The explosive (how cool was that fire thing Neal did with the kiln?!?) White Collar season premiere may have answered one big lingering mystery -- Sam Phelps a.k.a. James Bennett is Neal's father and is not a cop killer -- but set up countless new questions.
In an attempt to gain some season 4.5 clarity, I caught up with EP Jeff Eastin to find out who's coming back, who's leaving for good and what the finale holds for our White Collar crew!
ETonline: Neal ended the premiere by hugging his father. Where does that relationship go from here?
Jeff Eastin: Since season one, we've been working off this idea that Neal doesn't know who he is because he didn't know who his family was. There was a line early on where he said, "If I'm not my father's son, who am I?" Now, he's had the chance to meet his father and it's very much a case of be careful what you wish for. He finds a shadowy reflection of himself in James and that’s hard for him to deal with. This season is about Neal starting to fall back in love with his father.
ETonline: We've also watched Peter realize that sometimes you have to do bad things to yield good results. Will he continue to struggle with straddling that line this season?
Eastin: That's very much Peter's journey in these episodes. He's been flirting with that, and I can say that this season, Hughes [Peter's F.B.I. boss played by James Rebhorn] is forced out of his job and that makes everyone realize they're dealing with forces that are stronger than anything they've faced in the past. But when Hughes leaves the office, he doesn't leave the show -- he becomes a clandestine mentor for Peter and he factors in heavily to Peter trying very hard to go back to the right and wrong morality he's used to. With Hughes being forced out, Peter realizes the bureau has kind of turned on him. As much as he's told to be careful or he'll turn into Caffrey, it's the realization that to restore law and order, Peter has to basically become Neal -- that's his big arc this season.
ETonline: The fans love when Elizabeth gets in on the caper, and in the exclusive season-long teaser we posted, Elizabeth was seen wielding a gun. Does she continue to get more involved with Peter's job this season?
Eastin: Yeah. There's a couple good episodes for her this season. On the emotional side, she factors heavily into Neal accepting his father and Peter accepting that he needs to do evil to do good. But we've also got a great episode where Peter and Elizabeth get kidnapped together. Elizabeth definitely has a much bigger part in this season than she ever has before.
ETonline: With Neal re-evaluating everything about himself in light of meeting his dad, will we see Sara Ellis (played by Hilarie Burton) return?
Eastin: I always thought it was so funny that when I first introduced Sara, the fan reaction was decidedly negative. I think she brought a lot of baggage from her last show [One Tree Hill]. One time I straight up asked her, "What did you do over there? Geez!" [laughs] There seemed to be a lot of negativity, but when I moved away from that relationship, suddenly all the hate turned into love, so Hilarie will be back for several episodes this season. It all goes back to Neal wanting Peter's life. It's like Goldilocks in a way: Kate was too pure, Alex was too far on the criminal side, but Sarah is just right. She could enjoy Neal's dangerous side, but at the same time, she had a great moral compass of her own. This season, they've learned friends with benefits is a good place to be, which takes a lot of the pressure off since both were resistant to anything heavier. But Sterling Bosche will offer Sara the chance to head up their UK office and that suddenly puts the pressure back on because it's like, "Wow, this could be the end for us."
ETonline: You always seem to try and top your previous season finale, so what can you say about this year's ender?
Eastin: I'm really excited about our finale, it's big this year. We shot it in The Empire State Building, up on the 103rd floor, which is the secret top deck that only celebrities can see. It's pretty intense. We got to shoot Neal and Sara up there, for good reasons -- it starts out as part of the con they're running, but it ends with the two of them up there and it's really beautiful and emotional. We can always come back to those two if we want, but it's also a fantastic summation of their relationship. As for season five, it's very much a continuation of where season four ends. Once that carry over wraps up, Peter does help Neal answer the question of who he is. In Neal's mind, it's always been about meeting his father and learning who he is as a result of that. But Peter is able to convey to Neal that your father doesn't define you, you define you. That realization allows Neal to look forward in season five.