There’s a reason we sometimes yearn for the simpler days of network cop shows. They were almost like episodes of Scooby-Doo, where cases are introduced and dispatched within the allotted running time, the villains are a rotating cast of stock baddies, and the good guys go about their business with charming but rote efficacy. That's what White Collar sometimes is. But just as often, it gets pulled away from that template so it can attend to long cons and reconstituting the space between its primary characters. That wanderlust is what’s made the series relevant among its grandiose competition. But when an episode gets small, as did tonight’s, it can feel as satisfying as Saturday-morning nostalgia.
“Master Plan” barely sniffs at the season’s most significant continuing threads: Neal and the Dutchman’s tenuous alliance, Neal’s jarring decision to pursue criminality in earnest, Peter and Neal’s tightrope of trust, and Agent Siegel’s untimely death. The latter wasn’t addressed whatsoever, making it difficult at first to simply disappear into Burke/Caffrey's signature chummy recon. White Collar’s tendency of late has been to conclude each hour with a coda that furthers the mechanisms of any lingering drama, but “Master Plan” is focused entirely on its primary engagement: sussing out and slapping cuffs on a man posing as long-missing millionaire heir Patrick Wolcott (Zachary Booth) in order to reap his ailing father William’s (Richard Thomas, on loan from The Americans) massive trust fund.
It’d be hard to imagine cramming any extraneous storytelling into a plot that swells denser as the hour hums along. Of note is Elizabeth’s centrality to the action. She used to tutor young Patrick, as it turns out, and is the first one to intuit something’s amiss. Soon, Neal’s undercover as the family butler and scavenging for prints. Simple enough. Until, that is, we learn a lot very fast: The real Patrick is alive. Fake Patrick is holding him hostage nearby and even draining his blood so he can have some shady underground veterinarian (why are vets always stuck aiding wayward scam artists on these shows?) surgically implant a penrose drain tube into his arm should anyone call for a blood test. Say what?
What we never really get is a solid explanation for why the real Patrick decided to come back after more than a decade globetrotting under an assumed identity. Only after Peter and Neal make the bust do we get the exposition detailing real and fake Patrick’s encounter in Santorini, their uncanny resemblance, journey back West together and subsequent heir-napping. Not that Patrick necessitated an in-depth character study. He was, after all, just passing through White Collar for the briefest of stays.
And that’s okay. It’s what brings us back to the idea that not all information has to be delivered in the right order and not every minor player needs a backstory behind their on-screen alias. (Though one would be valid in wondering whether all that time spent showcasing the BMW upended narrative coherence.) “Master Plan,” while not executed perfectly, is confident it’s spinning a compelling yarn, one we’ll want to see bear out. And we do, and it does, and not without surprises (who among us foresaw the aforementioned penrose trick?).
Episodic structure aside, writer Alexandra McNally (one of the show’s constants, and one of their best) hit all the right minor notes, which is just as important to a caper á la White Collar as it might be to a screwball comedy like The Mindy Project. Sure, we probably all cringed during Peter and Liz’s double-header of baseball-themed bedroom entendres, but it’s true to who they are. A few scenes later, when Neal assesses Mozzie (relegated here to pure comic relief with Elizabeth taking the supporting light) in a beekeeper’s attire and quips, “How’s life on Golden Pond?” it's the kind of erudite zinger that only Neal could get away with and that Mozz is self-effacing enough to receive with good nature. And if so much of performance and making audiences feel connected to characters is in facial expression, Neal and Peter’s delight at each other’s mutual encouragement to have fun on the job is infectious.
We’ll have to assume that darker clouds will gather overhead once again next week. After all, as I alluded to earlier, there is much to attend to. And while Walcott’s defamed butler Stanton might opine that laundry is to be cleaned and not aired, there’s plenty of unfinished season five housekeeping to be broadcast.
- Did we always know Mitchell was Elizabeth’s maiden name?
- And did we ever want to know what salves Mozz’s undercarriage?
- William was quite Conrad Grayson-esque, but without the duplicity. Oh, the duplicity.
- Cheval Chase, heh heh.
- What was that Mortensen case about, damnit?
- That Red Sox fan/Picasso analogy actually worked for me.
- How convenient that Liz arrived just with Stanton on his way out for them to share pleasantries.
- Oh, and by the by, actor T. Ryder Smith, who plays Stanton, once inhabited the oblong visage of Brainscan killer The Trickster. You’re welcome.
- The 92nd Street Y is, in fact, quite a nice place to see a reading, panel, or lecture.
- Oh-see-la-cos-eeh-um. So that’s how you pronounce it!