[WARNING: The following story contains spoilers from Thursday's season premiere of White Collar. Read at your own risk.]
White Collar's final season may be short, but it's clear that the writers are making every episode count. Thursday's season premiere was chock full of major moments, including the death of Neal's former lover Rebecca (Bridget Regan) and the news that Peter (Tim DeKay) and Elizabeth (Tiffani Thiessen) are finally expecting their first child. However, the most stunning turn of events was Neal's sudden change of circumstances. After being kidnapped in the Season 5 finale, Neal (Matt Bomer) not only helped the FBI arrest his kidnapper, but along the way, he also found his way into one of the most elite group of thieves in the world: the Pink Panthers. And in exchange for taking the criminals down, Neal told Peter that he wants his freedom from the FBI for once and for all.
"Obviously there was a disappointment," creator Jeff Eastin told TVGuide.com about the final season. "Everybody was hoping for a full season, but once we settled in and said, 'OK, what does this do for us?' It really was nice. The thing about White Collar is we've always had that mythology going through the show, but we've also lived on the case of the week, the bad guy of the week. Going into [this season], I said, 'Let's not do that. Let's do a miniseries. Let's just make this about the guys and one big case.' ... I'm really happy with the way it came out."
So how will Rebecca's death and Elizabeth's pregnancy shake things up for Neal and Peter? Eastin previewed what's to come in the final five episodes:
How will Neal's going undercover with the Pink Panthers differ from the cons we've seen before?
Jeff Eastin: I think it's a little bit more fun, it's a little bigger. But really I think the biggest difference is that it's going to run over several episodes. Again, having just finished the finale, I can say without spoiling too much that the big final act of this big con is going to happen in the finale and it's really big and it's really fun. I'd said it's probably the biggest con we've ever done on the show.
This con is a big undertaking because there's a lot of pressure within the FBI to get the Pink Panthers, and there are times when Neal can't wear his anklet. How will that impact Neal and Peter's relationship?
Eastin: I think the secret of the series — and it's been so hard to do — is the idea of how do you keep this relationship fresh? Because there's always that element whenever they test the show at the beginning of the year, there's always a group that says, "Take Neal off his anklet! No more secrets between Peter and Neal. Just make 'em buddies and have them solve crime." But then there's nothing interesting left. So, for us, the hard part was always: How do we set it up that Neal can have these secrets from Peter without destroying that relationship? In Episode 1, Neal obviously hints around that maybe what he's doing with the Panthers isn't on the up and up and, of course, it's Neal. The other thing that becomes very important this year is what Peter promises Neal at the beginning of Episode 2, that this time, this will be the one that will get him his freedom. It also threatens their friendship and it will play a big factor leading up to the finale.
Another big part of the premiere was Rebecca's death and her choice to die rather than go back to jail. How will that affect Neal and his thoughts about his future?
Eastin: It's one of those things that will probably be subtle. I don't know if everybody will catch it, but, without spoiling anything, once you see the finale, you'll see how that does really heavily affect Neal. ... Neal has a heart and what Peter has sort of given Neal throughout the series I think is a soul and what's he really learned from Peter is the value of friendship and the value of putting others above yourself. What he realizes with Rebecca's death is that his actions can ultimately affect other people and it's sort of driven home there. Again, as the series carries forward, he really does start to evaluate what's important in his life, who are the people in his life that he cares about? The thing we set up about the Panthers is, if you double-cross them, they not only come after you, they go after anybody you've ever loved and cared about. Those factors really become a motivating factor in the finale.
In the premiere, Elizabeth revealed that she's pregnant. How does this news change in Peter's personal life affect him for the rest of the season?
Eastin: Now that there's a baby in the mix, Peter has to be more careful. ... One of the things I've always loved about the Burkes is that they're a really great couple. They don't fight. They really do love each other. This is the first time where the Burkes really do get mad at each other, and they really fight. And it's really about Peter having to make those decisions just like Neal: Who am I? What do I believe? And who's important to me? For Peter, it's really looking at his life also and saying, "OK, I have to be a little more careful than I have been."
A big theme in the premiere was the talk about borrowed time and Rebecca's statement that people like her and Neal either end up dead or behind bars. Is that a theme of the final season? Will that come up again in upcoming episodes?
Eastin: Yes, this idea that is death preferable to living behind bars? But those bars, in this case, could be very metaphorical. The bars can mean a lot of things other than just steel bars but that does become a reoccurring theme in this final season.
What else would you say the bars represent?
Eastin: The most dangerous prison you can find yourself in is the prison in your own mind where you're really torturing yourself, and that can come about because, perhaps you lose the people around you. That's probably one of the most painful things, if you suddenly lose the people around you or have caused the loss of the people around you. And that becomes the metaphor for the season, which is: Which one is preferable?
White Collar airs Thursdays at 9/8c on USA. What did you think of the season premiere?