'White Collar' Boss on Neal's Daddy Troubles, Dangerous Liaisons and a 'Big, Big Finale'

White Collar Matt Bomer Jeff Eastin - H 2012

White Collar Matt Bomer Jeff Eastin - H 2012

Now that Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer) has met his father, what now?

That's one of the questions that the back half of the fourth season will answer, creator Jeff Eastin promises. “We've been building up for several seasons now that for Neal, finding his father was his primary goal,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “In the return episode, what we were trying to do was answer a lot of the questions the audience will have asked up to this point. Who is this guy? How is Neal going to react to him? What now?”

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As Eastin tells it, how Neal reacts to Sam -- who really is Neal's father, James (Treat Williams) -- will drive the remaining episodes, and it won't be an easy road ahead for the ex-con. “In this case, it was a ‘be careful what you wish for,’” he said of Neal's dilemma. “For Neal, it's under weird circumstances. This guy had been lying to him for quite a while, so it takes Neal a while to adjust."

The executive producer previews season 4.5 with THR, including teases about the obstacles that Peter and Neal face, the “intense" finale set at the Empire State Building, Neal's romantic forecast and why Eastin calls the last shot of the season his “favorite” of the entire season.

[Warning: Spoilers ahead for upcoming season four episodes.]

The Hollywood Reporter: Now that Neal's father is back in the mix, that obviously adds another wrinkle to the Peter (Tim DeKay) and Neal dynamic, who have hints of a father-son relationship. How does their partnership progress with James in the picture?

Jeff Eastin: When Neal found Peter, he finds that father that in his imagination he grew up with. Peter represents all the best things Neal thought his father should be, so Peter's been a surrogate father to Neal. Now that Neal's come face-to-face with his real father, you're left wanting to compare him to Peter. Some of that is how Peter reacts to this, and we're back and forth with Peter being upset that there's [this other man] showing up and saying, “I'm Neal's father,” and Peter trying to come to grips to that. It really is Peter, Elizabeth (Tiffani Thiessen) and Mozzie (Willie Garson) turning to Neal and saying, “Look -- this is what you wanted for a long time. Cut the guy some slack. Embrace him.” Peter and Neal's relationship undergoes some tension because of that. Neal finally [accepts James]. As things progress during the season, more and more comes out about James that drives Neal and Peter together more than they've ever been. In the finale, it's probably the closest they've been.

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THR: Neal would take a bullet for Peter, literally, but I imagine James' presence will be a long-standing problem. Will we see Neal and Peter spend significant time apart before they come together?

Eastin: Yes. There are a couple spots where Neal doesn't like that Peter's pushing him and James together. There are other spots that, as more and more facts come to light, push Neal and Peter apart before the last few episodes, where they finally realize that they need to come together because out of anybody in the world, they can trust each other.

THR: We rarely see Neal emotional, but there's a pivotal moment in the return episode where he is, and a key flashback plays into it. Can you talk a little bit about that moment?

Eastin: The flashback was a way to visualize Neal's life growing up and James' downfall. To me it was a lot more fun than them sitting around and talking about it. The scene at the end with Neal, those were for emotional impact: seeing Neal as a kid and hopefully making sense of what he was feeling as a little kid.

THR: Will we see Neal break down even more?

Eastin: This breakdown happens over a few episodes. It takes a few episodes for Neal to get back up to the point where he and James are OK.

THR: How is Titus Welliver's character, Sen. Terrence Pratt, involved in James' past?

Eastin: We've set up that he's the guy who at that time was the captain of the police precinct where James was a detective. What we uncover is that there was an act of corruption at this particular police station. Now that he's gone to be a U.S. senator, he, along with several other people who run in a powerful circle, [we learn] that Ellen was collecting information on everyone -- and it's enough to keep him up at night, because he knows there's enough to bring him down if it's uncovered. Throughout this time, they've been looking for James. Titus really becomes our big bad for the second half of the season. He becomes the puppet master, pulling a lot of these strings, and we find out he's very dangerous. [At one point] he forces Peter out of a job. Really it becomes our guys vs. the senator of a lot of power.

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THR: Will Treat Williams be around for the rest of the season, and will he return for season five?

Eastin: Oh yeah. He's in the some of the episodes, leading up to our big, big finale, which I'm excited about. I don't know yet [about season five]. We might see him in an episode or two.

THR: What can you say about the finale? How would you rate this against previous closers?

Eastin: We shot it at the Empire State Building. There is nothing more iconic in New York than that. We really got full run of the place. The whole finale is using the Empire State Building, playing with the height and the elevators. I'd put it way up there, maybe in the top three [finales]. Emotionally, it's the best, most intense [one] we've done. The finale really revolves around Neal and his dad, and it's a culmination of that relationship.

THR: Will Elizabeth be incorporated into the action more?

Eastin: In one of the promos, Elizabeth is holding a gun, which gives a good indication that she's in the back half of the season quite a bit. She definitely helps Neal in terms of his relationship with his father, helps Peter in terms of his relationship with Neal -- but we get her in on the action a lot more than we have in the past.

THR: What can we expect for Neal in the romance department?

Eastin: We do bring Sara (Hilarie Burton) back for a few episodes. Their relationship plays a little peripheral to what's happening. They've reached a nice equilibrium where it's decided they should be “friends with benefits” and they're both happy because it takes the long-term pressure off both of them. She's part of the big con at the end at the Empire State Building and it's a nice punctuation for the end of their relationship. They're at the top of the Empire State Building, and what turned out to be a con ends up being very personal for the two of them. It's a nice wrap-up for their relationship for the season.

THR: What's your favorite scene?

Eastin: There are a lot of fun scenes; one [that stands out is an episode] where the Burkes both get kidnapped. My favorite, though, is probably the final intercut of the show. [It goes from a scene] between James and Neal, and then to what's happening with Peter on the other side; that's probably my favorite sequence of the entire season.

White Collar returns at 10 p.m. Tuesday on USA Network.

E-mail: Philiana.Ng@thr.com
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