The episode “Empire City” (directed by Tim DeKay, his second “White Collar” in the director’s chair) is both full of aliases and pithy quotes, making it a solid (but not landmark) link in the Season 4 quest to know more about Neal Caffrey, his father, and the murder that got both of them where they are now.
White Collar “Empire City”
While scams and frauds are some of the most enjoyable parts of the series, I think either because of the amount of aliases, or the amount of time spent on each of the scams, this one comes off as a bit choppy. But what it lacks in flow, it makes up for in enjoyable repartee and musical texture. And, ironically, the most honest person in the episode (well, with only a fake name, it’s as honest as he gets) is Mozzie. I won’t even give Elizabeth a pass until she comes clean to Peter about asking Neal to lie. (So there.)
Written by Dan Shattuck and Channing Powell (Powell who, along with fellow WC Writer Matt Negrete, just landed a job on The Walking Dead – congrats and break a leg!), the episode begins by dispensing with the business of the skyline key: no one knows what it maps to, El doesn’t want Peter involved in it, and Peter theorizes that Neal may be using it as part of a heist or a scam. But it doesn’t matter for long because Mozzie is about to bring Peter a case. Someone is selling counterfeit taxi medallions in New York.
Apparently, Mozzie (somewhat counter-intuitively) has legally bought and paid for a taxi medallion. (We learn here that he has strong negative feelings about being a gypsy cab driver. I can only assume it’s part of a nefarious backstory. Or not). Of course, he’s using it to prod his fares for tips about possible places to loot, but that’s beside the point. Someone is illegaly using Mozzie’s medallion number, and he’s not happy. Peter gets pulled into it, and during a conversation about the incident, they all realize the magnitude of the scam.
FBI scam number one: Peter (aka Peter Billings from the Taxi and Limousine Commission) and Neal go to the cab company that the illegal taxi was registered to. They scam their way into the office of the owner (played by Joe Forbrich), and get copies of the taxi fare logs. With a little research into the non-Mozzie taxi stops, they find a connection to The Cotton Club.
FBI scam number two: Peter and Neal pose as a label rep (also Peter Billings) and talent agent (Neal Craig), respectively, and manage to get a foot in the door with one of the co-owners of the Cotton Club (Delman, played by Bill Bellamy). They get an EP audition for June, and they also get pictures of the club’s record books.
Peter, Mozzie and Neal meet later at Peter’s to discuss their next steps. They decide they need a person on the inside, and that brings us to FBI scam number three. (Ok, two and a half, since it’s part of the overall scam at the club): Diana gets herself hired as a cigar girl at the Cotton Club.
While Diana is undercover, she has the opportunity to hear bits of a conversation between the brothers who own the club, and finds out that one of the brothers (Angelo, played by Keith Robinson) was complicit. She decides to take a look at the safe that contains a briefcase that’s to be exchanged, and finds out that one of the brothers is still in the office. Caught in a place she doesn’t belong, she thinks on her feet and expresses her irresistable desire to peruse the owner’s legendary vinyl collection.
This is where I always enjoy Diana’s character. She is the one person on the show who is allowed to know and appreciate (almost) as much as Neal about cultural topics. She holds up her end of a conversation about old Jazz greats with the owner of The Cotton Club (more on that later) and the whole exchange makes you feel like breaking out your old Count Basie records, or listening to some Coltrane.
Back at the FBI office, they decide that while one brother (Angelo) is complicit, the other (Delman) is not. Delman has no desire to be anything but above-board, and he never knew what was in the briefcases that were sold.
And so the plan is hatched and – as with every White Collar episode – the execution of the plan is where the real fun lies. The team is swapping the genuine medallion with a “melting medallion”. (Note: not like the melting ice diamond that Neal gave the czarina.) And they put the voice-recognition pattern that opens the safe on the left channel of a vinyl recording by June Ellington.
We usually get to see Neal and/or Mozzie making the products of the scam, and this is no exception. However, it’s a unique pleasure to see the making of the vinyl. Mozzie is apparently adept at the craft of sound recording, and somewhere in that beautiful mansion of June’s, there’s a wonderful sound-proofed studio. While White Collar usually has strong musical accompaniment for its episodes, it was a lot of fun watching (and listening to) Diahann Carroll sing one of the great jazz standards, “Ain’t Nobody’s Business”. (And here, some kudos go out to the White Collar Big Band, whoever they are.) The album comes back from the printers and Neal is ready to take the EP to the club, to demo for one of the owners.
Full disclosure of my geekiness: I went back through Diahann Carroll’s discography and magazine covers to see if I could find the origin of the pic they used for the album cover – a beautiful black and white of Diahann Carroll at an earlier age – just for trivia’s sake. I didn’t find it, but I honestly can’t decide whether she’s more lovely now or in 1959.
Finally, we’re ready for the ultimate FBI scam. For it to work, the cab company owner has to come and buy another counterfeit medallion, and the dishonest brother has to be there to complete the sting.
It’s opening night, and we get another treat: June is on stage, about to sing. But first, there’s a problem: the cab company owner is coming to the club while Neal is just getting started on the switch. Before Delman can go to the office to get the briefcase for the swap, they have to stall. First Jones tries a stall, then Elizabeth (who often comes up with a killer last-minute fix) tells Delman not to leave: June Ellington is going to dedicate her first song to him. Jones overhears and writes a note, throws June a few hand signals to stall, June requests some water from the stage, Jones hands Diana the note, Diana grabs a glass of water and delivers it with the note to June, and June dedicates the song to Delman. (Did you get all that? It happened fast!)
A very cool part of this scene was the beginning of “Harlem on My Mind”, where they sync the first keys played by the piano onstage with the moment that Neal puts the stylus on the record. Neal switches the audio to the left channel, plays the vocal password, and the safe pops open. Delman hangs around to listen to June for a few minutes and then excuses himself to go to his office. Since Neal isn’t done yet, one more stall is needed by Diana, who delays Delman in the hallway outside his office with congratulations and nostalgia. Neal climbs out of Delman’s office through an impossibly high, impossibly small window and into the humidor.
“Clockwork?” asks Peter, when Neal returns. “Nope.” replies Neal. “Skin of our teeth.”
The rest of the plan goes off without a hitch (to the sound of June singing “Some of These Days”, and she’s not messing around on this one), the criminal brother returns in time to be implicated in the illegal sale, the love of brothers is affirmed and the sting is complete. Another win for the team at White Collar.
We return to Neal’s apartment to see Neal puzzling over the key. From the last case, he puts together something crucial: the vantage point of the key would be something that was relevant to him, not to Ellen. And, like Delman wanting to get his old life back when he got out of prison, Ellen thought Neal would go back to his old life before he was caught. As he and Mozzie drive to a pier where he used to sit before he was arrested, counting the days left of his freedom, they don’t realize that Peter is watching his movements remotely. Peter gets the same realization that Neal had, and finds a picture of the cityscape from the pier, from an old flyer he’d had in his box of unfiled Caffrey evidence.
Peter and Neal, each holding the key up to a skyline, realize the same thing: Ellen was leading Neal to the Empire State Building. To be continued.
Favorite quotes from the episode:
Peter, talking about Mozzie’s cab: He calls it his yellow girlfriend
Diana: Oh, that makes me uncomfortable
Mozzie, talking about his cab-driving alias: Hal Hoover is just trying to make an honest living
Peter: He’s neither honest nor living!
Neal, about Peter’s alias: Peter Billings? Sounds like a TV anchor.
Peter: No TLC for my TLC ID?
Neal: Oh, I’ve been waiting for a TLC joke, but that was not good.
Peter: I’ll work on it.
Neal: Please don’t.
When Neal asks Mozzie why he’s at the cab company, when he and Peter were going to deal with it themselves
Mozzie: Three in the hand is worth none in the bush.
Neal: Stop…trying to make that a saying.
June, to Mozzie: Listen little man, if you think you can show me some class you have another thought coming.
Mozzie: (waves arm, annoyed) Talent!
Jones to Peter, after a long time looking at skylines: Look, I need caffeine or whisky.
Peter: Or both. Irish coffee.
Jones: I will kiss you.
-Diana as a cigar girl, with a blonde wig and a pillbox hat. Awesome, toots.
-Diahann Carroll. Just sayin’.
So, one of the best things about Neal and Peter being on opposite sides is that they get a little…snippy with each other. When one distrusts the other, it shows in how they talk to each other. I’m feeling a little cheated that Peter still trusts Neal totally while suspecting him of going his own way with the key. Sure, he checks up on him, but it doesn’t show in the relationship. Neal is still his buddy ol’ pal.
And now…Your personal guide to White Collar Jazz references
– The vinyl that Diana is lusting over is an album from James (Jimmy) Rushing, called The Jazz Odyssey of James Rushing, Esq. Jimmy Rushing was a jazz singer with Count Basie from 1935 to 1948, and was known as Mr Five by Five.
– Jo Jones is listed as the drummer on the album above. He, too, played with Basie for a number of years and was later known as “Papa Jones”.
– Steve Coleman (who almost blew off El’s skirt) is a alto saxophonist, jazz composer, and currently the leader of the band M-Base. Download their tunes here: http://www.m-base.com/download.html
Written by Ceil Kessler.