wants Neal to help him solve his debt by recovering something he wants - in the three hours before he's transferred.
Neal has no choice but to tell Diana about Peter's abduction, and this gets upstairs to Hughes in minutes. The FBI boss mobilizes the entire office to help recover their best agent, before meeting with Neal and Diana. Neal tells Hughes what he knows, and his honest belief that Peter will be killed. Unable to convince Hughes to budge on the FBI's no-negotiation policy, Neal gets a call from Mozzie to go to the exchange, but then has to face Elizabeth, who wants to hear what he has to say about the situation. "What are you doing?" she asks him. "They want me to go home," he tells her. "What do you want me to do?" She asks him to do whatever it takes to bring her husband home.
Though Diana can't let him officially go off book, Neal convinces her to give him one hour out from under her supervision. He meets Mozzie in a nearby park to make the exchange, and we discover this is where he was planning to propose to Kate, and that he thought about their having kids at least once. (And female fans start fawning right about now.) The two of them approach a statue where Neal recovers one very expensive engagement ring, worth enough to buy Peter's freedom. Kate would be proud.
Peter is no sitting duck, however. He engages Lang in conversation, sussing out the existence of the exchange and finding out that the money from that will pay off the security firm transferring Keller so that he can escape. He also knows that Keller plans to kill Peter himself once he's a free man.
Mozzie shows up at the Burke residence to talk with Elizabeth. "I came of my own volition," he tells her when she asks if Neal sent him. Aw, how sweet! He reassures her that Peter will be home in time for dinner, and explains to her what's happening. In a moment that is oh so Mozzie, he bugs the FBI guys' headphones and gives her an earpiece so that she can hear what they hear. It is both cute, and yet just a little bit strange - just like him.
Neal meets Lang to make the exchange, but refuses to surrender the ring until Lang gives him proof that Peter is still alive. Lang allows him to ask one question of Peter, and Peter is surprised that Neal wants to know what cell phone number he was using the first time he was caught. He soon realizes that Neal is trying to use the alphanumeric keypad to communicate with him. Neal completes the exchange, and sits down with Diana to decipher Peter's message: No transfer. Unfortunately, said transfer is already in progress, and so is Keller's escape.
When he doesn't turn up to meet Lang, Peter uses that opportunity to needle Lang, while escaping from his handcuffs. He is easily able to knock out Lang. He gets to a phone and calls Jones, asking for Neal's help to get out of the cell. In order to do this, Neal has the entire FBI team help him reconstruct the cell in the middle of the bullpen, in a sequence that makes me geek out with its creative use for packing tape. Even when they're not in the same room, the two of them still make an effective team, with both of them thinking along the same lines instead of just Neal giving a hapless Peter all the answers. Forced to hang up in order to make use of his cell phone battery, Peter has everyone on pins and needles until he calls back a free man, holding Lang at gunpoint. Ladies and gentlemen, Peter Burke may look like your garden-variety FBI agent, but he is a certified badass.
When Neal and the FBI team arrive to get Peter, he reveals that not only did Keller never show, but he has recovered the ring. He asks Neal if it's stolen, and Neal admits that it doesn't belong to him, suggesting he contact a museum in Scotland. As Peter reunites with Elizabeth, Keller calls him to gloat about his escape, and Neal promises that he'll find him eventually.
This episode of White Collar certainly lived up to the hype. I wouldn't call it better than "Countermeasures," but that's because of the caliber of guest star; no offense to Ross McCall (and the American accent of his that continues to confound me), but he can't be compared to Billy Dee Williams just yet. That's not to say he's bad; he's still just as capable of oozing contempt as he was in "Countermeasures" and plays the villain part well; I certainly dislike Keller enough to root against him, even if I don't find him intimidating.
It seems every procedural show has one episode where a major protagonist is kidnapped or targeted, and of all the ones I've seen, I'd call "Payback" one of the better ones. Common sense dictates that Peter won't be killed, but we get plenty of suspense out of how he's going to get himself out of the situation, and out of Neal trading barbs with Keller. Once again, we get to see how Neal and Peter's relationship has grown; Neal's willing to do whatever he has to in order to get Peter back alive.
As for Keller, I'm a bit blah on his escape; I can only hope that the show either leaves him be or lets him go out big, and doesn't keep bringing him back one too many times, which is the weakness of many shows with recurring villains. I've never found Keller to be a particularly imposing villain, and I think he's served his purpose, setting up this great episode where there's plenty of material for all our major characters, plus that fun element of ingenuity and sneakiness that makes White Collar so entertaining. This is an episode that shows why we watch this series.
Next week, as Peter and Neal switch identities, Richard Schiff guest-stars. Let's hope he lives longer here than he did when he appeared on Burn Notice...
For more on White Collar, check out the show category at my blog, DigitalAirwaves.net.