When USA executives heard that one of America's most wanted con men, Neal Caffrey, was going to flee the country on the Season 3 finale of White Collar, they had one small request.
"They really liked the idea. They just said, 'Promise us you're not destroying the series,'" creator and executive producer Jeff Eastin tells TVGuide.com.
At first glance, it looks like Eastin didn't play by the rules. In the episode's final moments, con-man-turned-indentured-FBI-employee Neal (Matt Bomer) cut his police anklet and fled the country with just a month left on his sentence.
But how does a show about a criminal working for the FBI function when he runs? By following said criminal to his exotic hideaway. Shot on location in Puerto Rico, the season premiere (Tuesday at 9/8c on USA) picks up six weeks after Neal's dramatic exit as he and BFF/partner-in-crime Mozzie (Willie Garson) settle into their new lives as "James" and "Barry" on the small island of Cape Verde. He may be living in paradise, but Neal's expression in Season 3's final frame speaks volumes about how he really feels about leaving New York. "Matt just did a fantastic job of really cycling through the emotions with that tough-to-read Mona Lisa-esque smile, and a lot of that drove us into what we were going to do this year with Neal," Eastin says. "He definitely misses his life in Manhattan but, true to who he is, he's trying very, very hard to make a new life and to try to be happy in that life."
Unfortunately, Neal's new life won't last long. Eastin, like our favorite con man, plays it close to the vest about what will happen, but acknowledges the "challenge" in restoring the series after Neal's tropical detour and after Peter (Tim DeKay) put his job on the line to give the nod to Neal to flee. "This show functions the best when there's just a little mistrust between Peter and Neal," Eastin says. "Neal realizes what Peter's gone through and knows that Peter is in as much as trouble as he's in at work is because of Neal. But the show isn't particularly fun if Neal decides to be a good boy and play by the rules so we needed to come up with a really good reason that Neal can justify going back to his old habits."
That justification is the "mother" — or should we say "father" — of all reasons, as Neal begins the search for his crooked cop dad. "Neal has said more than once that he wants to be good but he was born bad and that's become his mantra. He feels, 'I need to know who my father was. I need to know what's in my DNA to know who I am,'" Eastin says. "Because it's so important to him, he can't help himself, but go a little bit on the grey side and do things that Peter isn't going to be particularly happy with."
Neal's search for his father has been a long time coming. "[Matt and I] sat down, even in Season 1, and said, 'This is who Neal is. This is where he came from. This is his story,'" Eastin says. "Once we decided to go into it this year, we really got into the nitty-gritty of what Neal's life was like as a child. Matt had a lot of input on that that ultimately shaped this season."
Fans already got one glimpse into Neal's criminal beginnings — in the Season 2 flashback episode "Forging Bonds" — but this season the writers will push the clock even further back in time. "We're going back all the way to Neal as a child and we're going to really get to see life with Neal and his folks," Eastin says. "We're going to see a lot more of what sort of things happened in his life up until that point that really turned him into the guy that he is."
In addition to more appearances from Neal's longtime family friend Ellen (Judith Ivey), this season will bring the arrival of someone else with close ties to Neal's dad. "Treat Williams plays a friend of Ellen's who basically, even more so than Ellen, knew Neal's family. He's a little bit more tied in to what actually happened to his father. He knew his dad well," Eastin says. "He spends a lot of time with our guys trying to help Neal uncover what happened to his father."
Will viewers finally get to meet the man himself — Neal's father? Eastin, again, remains coy. "I don't want to hint either way, let's put it that way."
The new season of White Collar premieres on Tuesday at 9/8c on USA. Are you excited to see Neal away from New York? Who do you think should play Neal's dad?