White Collar is rather like an antique car. It’s charming and it looks nice, but it often doesn’t work very well. The programme showcases fun capers and relies a lot on the witty banter between its leads, but it’s questionably plotted, full of narrative holes, and frustratingly repetitive. I’ll give “On Guard” points for addressing that last problem by driving the show in a completely new direction. But that new direction has its roots in the incredibly contrived final few minutes of last season’s finale, in which Peter accused Neal of stealing the large collection of artwork stored in the u-boat, and I remain unconvinced that the shift in the dynamic between the two characters is a good idea for the show. Moreover, “On Guard” was a sloppy, lazy episode, rife with clichéd dialogue and subpar acting.

I wasn’t expecting much in the way of explanation for how the u-boat heist was carried out, but even I was shocked by how glibly and carelessly the revelation that Mozzie was the thief was handled. So, I’m supposed to believe that Mozzie conveniently found all the art stored in a truck and just drove off with it? Good grief. I just don’t buy that Mozzie would be able to pull off such a complicated heist all by himself. Moreover, I’m confused about why he thought Neal would be okay with it and even more confused about Neal actually being okay with it, but I’ll get to that later in the review.

The rest of the episode felt like it was struggling to juggle the two unrelated plot lines. The plot line about Mozzie and Neal trying to smuggle the art was handled well, but the case of the week was so thin that it might as well have been an afterthought. Why the FBI didn’t just get a warrant to search the Gramercy Fencing Club is beyond me. I’ll forgive that major plot hole, though, because it allowed for that great, glorious, nonsensical scene where hundred-dollar bills billowed out of the air ducts.

However, I’m less forgiving of bad dialogue and bad acting. So much of the banter in this episode felt as if it had been picked from a hat labelled “overused bits of faux-clever dialogue.” White Collar clearly wants to be witty and cutesy, but Pushing Daisies1 this show is not. The scene where Lawrence and Neal engaged in a bout of fencing was downright cringeworthy. Not helping matters was Neil Jackson, whose performance as Lawrence was bad enough to make him an early frontrunner for worst guest star of 2011. It was seriously that awful.

Even Matt Bomer’s performance in this episode was off. He seemed so leaden, and he lacked his usual charisma. In accordance with the fact that Neal was hiding the art stash from Peter, he might have been trying to play cautious and calculating, but he came off as utterly bored and disinterested.

If this is the new standard of writing and acting on White Collar, then I might not make it through the season. Nonetheless, “On Guard” showed that White Collar can still do some things well. Mozzie still spits out great one-liners, like his comparison of cargo planes and Kardashians, and Elizabeth continues to demonstrate surprising resourcefulness, which either interests or infuriates you, depending on how much of a “Mary Sue”2 you think she is.

Something that both interests and infuriates me, though, is the new storyline about Mozzie and Neal trying to escape with their last big score. I love dramatic irony and layers of deception, and if this score had happened shortly after season 1, then sure, I’d be on board with it. But after season 2, in which Neal and Peter’s friendship was cemented and Neal more or less renounced the life of a conman, this development doesn’t make sense anymore. I just don’t buy that Neal wants to make off with all that loot. Moreover, Mozzie knew that Neal had lost his enthusiasm for conning. I also just don’t buy that Peter trusts Neal so little that he would subject him to a polygraph test. Sure, cat-and-mouse games are great, but Peter and Neal are supposed to be friends, not frenemies. If this was the direction that White Collar wanted to take, then it shouldn’t have wasted so much time developing Neal and Peter’s “bromance.”

Neal and Sara’s relationship was also strangely handled in this episode. Sara was almost an afterthought, appearing in only one scene. (June’s granddaughter had more screen time.) If Neal is supposed to care about Sara, I don’t see how he wouldn’t think that running off with the loot would be tantamount to abandoning her. True, Neal did mention (almost perfunctorily) that he and Mozzie would be leaving behind a lot of friends when they ran off, but the fact that Neal’s girlfriend didn’t merit a special mention irked me. Neal ended up seeming almost like a sociopath, more concerned about the stolen art than about the important people in his life.

As the ending of this episode suggested, Peter and Neal will probably be involved in the cat-and-mouse game of searching for and hiding the loot for a large portion of the season. Is it interesting? Sure. But is it valid? Absolutely not.

1 Just for the record, Pushing Daisies is my favourite television show of all time.

2 I put “Mary Sue” in quotes for good reason. The term means so many different things to so many different people that it might as well mean nothing. It, along with “jumping the shark” and “central relationship misunderstanding” is one of those phrases that just needs to die. Also, TV fans and writers should be banned from using the word “angst” until they look it up in a dictionary.