'White Collar' Postmortem: Boss Answers Finale's Biggest Questions, Previews Season 5

White Collar Jeff Eastin Inset - H 2013
David Giesbrecht/USA Network

[Warning: If you have not watched Tuesday's season finale, do not proceed. Spoilers ahead.]

Will Peter get out of jail?

The season finale of USA's White Collar put Neal's (Matt Bomer) partner in a precarious situation. How did he get there? Neal's biological father James (Treat Williams) framed Peter (Tim DeKay) for the murder of Sen. Terrence Pratt (Titus Welliver) as they desperately searched for the evidence-box hidden in the Empire State Building. It was the gunshot heard around Manhattan as Neal's father, who turned out to be a shady cat, shot Pratt dead only to flee the scene of the crime, leaving Peter to pick up the pieces and get sent away.

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Creator/executive producer Jeff Eastin is in the middle of mapping out the new episodes, telling The Hollywood Reporter that "there's a very good chance" season five will "pick up almost immediately after" the events of the finale. That also includes Neal and Sara's (Hilarie Burton) fake engagement, an arc Eastin promises will factor into the new episodes in a crucial way.

But when White Collar returns, expect there to be a lighter touch on the episodes after a season driven heavily by mythology. "We did a heavily serialized season this year. You had to pay attention to every episode this year, and next year, I want to relax that a little bit," Eastin says. "I want to have some episodes with Mozzie that can stand on their own, so if you missed an episode or two, you're not lost in the mythology."

In a chat with THR following Tuesday's finale, Eastin touched on Peter's future, Neal's mindframe following his father's betrayal and returning to classic White Collar relationships.

The Hollywood Reporter: There were several scenes in the finale, the Neal-Sara moments on the Empire State Building's 103rd floor in particular, that seemed nearly impossible to shoot. How were those shots pulled off?

Jeff Eastin: The actors were harnessed in, and it was one of those things where we had to take the harnesses out later on. There was a very small camera crew out there. Everyone was sort of tethered. It was pretty intense. There was that structure that was 10-and-a-half feet up and that’s pretty much it between you and the ground. Luckily, Matt and Hilarie didn’t have trouble with heights.

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THR: We learned a lot about who Neal’s father James really is, and the final scene ran parallel to what young Neal endured. Where does this leave Neal?

Eastin: Everything has been built to be in line with this idea that Neal is looking for his identity: I’m not the guy with the white hat who is the hero. Am I the guy with the black hat who’s the bad guy? That’s been the dichotomy that’s driven him. To me, it’s why he’s a con man with a conscience, but he’s still a con man; he still robs and steals things. A lot of that is closing on that final chapter for Neal. He’s getting closer to realizing ultimately who he is. That’ll play out in the new season. There’s a couple of lines where Neal says Peter has been more a father to him than James ever has. Peter comes along in his life and is the perfect father figure. This whole season, we destroy that. Right at the end, Neal sees his real father as not the guy he's cracked up to be, and he's corrupting his ideal father, Peter, who's now heading to jail. The idea was to play with Neal and toy with his emotions. With James gone and Peter left to rot, Neal's got to step up and figure out who he is before he can really save Peter.

THR: James left with some interesting parting words, telling Neal not to take the fall for other people. Is that something Neal will be wrestling with because Peter is locked up?

Eastin: Yeah, all of that is stuff we're playing with as we're building season five, which is that idea that really Neal has gotten lots of advice from Peter and James. But he'll have to decide who he is.

THR: The finale saw Neal and Sara getting fake engaged. Is this something he is thinking about doing for real at some point? How close is he to that point?

Eastin: That was one of my favorite scenes in the episode. I loved seeing Sara go through that. I don't think we're done seeing Sara. England isn't that far away for someone like Neal and her. This is a relationship I have a good time with. Initially, when we started it, it seemed like there was an overwhelmingly negative view of Sara, but then as the series goes, I was surprised by how many people contacted me saying, "You better not mess with Neal and Sara. We love Neal and Sara." We'll keep that relationship going for a little bit longer.

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THR: Were there any discussions about making the engagement real?

Eastin: That was never an option to make it real. It was always going to be a faux engagement that became a little too real for both of them. The question after that is where does this leave them? There were those conversations of what would stop her from going to England.

THR: Elizabeth (Tiffani Thiessen) and Peter's dinner plans are obviously on the back burner. How does she deal with her husband's arrest?

Eastin: Especially at the beginning, it's a very big deal to her. She'll get into the action more as she fights for Peter. Mozzie, June, Diana ... especially when they come to the aid of Peter, everybody is motivated to jump in.

THR: What are the big questions that you're looking to answer or explore in season five?

Eastin: One thing I'd like to do is turn the rules back closer to the pilot, which was really going back to the initial core of the Peter-Neal relationship. We've really pulled them far upfield. So we're going to try and re-set that, that's what I'm looking forward to. You've got a lot of questions in the air here, so it's a matter of working through those and trying to figure out how we can restore order to the universe. Peter has gone so far as to cross over some gray areas and into some actual dark ones. For me, being able to move the dynamics of the two guys back to something closer to the pilot, where Peter is more the taskmaster and Neal is trying his best to be good when the circumstances around him aren't allowing him to do that. Mozzie (Willie Garson) and Elizabeth have a pretty good relationship now, and I don't want to destroy that. The real key in the next season, as usual, the show works the best when Neal has something going on that Peter doesn't quite trust. The more Peter puts his career in jeopardy for Neal, it makes it more difficult for him to sneak around Peter's back. I have a really good idea on how to restore that to the show.

THR: How long will it be before Neal and Peter will be able to be in the same room together?

Eastin: That is the goal of the season, so it'll be a journey, as opposed to just an episode and then it's fixed.

THR: It seems like season five will have a different look because of where Peter is at the end of the season. Is that an accurate assessment?

Eastin: Yes.

THR: Will it have a darker tone?

Eastin: I don't know if I'd call it a darker tone. I think it'll take on a less broad tone. Some of the episodes we've done have ventured into severely comedic territory. This next season, our focus is to keep it the fun, witty banter show but at the same time really ground the world so that it never becomes slapstick, it never becomes broad comedy. That's the real key this year: ground everyone, the world, ground the crimes.

THR: How much of a role are the evidence box and its items going to play? Will we find out what else is in it?

Eastin: Yes, we will. That will also play out.

THR: Calloway is an interesting character for Peter and Neal to work off of. Is there any chance for Emily Procter to return?

Eastin: That becomes a scheduling issue. We hope so, but we're not sure about that.

White Collar returns for season five this fall.

E-mail: Philiana.Ng@thr.com
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