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White Collar and the Evolution of Neal Caffrey

on Mon, 03/05/2012 - 00:00

The USA Network drama White Collar is an old-school crime show that places the same amount of emphasis on its characters that it does for the “mystery of the week” plots that are resolved by the end of each episode. Like the classic television shows of the 1970s and 80s—including The Rockford Files, McMillan and Wife and Magnum PIWhite Collar contains a quirky collection of personalities to keep its audience entertained while likewise offering its own intriguing twist on the genre. While most modern day series emphasize the technological and procedural aspects of Twenty First Century crime solving, White Collar places its focus on finely crafted storylines and the relationships of its cast to fuel its narrative engine instead.

The premise of White Collar is rather basic. Convicted conman Neal Caffrey convinces FBI Agent Peter Burke to release him from prison in exchange for Caffrey’s assistance in solving the various “white collar” crimes that erupt within New York City. Caffrey is hindered by an ankle bracelet that allows Burke to keep tabs on the former fugitive, while one-time mentor Mozzie serves as a link to Caffrey’s duplicity-filled past. Peter Burke was the man who arrested Neal Caffrey years earlier, meanwhile, and the relationship between the two is marked with both mutual respect and mistrust as they attempt to form a working partnership that is beneficial to all involved.

White Collar greatly benefits from the considerable charm of its two lead actors. As portrayed by Matthew Bomer, Neal Caffrey has an air of suave sophistication that harkens back to the Rat Pack days of yesteryear and a quiet innocence that makes him a likeable character despite his dubious past. Tim DeKay, meanwhile, instills FBI agent Peter Burke with the right mixture of working-class professional, loving husband and down to earth nature to make him the perfect counterpart to the more stylish and upscale Caffrey. Together they form an unstoppable team as Neal Caffrey uses his conman background to go undercover while Peter Burke keeps it “honest” as the two close in on the criminal element of New York City.

On another USA Network drama, Burn Notice, former spy Michael Westen is able to rely on retired operative Sam Axe when he suddenly finds himself stranded in Miami. For Caffrey, it is former colleague Mozzie that serves as a connection to his past life of criminal activity. While polar opposites from the physical aspect—Sam is portrayed by the teddy bear-like Bruce Campbell while Mozzie is brought to life by the turtle-esque Willie Garson—they both add to the spirit of their respective shows as well as play the role of comic relief. A paranoid conspiracy buff who lives in a storage unit in order to remain off the grid, Mozzie has a multitude of connections within both the New York and international crime community that continually provide valuable information for the cases that Caffrey is enlisted to assist on.

Although the foundation of White Collar may appear simple on the surface, the series is able to more fully flesh out its narrative by playing upon the internal conflict inside the persona of Neal Caffrey. While Caffrey was motivated in season one by the disappearance of his former girlfriend Kate Moreau and season two served as the conclusion to the conspiracy that resulted in her death, for instance, the third installment of White Collar allowed Neal Caffrey to finally examine his life free from the emotional bonds of his past. Is Caffrey the same conman that he was before? Does he still long for the criminal days of old? Or has he found himself reformed and on the cusp of a different life than previously imagined?

White Collar incorporates the classic plot device of figuratively placing both an angel and devil on the shoulders of Neal Caffrey—in the forms of Peter Burke and Mozzie—as he faces the question of which future to embrace. At the end of season two, Mozzie was able to pilfer a treasure of lost Nazi art under the pretext that he and Caffrey could escape their present predicament with the financial bounty of one last score. “We finally got our white whale,” he tells a smiling Caffrey. Unfortunately, Mozzie’s efforts do not go undetected by Peter Burke, who immediately suspects Neal Caffrey as the true culprit in the theft.

As the trust that has slowly been building between the FBI agent and convicted conman evaporates in the aftermath, a similar divide develops between Neal Caffrey and Mozzie. Caffrey’s reluctance to immediately leave New York City frustrates Mozzie, and the gulf only grows wider when the former lies to the latter about obtaining key information regarding Peter Burke’s investigation into the still undisclosed crime. The differences separating the characters, however, are temporarily set aside when Burke’s wife Elizabeth (Tiffani Thiessen) is kidnapped by Caffrey nemesis and White Collar villain Matthew Keller (Ross McCall).

Not only does the sharing of a common enemy—as well as a mutual fondness for Elizabeth—unite the central White Collar protagonists, it also offers the opportunity to pin the Nazi art theft on Keller. Released from one internal conflict and temptation, Neal Caffrey immediately faces another when the Board of Corrections recommends the commutation of Caffrey’s prison sentence. Would a newly liberated Neal Caffrey fall back on the ways of his past, or would he embark on a different path of gainful employment, family and friends? “While he is never going to be a model citizen, he’s also not the brazen thief he was six years ago,” love interest Sara Ellis (Hilarie Burton), an insurance investigator that testified against Caffrey at his trial, confides to Peter Burke.

“You,” Neal Caffrey later tells Burke in regards to why he did not simply take the Nazi treasure and run when he had the opportunity. “Elizabeth, Sara. The view out that window, stepping off the elevator Monday morning. All of it. I have a life here.” While Caffrey may have been able to convince Burke of his true intentions, however, freedom from his prison sentence is not so clear cut. Burke’s FBI mentor Philip Kramer (Beau Bridges) has doubts as to whether Neal Caffrey has truly reformed himself, and is even able to raise second thoughts about Caffrey’s potential release within the minds of the convicted felon’s allies. “By the end of the conversation, he had me thinking twice whether or not we’d be doing the Bureau or Caffrey any favors by letting him out early,” agent Clinton Jones (Sharif Atkins) tells his boss Peter Burke about his own interaction with Kramer.

It is an ironic statement, suggesting that the freedom which Neal Caffrey craves actually lies in the ankle bracelet that keeps him shackled from liberation. Despite such limitations, Caffrey has discovered a more fulfilling existence working for the FBI, through his romantic involvement with Sara Ellis and even his friendship with Peter Burke. Neal Caffrey may not be a free man, but the path his life has taken over the course of White Collar has released him from his past and made him a better person nonetheless.

White Collar follows a recent trend by cable channels to distinguish themselves from the forensic dramas of network television by producing crime series similar to those in the 1970s and 1980s that featured colorful characters and a heavy dose of welcomed humor. Burn Notice on USA Network, for instance, has dashes of Magnum PI and MacGyver thrown into its mix while TNT’s Leverage is an enhanced Mission: Impossible for the Twenty First Century. White Collar, meanwhile, compliments these two shows with its stylish update of the debonair conman using his talents to catch the bad guys. In the end, the USA Network series is no con but an equally worthy successor to the classic detective shows of yesteryear.

Anthony Letizia

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