White Collar: Bottlenecked

After being preempted last week for the dog show, White Collar is back. Good. I like adorable animals, but I like Neal and his cheekbones even more.

Neal receives another postcard from his anonymous chess opponent. The postcard, which shows a photo of the Museum of Natural History, has no postmark, suggesting it was hand-delivered. Neal plays the chess move scrawled on it and recognizes the game as one he played against his longtime nemesis, Matthew Keller (Ross McCall).

At the FBI headquarters, Neal searches through NYPD files about a recent robbery at the Museum of Natural History. The culprit got away with an odd smattering of items, including old French soil samples and some antique cork duck decoys. Peter is highly suspicious of Neal’s keen interest in this small-potatoes crime, but agrees to accompany him to interview the prime suspect, Manuel Campos, who is currently out on bail. Just as Peter and Neal arrive at Campos’s house, a car runs Campos over right in front of them. Peter doesn’t think this is a coincidence. It’s hard to put anything past Peter.

Neal tells Peter all about Keller, whom he describes as a blue-collar version of himself, only without all the amazing bone structure and thick, floppy hair. Keller, a con man and thief, has been responsible for several elaborate heists, but has never been caught. Keller and Neal have a long-standing bet as to who could authentically replicate a valuable bottle of wine once owned by Benjamin Franklin. Neal believes Keller will use the materials stolen from the museum -- the soil, the cork -- to counterfeit the bottle as a challenge to Neal.

A seller will be presenting the Franklin bottle for auction soon, so Peter talks to the owner of the auction house, Sir Ronald Cattigan, who refuses to believe the bottle could be a fake. He gives Peter the name of the broker for the sale, Grace Quinn (Kate Levering), who runs an upscale wine cellar.

Posing as the agent for a prospective seller, Neal meets with Grace (who is, naturally, young and attractive) and charms her into letting him scope out her high-security vault of valuable wines. Neal snoops around shamelessly -- you know, for a brilliant con man, Neal really isn’t all that discreet, but he’s so damn pretty and charming he can pretty much get away with it. Neal finagles an invitation to a wine-tasting at which the seller of the Franklin bottle is scheduled to appear. Neal also finds a postcard stuck in a book randomly laying in the vault: The postcard simply says “8 PM,” while it marks a section in the book about the old Kings Crown tavern, frequented by George Washington, formerly located on what is now a construction site.

Neal shows up a the construction site at eight. Peter calls to brief him on what he’s learned about Keller: He’s heavily in debt to the Russian mob due to a heist in Stockholm. Peter believes Keller plans to repay the mob with the proceeds from the auction of the counterfeit bottle.

Keller, who is kind of smarmy and slimy and irritating, meets with Neal and taunts him a bit about Kate, with whom Keller has also apparently shared a romantic history. There’s ten days until the auction -- Keller challenges Neal to counterfeit his own Franklin wine bottle to see which passes as more authentic.

Neal accepts the challenge and puts Mozzie to work assembling the necessary components to create a counterfeit bottle of antique wine. He confesses the whole matter to Peter, who is gruff and grumbly about Neal keeping secrets from him again, but who eventually agrees to go along with the plan, seeing as it’s the only way they can implicate Keller in Campos’s murder (I’m not entirely sure of the logic there -- I mean, Keller ran Campos over right in front of Neal and Peter, so maybe there’s some other way to tie him to the crime -- but let’s go along with it).

Neal explains the plan, which is actually kind of interesting: Since there’s only one Franklin bottle in existence, if they submit their own bottle to the auction, the auction house will have no choice but to test them both to see which is authentic. It’s impossible to flawlessly counterfeit a pre-1945 bottle of wine, because all bottles made since then contain trace amounts of Cesium 137, a metal that only exists since the first atomic detonation. By gum, I think I just learned something from watching White Collar! They’re sneaking some genuine information into my escapist television! Since there’s no way Keller’s bottle can pass a Cesium test, the FBI will be able to arrest him on fraud.

Mozzie needs some 18th-century beeswax for his forgery, so Neal offers to break into Grace’s vault and shave some wax off the old bottles in her collection. He convinces Peter to pose as his wealthy client so they can gain access to the vault. Peter is reluctant to engage in (more) openly illegal activities with Neal, but Neal wheedles him into it, claiming they won’t really be stealing anything (“It’s like taking a lock of hair from the floor of a barbershop”). Neal is sooooo going to get Peter fired and/or arrested one of these days.

Anyway, Neal loans Peter a nice tie and accompanies him to Grace’s wine tasting, where Peter fakes his way through sampling expensive wines and gets Grace to show him the vault. Peter rigs the super-secure high-tech vault door with, like, chewing gum or tape or something, so Neal can break in later and steal the wax. While Neal is in the process of doing this, however, Keller shows up at the vault and threatens to exposing Peter’s illegal non-FBI-sanctioned activities by calling security while Neal is still hiding inside the vault. Neal busts this nefarious scheme by, uh, walking out of the vault before Keller can call security. So that’s all kind of anticlimactic, but what are you going to do? Keller, who doesn’t seem to be quite the brilliant, diabolical criminal mastermind that Neal and Peter think he is, taunts them openly about how he murdered Campos and waltzes off.

Using the stolen wax shavings as a finishing touch, Mozzie flawlessly replicates the wine bottle. Neal and Peter present it at the auction, thus forcing the auctioneer to run Cesium tests on both bottles. While waiting for the test results, Peter discovers that someone in a nearby parking garage is watching the online feed of the auction. The FBI swarms the garage.

The test results are announced -- Neal’s bottle is a fake, naturally, but Keller’s bottle turns out to be the genuine thing. Neal realizes Keller had the real bottle all along and used Neal to drum up interest in the auction and thereby raise the selling price by having a forged bottle turn up. It’s generally not considered a good idea to deliberately alert the FBI -- who would have remained completely oblivious to the auction if Keller hadn’t dragged Neal into this -- to your criminal activities, but Keller lives life on the edge. Me, I would have tried to drum up interest in the auction, by, like, distributing glossy pamphlets or something. This is why I’m not a world-class con artist.

The world’s most laconic auction gets underway. Peter calls Neal and Mozzie at the auction to tell them the parking-garage lead went nowhere -- Keller escaped just before they arrived, leaving his laptop behind in an empty car. Neal realizes this must mean Keller is no longer monitoring the auction. Neal also learns from Mozzie that the Russian mob boss is in town, intending to receive payment from Keller immediately at the close of the auction. Neal convinces Mozzie to place the winning bid for the bottle -- one million dollars -- then Neal and Peter meet Keller on a helipad, just as Keller is preparing to fly away with the Russian mob boss.

Neal cheerfully tells Keller that he won the auction, but can’t pay for the bottle. Also, Peter says the FBI investigation into the counterfeit bottle could last for months, so Keller has no chance of repaying the Russians any time soon. Caught, Keller turns himself in for Campos’s murder. He seems optimistic about his chances of breaking out of jail, a la Neal himself.

Mozzie informs Neal that there’s been a lot of new chatter about the music box. He suggests Neal talk to his former accomplice, Alex . Neal reminds him that Alex has refused to help him as long as he’s still working with the FBI; Mozzie suggests Neal make it worth her while.

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