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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

White Collar: “Checkmate”

Illustration for article titled White Collar: “Checkmate”
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Abductions, stolen Nazi treasure, impersonating military personnel, G-Men and con men working together to outsmart local street cops… just another 45 minutes in the world of White Collar. Tonight’s midseason premiere (of its third overall season, for those having issues keeping score) felt more like a finale, and creator Jeff Eastin and his writing team likely debated whether “Checkmate” could or should have aired back in August before the series’ fall hiatus.

But the cliffhanger of Elizabeth’s kidnapping created buzz, inspired some clever “Where is Elizabeth Burke?” viral marketing and kept with the show’s emerging formula of obscure personal artifacts—the music box, the U-boat hail—triggering events that reverberate gradually over chunks of seasons. It’s a formula that occasionally tests plausibility and wears on viewers' patience, but has also set Collar free from committing to even more tiresome episodic capers (though they're quite adept at those too).

“Checkmate” is, to its credit, a case-study in storytelling economy. We know going in, or at least realize within a few minutes, that Keller will fall, Elizabeth will be rescued and Peter and Neal will probably kiss and make up. There were a couple of moments where the script kept you guessing—will Neal really turn himself in? Can Peter compose himself long enough to forgive Neal and Mozzie?—but this episode was mostly precipitating the wind-down of a much larger arc while unspooling some fresh new threads.

Keller was a good foe (Ross McCall really grew on me), and it’s a telling move that they kept him alive. He’s a great ace in the hole who fans have responded to, and nothing helps create heat in a time of sweeps or network competition like rivalries renewed. Although hopefully, there’ll be less jousting with ancient Napoleonic spears and opposing gold-plated shields next time. That was ridiculous, and this is a show that often thrives on ridiculous.

On the contrary, it was great to watch Keller, Peter, Neal and Mozzie pull a con together under desperate circumstances, each with something enormous to lose and everything to gain. But no one had more at stake than Peter, and it made sense that he was audacious to the point of recklessness to find his wife. Tim DeKay deserves kudos for showing us Peter at his boiling point without upstaging the action, even when some of the mundane set-up required him to be almost supernaturally patient with and forgiving of Neal to move things along. And, also, for disrupting Neal and Keller’s medieval duel and flaunting some exciting bare-knuckle fist-a-cuffs.

Par for the course, “Checkmate” was riddled with serious head-scratchers and commanded enormous suspension of disbelief—how could Keller fall for the Satchmo line after warning about no games? Why wouldn’t Keller pick up the gun instead of grabbing the spear? That cop bought Peter’s DA’s-aide shtick, no questions asked? Et al—and pitting Elizabeth against an especially dim-witted kidnapping cronie was certainly convenient. But it was a nice touch that Mrs. Suit escaped on her own wit and resourcefulness, rather than simply playing damsel in distress, and it’s consistent with her character’s toughness. It’s also the only explanation as to why Peter would rescue Neal before going home and hugging his wife, but hey, that’s just me. Besides, White Collar may be a contradictorily detail-oriented show at times, but it’s usually only fun if you’re willing to get conned.


Stray Observations

  • I liked the final scene and am eager to see who and what stands between Neal and freedom, but also want to see equally strong beginnings and middles the rest of the way.
  • Likewise, looking forward to more humor now that tensions have been diffused.
  • Carrier pigeons? Oy.
  • I love when Peter gets even. And that he’s the smartest character and ultimate hero on the show. Very atypical of this kind of drama.
  • Bamboo under the fingernails. Classic indeed.
  • Even I wanted to kill Keller when he paced around Neal’s apartment like he owned the place.
  • Man, when the FBI clears a table, they clear a table.
  • So, what did you guys think?