(Since I haven't gotten my general spoiler policy post together, I suppose I should warn that anything that has aired on White Collar already is fair game in this post, so avoid if you wish. Whether these plot details actually count as spoilers is a separate discussion.)
White Collar returned for season three a few weeks ago, and while I'm thrilled to have it back, and happy enough with the case-of-the-week A plots, I've found myself deeply disturbed and even upset by what seems like the ongoing arc of the season: Neal and Mozzie's attempt to escape with the Nazi treasure. Now, I know that Neal's a con man and a criminal. I KNOW. Criminals do these things. But just because Neal is a criminal doesn't mean that it's in character for him to do any criminal thing, just for the heck of it.
And this escape does not seem to be in character. Neal has always made it very clear that it's not about the money for him. He's not greedy. It's about figuring things out, being the best, achieving the impossible. But this Nazi treasure con? Neal didn't even do it. Mozzie did. And Neal's not taking an active role in planning the escape. Mozzie's selling the art; Mozzie's coming up with new identities. We're supposed to think Neal wants to just ride along as a passenger on Mozzie's escape? WHY? Neal trying to escape by any means necessary makes sense if it's for a specific reason, like saving Kate. But escaping, without actually pulling anything off himself, just to . . . what, sit on an island with Mozzie and random girls and nothing at all to do? Rather than staying in New York with Peter and Sara and El and June and work he loves? That really does not seem like the Neal Caffrey we know.
I usually have a great deal of respect for writers' and showrunners' opinions and try to accept what they say as true, because the shows and characters are their creation so they are by definition right. But I have so much trouble believing Jeff Eastin's oft-repeated claim that Neal is just intrinsically bad to the core - because even if Eastin believes that, it's not what he and his writers have written. To put things in dorky but handy D&D terms, Neal's Chaotic, sure, but he's not Evil. Rather than a bad guy who wants to be good, as Eastin says, Neal has so far been portrayed as a good-hearted guy who figured out he was good at things that happened to be illegal and wound up using that as a way to survive. Remember, when Neal thought he could get Kate back, he wanted to settle down and go straight. He wanted to join the PTA. If, with no particular reason for the switch, we are now supposed to believe that he wants to leave everything and everyone he loves (except Mozzie), just for money - then, frankly, that's just shoddy writing.
Is this arc redeemable? Sure. Here are a few ways this could go:
1) In my wildest dreams, Neal is actually just playing along to build a really good case against Mozzie, who he will turn in to Peter and then Mozzie will go to jail forever and we won't have to deal with him anymore, the obnoxious creep.
2) In my slightly more practical daydreams, Neal is going along with Mozzie's plan, but has some other hidden motivation besides the money that will eventually make me hate this plotline less, and eventually help him reconcile with Peter.
3) In my fairly realistic hopes, Neal is honestly tempted, and almost goes through with it, but ends up deciding to sacrifice the treasure, Mozzie, or both in exchange for saving Peter or El or even Sara, in some way.
My deepest fear (I mean, about this, not, like, in the universe) is that the show has in fact been conning the audience all along. And I think that's different than having a con man as the main character. We know that Neal cons the other characters, but we're generally on the inside. When we see him act sympathetically when he's not conning someone other than us, though, that's a different story. We believe that, because the character doesn't - CAN'T - know there's an audience he's supposed to be persuading. If the show is using Neal to con the audience, though, then we're giving up any pretense of fair play and the entire thing is just emotional manipulation, and not the good kind. Veronica Mars pulled this off for one episode, but if White Collar has been doing it for the entire run of the show, I'm not sure they can come back from that. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is interesting and all, but I wouldn't tune in for that every week.
So come on, show! You can do it! Let Neal be tempted and conflicted, but not evil or suddenly greedy. Let Peter and El be a good influence. Let Sara give him a reason to stay. Let us have the show we thought we were watching for the first two incredible seasons.