White Collar: Surprise! You’re the Daddy!

How foreseeable does a reveal have to be before it ceases to be revealing? The question immediately comes to mind in the final moments of this week’s adventures in the White Collar division of Manhattan’s wacky FBI force. The episode showcases an FBI convention where highlights include an Inside the Actor’s Studio-styled interview with the presumed buddy cops of the year and law enforcement’s version of a science fair (also, there should be cookies available). Shockingly, the crime-free time that the FBI had anticipated for this little shindig is interrupted early on by crooks that don’t seem to take the sanctity of the event as seriously as Peter admonishes Neal to. But the latter still holds on to a grudge from last week’s betrayal (fueled by the betrayal prior to that and setting in motion the betrayal that occurs a bit later in this very episode).

As the season has progressed, it often seems that what we may have gotten ourselves into with White Collar is a melodrama with an aggressively overplayed signature note — trust issues. If either Neal or Peter were your best friend complaining to you about their significant other over sorbet and Ryan Reynolds movies while in pajamas, you would be hard-pressed to find a reason your friend should put up with this any longer. “He doesn’t deserve you!” you would proclaim with a snap and a neck roll. You couldn’t help but roll your eyes when your friend expresses how they feel imprisoned and disrespected and patronized constantly in their relationship. You would suck your teeth loudly when your friend tells you about the time their partner lied, stole, jeopardized your friend’s career, then fled the country. It just doesn’t make sense why they would continue with this. But in that instance and perhaps in this one, you would probably be blind to the unspoken dynamic at play here: Love Maintaining the status quo.

From very early on, this week’s episode, “Vested Interest,” speaks to the beginnings of Peter and Neal’s professional relationship to remind the viewer as well as the character’s of the strength and importance of their partnership. The need for Neal’s help in the Dutchman case is apparent despite Peter’s coyness, but Neal’s need for Peter must be parsed from the very premise of the show — Neal was caught and didn’t really have much of a choice in the matter but in general is a pretty good guy. But as the interview progresses a bit and the season’s Sam arc rears its head in the episode, we’re presented with, well maybe more reminded of, alternative and implicit justifications for their partnership. (Entertainingly ho yay interpretations aside; despite how fun a thoroughly erotic fan-fic story of Peter and Neal finally coming to terms with their yearning for one another, perhaps at a coffee shop or a hat store or as Neal paints Peter like one of his French girls, would be.)

Neal has daddy issues. Plain and simple. He’s had them since forever and they’ve been one of his biggest, most transparent character features since the love of his life exploded early in the series and he promptly forgot about her soon afterwards. Peter, with slight crow’s feet and mature gruff in his voice, exists so patently as a surrogate paternal figure that it should be no surprise that Neal’s unflinching youthfulness subsists without reproach from fans and characters alike. The way he womanizes as if women are simply bits of toys and candies; the way he rashly approaches any conflict or adversity without forethought; his apparent inability to handle the nuances of complex emotions; his largely juvenile and boyish demeanor. Peter seems to be the only man up for the job of setting him straight; sitting him down for the man-to-man talks a growing boy desperately needs sometimes. They’ve even been to a ball game together. To say that this is subtle would be to give too much credit, but it certainly keeps the dynamic of Det. Burke and Mr. Caffrey’s relationship more tight and interesting than any ankle bracelet ever could.

But from another angle, something Neal slyly suggests in the town hall discussion on the values of buddy cop-ing at FBI-con 2012 actually touches upon Peter’s implicit need for Neal. Neal spitefully hints at problems at home with Mrs. Burke and, not to take the point any further than necessary, it did at some point early on seem like Peter was having a hard time communicating with his wife, finding fulfillment, or being as exemplary at home as he is in the workforce. Elizabeth is portrayed as a beautiful, loving, and largely supportive woman these days but once upon a time, as in this episode as well, she was merely an afterthought, sometimes an inconvenience. Neal’s contribution to Peter and Elizabeth’s relationship is therefore undeniable. (Mozzie must be acknowledged here too.) It’s as if the Burkes, after some struggles, could finally conceive (the metaphor has grounding in several remarks made by the couple throughout the series) and the presence of the baby Caffrey has brought them even closer.

On both sides of the partnership between Neal and Peter there’s reinforcement of the value of family. This isn’t new to this season but what is new is the exploration into Neal’s actual family history. It definitely couldn’t have been a surprise that Neal’s father was in law enforcement when it was discovered several episodes ago because we already knew his surrogate daddy, Peter, is. All must remain the same and once again, the status quo seems maintained at all costs. Thus when the switcheroo finally occurs, surrogate dad for biological dad, there might not have been enough actual switch for viewers to take notice. Why would we be surprised that Neal’s dad would lie to him and keep his true intentions a secret, whether for genuinely altruistic reasons or just as an overbearing distrustful parent-figure, especially when this has been the premise of the series all along with Peter as dad? Why would Neal’s resolute attachment to an older man as he seeks to explore his own past and find the answers to questions he’s held on to for so long not lead him directly to his father? Again, how foreseeable does a reveal have to be before it ceases to be revealing?

I think the answer to the question rests on the appreciation one can garner from the elaborately deliberate set ups and pay outs of this series. Almost immediately after an exhibition of the best bulletproof vest in the world, the main character being shot doesn’t necessarily need to surprise you but certainly provides a provocative sort of assurance that White Collar means to coddle and protect you while it entertains you in the best ways it can muster. The world of the series is wholly artificial and manicured and neat with wholly manufactured grit (certainly neater and less gritty than actual New York City). The viewer is presented with surprises and drama not in a traditional sense of unsuspected occurrences and rising and falling action. Surprise, drama, and even family for White Collar are simulated and deconstructed and reinterpreted while the sheen and sturdiness of this world are painstakingly maintained. Sam as dad, in this sense, is less of a shocking reveal, but rather another brick laid to a solid foundation or another shiny thing to play with while safely inside. If at any point there was a fear of things being shaken up, the arrival of Papa Sam has surely put that to rest. And he was a pretty good dad on Everwood, so we’ll probably be taken care of anyway.

(And yes. I’ve ignored the A plot of the criminal of the week. But the plan was so lackluster and destined to fail that I’m fairly sure half of the fictional FBI agents in the vicinity simply ignored it as well, too distracted by those cookies.)

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