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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

White Collar: “Empire City”

Illustration for article titled White Collar: “Empire City”
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Whether on account of Treat Williams’ untimely, temporary stage left (seemingly for a quick turn on sibling network NBC’s Chicago Fire) or as a response to fans clamoring for more open-and-shut cases and maximum Mozzie, White Collar steps back from its pursuit of the Flynns and Senator Pratt tonight. Instead, we get what some folks would call a “bottle episode,” with the requisite bookends addressing ongoing storylines. The results are mixed, but not on account of Neal and Peter taking momentary focus off the men responsible for James’ framing, Peter’s car accident, Ellen’s death, or the early retirement of Agent Hughes’ (take good care of James Rebhorn, Enlightened). Though, when outlined so briskly, it’s hard to imagine how they could possibly steer their gaze toward more frivolous capers.

“Empire City” is a witty, punchy episode that feels like vintage White Collar in many respects—from Peter and Neal’s collaborative tracking of mid-level hoods to a vanity appearance from Diahann Carroll as Neal’s benefactor June, this time in the guise of ageless jazz chanteuse. Star Tim DeKay also directed, and as he did for season three’s “Stealing Home,” brings a sense of what works in front of the camera behind it: Namely, the richness of White Collar’s terrific New York locations and cultural heritage. In “Empire City,” this means a trip to lower Harlem, where our federal duo is investigating a possible money-laundering scheme at the revamped Cotton Club that’s linked to taxi-medallion fraud. (Don’t ask.) It also just so happens that the latter racket comes to their attention when Mozzie, operating as licensed NYC cabbie Hal Hoover (see previous parenthetical advice) and helping Neal traverse Brooklyn to decode Ellen’s mystery key, spots a fellow yellow forging his medallion number.

This is where things get sticky. DeKay offers us the many sides of Moz—blue-collar sage, ineffectual philosopher, righteous con man—and generates several great character moments. Credit’s due to Willie Garson for evolving Mozzie from nebbish sidekick to an unlikely hero capable of softening hardened taxi drivers with jocular humor and lulling dangerous ne’er do wells into false security in a single summer afternoon. And DeKay takes advantage of the jazz-club backdrop by shooting a couple of sequences that amount to vinyl porn.

But amid these long, adoring close-ups on White Collar’s most welcome supporting player and everyone’s apparently collective Steve Coleman worship, a couple extra minutes could have been dedicated up front toward clarifying the actual medallion scheme. Oftentimes, White Collar crimes are scripted as blink-and-miss-’em tightrope exposition that gets dispatched within the first five minutes. The medallion forgery that sends Peter, Neal, Jones, and Diana (used once again as the default “sexy-female operative” decoy) on their “Empire City” goose chase isn’t high conspiracy, but its machinery does get rusty as DeKay’s camera dwells on record stacks and slow-pans on June the balladeer.

The only thing more distracting than this slightly fussy con is the guest spot by none other than former MTV VJ (not to mention star of underrated, rather White Collar-esque series Fast Lane) Bill Bellamy as Cotton Club owner Delmon Wells. Bellamy’s asked to play the role straight, as he’s a goodly family man and jazz freak trying to honor his mother’s legacy and set mischievous little brother Angelo (Keith Robinson) straight by re-launching the club she once owned. And he’s not half-bad, even if Delmon is frustratingly naïve, whether it’s failing to see through Angelo’s scheme or accepting June’s falsified LP as authentic article without so much as a curious Google search.

Once Delmon’s safe is unlocked to reveal where Angelo’s been stashing phony medallions and all that Bellamy business is complete (love ya, Bill), “Empire City” wraps up with the clandestine tandems of Neal and Mozzie/Peter and Jones (love that Elle calls him Clinton) simultaneously discovering that Ellen’s key points to the Empire State Building. Bonus points if you saw that one coming once the episode title flashed on-screen, but either way, Peter and Neal’s mutual epiphany was one last fitting callback to classic White Collar. Even when working in secret from one another, their lengthy history and respective intelligence reunites them at shared coordinates. Even if it means risking their lives, Agent Burke and con-man Caffrey are stronger together than apart, and chances are that’s what Senator Pratt is about to find out.


Stray observations:

  • Mozzie as taxi-depot midwife… now that’s a spinoff in the making.
  • Neal made a couple well-timed funnies tonight (particularly the Grey Gardens quip), showing off how increasingly comfortable Bomer is with his character.
  • Indeed, Mozzie, there is often a fine line between criminal and patriot.
  • The chemistry between Neal, Peter, and Mozzie is reaching Bored To Death-level proportions.
  • Swing-Low Sound? Yikes.
  • Mozzie’s “Ya dig”… double yikes.
  • Steve Coleman nearly blew Elle’s skirt off. He must have recently seen Zapped.
  • As ever, this show’s continued thrust is about being able to go back home again. Question is where White Collar goes once Neal feels like he’s there.