White Collar begins with an escape. Not from an escape room—the stakes are much higher; I’m talking about a prison break. Art thief, bond forger, and all-around con artist Neal Caffrey (played by Matt Bomer) has devised a plan to escape from his super-maximum security correctional facility. He changes his appearance rapidly by shaving, slicking his hair back, and donning a prison guard uniform stashed in a staff bathroom toilet tank. Accompanied by jaunty music, he strolls unrecognized past guards and fellow inmates. When he slides a key card through a gate’s reader, the light turns green. He’s free.
Four hours after Neal has disappeared into Manhattan, Peter Burke (Tim DeKay), the FBI agent who first arrested Neal, is called, and begins to interrogate the warden and marshals about the details of Neal’s escape on the way to Neal’s cell. Where did Neal get the guard uniform? Online uniform supply company. Where’d he get the credit card to buy the uniform? It belonged to the warden’s wife.
Neal’s cell is heavily decorated—with sketches, hash marks, poetry magnets. Where’d Neal get the key card for the gate? “We’re thinking he restriped a utility card using the record head on that,” the Warden says, nodding at the tape player. Peter examines the tape player, the wall decorations, the books and brochures on Neal’s bed. From all of the accumulated detritus of Neal’s imprisoned life, Peter begins to piece together where Neal would go and why. Neal’s escape was low on puzzles compared to an escape room, but the real puzzle comes now for Peter. Peter is an expert puzzler—his house is full of New York Puzzlethon trophies.
The solution is anticlimactic. Peter finds Neal on the floor of Neal’s ex-girlfriend’s emptied apartment, moping over her absence. Neal makes no further attempt to flee, but does make an opening gambit in the long game of securing his freedom; he asks Peter to meet with him back in prison if he can provide crucial intel on the elusive criminal Peter’s been chasing. What would have been four years in prison for running becomes four years released into Peter’s custody as an FBI consultant. With a GPS tracking device around his ankle, Neal walks into the sunlight once again. Thus, the show’s premise is established: Peter and Neal, FBI agent and con artist, taking down white collar crime together while going endlessly back and forth on whether they can trust one another.
Though it has its moments of suspenseful intrigue and poignant drama, White Collar is more lighthearted than many crime procedurals. The mood is kept buoyant partially by Neal’s charm, and by the chemistry between the leads (including Tiffani Thiessen as Elizabeth Burke—Peter’s wife—and Marsha Thomason and Sharif Atkins as Peter’s fellow FBI agents). Beyond that, however, there is an infectious playfulness woven into the screenwriters’ approach to storytelling. Whether the characters are planning heists or solving crimes, it feels like the show is presenting us with a game.
One episode draws out this undercurrent of playfulness, as Peter and Neal are literally presented with a game. The season three episode “Where There’s a Will” centers around a dispute over a $40 million inheritance. Brothers James (Danny Masterson) and Josh Roland (Christopher Masterson) each have a supposed copy of their father’s will, one with a relatively equitable distribution of funds, and one saying that James gets everything. Neal, as an expert forger, has been called in by the bureau to authenticate the wills.
Neal, noticing that the same person is responsible for all of the signatures on both wills, determines that both are forged, but it gets weirder. Handwriting analysis concludes that the deceased himself forged all of the signatures on his own wills. Weirder still, the witness names are anagrams of one another. Peter and Neal get to work puzzling out what other names might be hidden in those letters, and come to the same conclusion: Tycho Brahe, a 16th century Danish astronomer.
Then comes the biggest surprise thus far. Holding the stacked wills up to the sunlight, Neal realizes that, when overlaid, the wills include a drawing that resolves into what look like streets and a compass rose. “This isn’t a message,” Neal says. “This is a map.” The Roland sons have a slightly different take, recognizing the “compass rose” as actually “the sundial in La Monde Garden” (a fictitious location). The sons go on to imply that treasure hunts are an activity their dad once engaged in often, but neither seems interested, even when Neal posits that the real will is likely at the end of the hunt.
Peter is happy to return the wills to evidence. Neal, however, is still intrigued, trying his hardest to entice Peter into joining him at the sundial. Peter won’t bite, so Neal meets up at La Monde Garden with his criminal accomplice and best friend, Mozzie (Willie Garson). They notice faint numbers along the bottom of the wills’ pages, probable times, but those times on the sundial don’t seem to point to anything. Alternatively, they theorize that maybe something will happen when the sun hits 4:30—four hours from now.
Neal texts Peter, who’s at home with Elizabeth, for help, and Peter and Elizabeth dive into the puzzling readily. When Peter spots a little drawing of a tulip next to the times, Elizabeth supplies that tulips stand for spring and rebirth, and Peter’s inspiration is sparked. It isn’t spring now, but with the use of a sextant and a couple of mirrors, they can recreate the shadow that the angle of the springtime sun would cast at 4:30. Each of the times, in fact, have a different seasonal symbol associated with them.
Elizabeth and Peter join Peter and Mozzie to create the necessary shadows. Each shadow they cast points to a different letter on the sundial, spelling out “BSH,” an acronym that means nothing to any of them. Their stumped wondering is interrupted by a call with a startling revelation; James Roland’s young daughter has been kidnapped, and the kidnapper demands $6.4 million. This is enough motivation for Josh Roland to get involved in the treasure hunt, since the real will should give him the ability to pay his niece’s ransom. He knows what “BSH” stands for: Big Sky Hunting, what his dad always called going to the planetarium. Peter and Neal are off to their next destination.
I’ll refrain from spoiling the second half of the episode, but rest assured, even as the mood should have darkened with the girl’s kidnapping, an undampened spirit of playfulness remains threaded throughout. We’re back in the realm of the high-stakes escape room. Now, though, rather than orchestrating his own escape, Neal is playing a game for someone else’s freedom. Rather than scheming by himself, he’s relying on a gaggle of allies to help him each step of the way. The show may have started with Neal and Peter each as independent figures facing off against one another, but as I said, that form of game-play only leads to anticlimactic reveals. Real satisfying drama, in the world of White Collar, comes from games played together, absent self-reliance and self-interest.
With the GPS tracker around his ankle, Neal might not be as free as he was the moment he first stepped out of prison in the pilot. With friends on his side, however he’s much better equipped to mastermind a real escape. A real win.
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