Wednesday, November 25, 2009

White Collar 1.04: "The Portrait"

“He wrote you a personal check? To the guy who helped steal his mother’s painting?”

In “The Portrait,” Neal finds the temptation of a painting by a famous Hungarian artist too much to resist, but somehow manages to come out on top anyway. I guess Neal is using his newfound (slight) freedom to play Robin Hood a bit. What Peter, and viewers, are left wondering is just how far Neal might go- is he going to be able to stay on the side of “good” for any prolonged amount of time? I applaud this episode for starting to push at the boundaries of that question, but I still find the series overall lacking in emotional depth. It’s very ho-hum “oh Neal saves the day again…great.”

The episode opens with Neal and Mozzie at Grand Central Station, Neal having been lead there by the map on the wine bottle Kate left for him when she disappeared. He looks up towards the ceiling and sees an “X” in the rafters. Kate’s gone to the same well twice and has once again used “X marks the spot” to hide a clue. A hollow area in the rafter contains what appears to be a break-up note. Neal’s examination of the note is cut short, however by a new FBI case.

I like that the case debriefing in this episode takes place on the roof of June’s house (where Neal lives). We haven’t seen the roof set since the pilot, and it’s gorgeous. There are a number of things, such as the inclusion of the roof, the mention of June’s coffee, the return of Neal’s vintage clothing style, and the lack of Agent Cruz, that make me wonder if this might have actually been the first episode shot after White Collar was ordered to series. The case of the week is to recover a painting by a Hungarian artist named Haustenberg that was stolen from a residence.

The scene with Neal and Peter in the car on the way to the scene of the crime is probably one of the most obnoxious instances of product placement I have seen on TV to date- even worse than the scene I mentioned from Fringe yesterday. Peter is getting irritated with Neal, and he comes close to rear-ending other cars twice. Both times, a buzzer goes off and a line of red lights blinks on the windshield. When Neal admonishes Peter to be more careful, Peter even says “This is a Taurus. It practically drives itself.” Sorry, Ford, I still don’t ever intend to buy one of your cars, especially after invading my scripted TV shows.

The painting (uninsured and worth $2.3 million) in question was called “Young Girl With Locket,” and it was once in the home of a college student named Julianna and her Uncle Gary. Julianna was raised by her grandmother, and her grandmother left Julianna the house and painting in the will. Neal and Peter immediately suspect that Uncle Gary is probably jealous of this arrangement, which is pretty good thinking on their part. Neal does his thing- stretching the truth a bit but not really outright lying this time- to get Uncle Gary to admit that he was trying to use the painting to pay somebody off. Neal acts like he is a representative of the loan shark and gets Gary to write him a personal check.

The check is written out to Gerard Dorsett, and that’s a name Peter knows. He’s a big time, nasty loan shark. The type who will firebomb your office if you don’t pay up. Once again, Neal is set up as a buyer of expensive art. Frankly, this gag is getting a bit old. I know part of the draw is to watch Neal do his grifting thing, but he’s always such a similar character. He’s working with a buyer for a major art gallery, named Teryn, and of course they have chemistry. It is, after all, impossible for Neal not to flirt. Elizabeth thinks Peter should encourage it- maybe Neal would be less of a handful if he felt compelled to settle down.

The staged sale doesn’t go down at all as planed. While Teryn is authenticating the painting, Dorsett looks outside and sees people signaling to each other- obviously FBI. Neal tries to play it off like Dorsett must have been really conspicuous to catch the attention of the FBI. That’s probably what saves Neal and Teryn’s life. Unfortunately, Dorsett and the painting both escape before the FBI can really move in. Peter has Neal and Teryn “arrested” so their cover isn’t blown, something Peter enjoys quite a bit. It’s nice to see Peter act a little more human once in a while.

Now, once again, Neal’s parole is on the line if the case isn’t solved. I don’t quite get that. It’s at least the third, maybe fourth time Neal has been given that ultimatum. What if he just can’t solve the case? Should he be thrown back in jail simply for being human? It doesn’t make sense to throw away an extremely valuable future resource just because he can’t help with one particular case. To make things worse, the curator of the Channing Museum shows up at the FBI. He claims that the painting in question was originally stolen from his museum in 1967. If the painting is recovered, it’s going to the Channing, not back to Julianna.

Neal goes to Julianna for an explanation. It turns out that Julianna’s grandmother stole the painting from the Channing. She had a good reason for it, though. She was the girl in the painting. Julianna even still has the locket. Neal is clearly starting to have second thoughts about recovering that painting- at least he is if it’s going back to the Channing.

Neal and Peter end up staking out a hotel. Neal had learned at the aborted sale that Gerald’s girlfriend’s name is Brigitte, and she just flew in from France. A guest at the hotel is named Brigitte and meets the other criteria. Neal is getting antsy, so Peter tells him he can go into the hotel for a bit to see if he can find Brigitte. Neal finds Brigitte alright. And her friend Claire. The women invite Neal and Peter up to Brigitte’s hotel room, and Peter has no choice but to go along with it if he wants to solve the case. He’s extremely uncomfortable through the whole situation, which is actually pretty funny.

Neal sneaks his way into the bedroom while Peter distracts the women, and Neal finds the painting. When he takes it out of the frame (which kind of makes no sense, considering art loses a substantial amount of its value without its frame, at least according to The Art of the Heist, a book written by notorious art thief Myles Connor), Neal notices an inscription on the back. The painting not only was of Julianna’s grandmother, it was originally supposed to belong to her. Neal makes a quick, rash decision to steal the painting right then and there. Peter doesn’t notice, I guess because he’s distracted by the fact that Elizabeth called and was wondering what all the loud music in the background was.

Despite being on thin ice, Neal manages to turn the situation around yet again. He creates a forgery of the painting, and writes on the back that he knows who the painting should really belong to. He succeeds in embarrassing the Channing curator into accepting the forgery, and Julianna gets the real painting back.

Another “Kate loves the classics” moment (seriously, writers, can we stop with that now- I think we know that about Kate already), this time it’s folding the break-up letter a certain way, leads Neal and Mozzie back to Grand Central Station. A pay phone rings, and it’s Kate. She’s at Grand Central, on the upper level. She wants Neal to tell her where all of his stuff is truly hidden- the main with the ring won’t let her go home until she leads him to it. Amazingly, Neal sticks to his guns and refuses to tell Kate. He does try to run after her, though, but by the time he gets to the second level, she’s gone.

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