[WARNING: The following story contains spoilers from the series finale of USA's White Collar. Read at your own risk.]
"The last moment was going to be a couple years in the future," Eastin tells TVGuide.com. "Neal has just gotten out. It's the first he had been off his anklet and has been a free man. He walks down and, standing at the apex [of the Flat Iron Building], he's flipping a coin. He flips the coin, it comes up heads and he walks to the left and he walks down and there's Mozzie and they get into a limo and we realize that they're going to go off to be the greatest criminals.
"Suddenly we're back to Neal at the apex of the building flipping the coin and it comes to tails, and he walks to the right and goes into the FBI. We realize that its two years later and Neal's actually taken Peter's place at the FBI and he's become possibly the world's greatest lawman. Then we go to back to Neal at the apex of the building and he flips the coin and then the coin lands on his hand and we cut to black."
However, that's not how the USA drama actually said farewell on Thursday's series finale. After Neal (Matt Bomer) and Keller (Ross McCall) got away from the rest of the now-apprehended Pink Panthers with a nice chunk of change from the Federal Reserve heist, Keller got greedy, and the two of them struggled with a gun before it went off, shooting Neal in the chest. Keller ran off, but it wasn't long before Peter (Tim DeKay) found him and shot him when he tried to take a hostage. Peter turned the corner to see a visibly weakened Neal being put into ambulance at which point Neal told Peter — finally — that he was his best friend. It would be the last words the two would ever exchange as Peter and Mozzie (Willie Garson) are seen standing over Neal's dead body in the morgue — by far the episode's most emotional moment.
A year later, Peter and Elizabeth (Tiffani Thiessen) are parents to a beautiful baby named Neal, natch, and Mozzie is back to his old ways. When Peter gets a mysterious bottle of Bordeaux, he does some digging and finds Neal's secret storage unit, which contains a photo of the ambulance driver (whom we then see Neal paid off), a mannequin dressed like Neal with a bullet mark on its chest, and a newspaper boasting a headline about new security at the Louvre. The final moments of the series revealed Neal in his best suit and fedora walking the streets of Paris with a smile on his face.
TVGuide.com spoke with Eastin about his decision to change the ending, what fans didn't see in the finale and whether a White Collar TV movie will ever happen.
This ending left much less to interpretation. Why was this the right ending?
The flipping the coin ending I had before played with this idea of Neal trying to figure out who he was. Is he like Peter with the beautiful wife and the white picket fence and the dog? Or is he more like his father which is the con man and the ultimate art thief? I liked playing on that vagueness, but then Matt and Tim had come to me and said, "We have this ending." What this ending said that I liked better was that the chase goes on. ... The more I thought about it, it's like you know what, this is my universe that I created. I can do with it what I want and it's much more fun to think that Neal is off robbing the Louvre than it is that he's settled down and living somewhere with his white picket fence. Neal is who he is. As I said before, he wanted to be good, but he was born bad, and at the end of the day, Neal's going to go do what he is the best at.
Why was faking his own death specifically the only way out for him instead of jumping on a plane and going to a country with no extradition treaty?
We've done the extradition thing and something also drew Neal back. I had long debates internally just thinking: So what's the way to do this? Neal's done this and run and then come back. By actually letting the world believe he's dead was really the one way he could do it where he was free and clear. The biggest challenge really was hopefully convincing the audience that Neal actually was dead. The only way to do that was if Mozzie believes it, then I think people may believe it.
Personally, that moment in the hallway always gets me choked up where Peter is holding his anklet and says, "You're free." There wasn't a dry eye in the house when we were filming that one. It was that idea that we could believe that Neal was gone and life continued after. There wasn't anybody chasing Neal. Mozzie moved on. Peter moved on. They had a kid and named it Neal. Life really has moved on. That was the only way to ensure that nobody was following him. So this way we ensure that the slate is really clean.
Neal looks happy in Paris but in exchange for his freedom, he never gets to talk to his closest friends again and meet Peter's son. Is that still a happy ending? Does he have regret?
If you look at the series as a whole, we had pointed to that several times and there's a lot of moments where we talked about. If you run, this is what you lose. You lose those people. When Neal and Mozzie escape to the island, ... That is just sort of what comes with the territory. I consider it a happy ending, although melancholy. But probably ultimately where we ended up, the one ending that no matter how you played it, for Neal to be free ultimately, based on who he is and the fact that he can never really being what he is, it's the only ending that would ever be possible for him. Which is sort of a life on the run and a life where ultimately he has to be separated from the people he cares about. That's just based on who he is. So for Neal, it beats the alternative which in this case was death.
Neal and Peter had that big final moment where Neal is on the stretcher. After all these years and all the back-and-forth between these two characters, why was it important to end things on that note?
That was a scene that took a great deal of thought just because there were so many things between them that could be said. Ultimately what it came down to was, "You were my best friend," which I think summed up that entire relationship that had gone from Peter being Neal's handler at the very beginning was based on a great deal of mistrust to point where Neal can say that. ... People ask me: "Did Peter ever trust Neal?" The one answer Peter said repeatedly was, "I can trust him when it counts." Ultimately, Neal lied to Peter and was very deceitful but he showed time and time again that he cared a great deal about him.
What was the hardest part of this finale?
The original finale was 22 minutes long in the editing bay so that was tough. We left in a lot of stuff. The one that will air originally is two minutes longer than the repeats that will air after. The difference there is small things like in the [shorter version], we don't get to see what happens to Jones and Diana. There's a moment with Neal and Peter, and Peter toasts to cappuccino in the clouds. So there were a lot of moments that I ultimately wanted to include which were really callbacks throughout the series that the fans who stuck with the show hopefully would have enjoyed. Cutting those down was the toughest, and hopefully they'll live again on the DVD.
Was there one thing you had to cut from the long version that was the hardest?
There was a very nice moment between Peter and Keller where they talk about the nature of Peter's relationship with Neal. ... Peter really tried to understand how Neal and Keller could have ever been friends. Keller says, "That's what you don't understand about him. He is like me." And there's a nice moment of realization on Peter's face where I think it sort of hits home that Neal, no matter what you want to say about him, he was never domesticated.
Should we assume in the future that Peter will get another criminal informant? He and Neal had great success as a team.
Possibly. I think the ending that we went with, the implication there was that Peter is Peter and he settled into a new way of life which is he's the guy who leaves at 6 o'clock and he isn't going to stay out and work all night because he has a son at home. So really he became a different guy. So the idea that he's going to go back and become the guy he was and get a new CI. ... In the universe I see, it doesn't happen. What I really want to see is Peter jump on a plane and show up in Paris looking for Neal and run into Mozzie on the way. For me, that would be the most satisfying route to go.
What do you ultimately hope viewers take away from this finale?
For Neal to be successful, he needs to convince the world that he is dead. So I'm hoping that three quarters of the way through, that people believe that we have killed Neal. And then that at the very end, they will take away the feeling that whatever sense that White Collar continues, whether it's a TV movie down the line or if it's in people's imaginations, that for the rest of the time, Peter won't pursue Neal, and Neal will keep on as the world's greatest art thief and that Mozzie will be there somewhere helping him out. Even though the series is done, the pursuit continues.
Is a TV movie something you've talked to people about or considered for the future?
Fox Studios came to me — I know they had some fans on Twitter suggesting it — and said, "Hey, let's get fans to send in ties to USA and say "Tie up White Collar with a seventh season!" The idea of that, sure, would have been very appealing. We probably had more stories to tell. So yeah, I think the idea that we come back for something like a TV movie would be appealing and after talking to everybody, especially Matt, I would say that everybody would probably be down for something like that if it came up. If it doesn't, what I'm happy is that I think we had a pretty good run. Very few shows make it six years, so it's really impossible to complain about that.
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