Jeff Eastin and company deliver another solid, tense, cliff-hangery season-ender in tonight’s White Collar: “Judgment Day”. Since the show’s premise follows Neal Caffrey’s (Matt Bomer) tethered adventures with the FBI, of course the end of his sentence has always been looming in the future. What will happen when Neal eventually gets his freedom?

White Collar Review “Judgement Day”

Of course, the natural thing for the writers to do is take that distant tension, move up the date and crank up the heat. A few episodes ago, we learned that Neal may actually get off the anklet early, for good behavior and exemplary sleuthiness. Early, we ask? A plot that we thought would be safely in the distance is now right here, right now.

Early in the episode, Neal faces a board that reviews the US Attorney’s request to commute his sentence, and the board manages to ask Neal question that everyone watching the show, and all the characters in the show, want to know the real answer to: “Have you changed?”

Beau Bridges is at it again as Agent Kramer, searching for truth with his own agenda. But there almost seems to be an Inspector Javert-ness about him, ruthlessly pursuing justice in a way that makes us wonder if he is trying to arrest Neal in order to arrest his own demons and disappointments. We have nothing solid, but the vengeance that Bridges very capably brings to life belies a taller tale.

Throughout the episode, we see people who genuinely care for Neal, and through their affection we feel justified in believing in him. We meet someone new to us from Neal’s past, and some (but not many) blanks are filled in. We feel for the person who Neal used to be, and find out that Neal’s past employment goals are not really that surprising, when you think about it. We’re also treated to the typical visual grace and scene-framing beauty that often accompanies White Collar’s most touching and most exciting scenes. (They really do make the most of the available architecture and skylines that are available in New York City.)

Mozzie (Willie Garson) manages to surprise us, yet again, and it’s a big one. We get to see Lolanna again, and Neal seems to finally, incontrovertably, make a choice – answering (we think) the question that was hanging over the entire season.

I have a tendency to believe that we see the “real Neal” in his scenes with Mozzie, but I have to keep reminding myself that even Mozzie has been lied to by Neal in the past. I want to believe that everything he says to Mozzie is sincere, but it’s only because I want to pin his character down to something. Thankfully for the masterful screenwriting of the White Collar crew (@WCWriters on Twitter), the mystique of Neal Caffrey simply will not be figured out.

What he does do, consistently and especially in season and mid-season endings, is jump from things. One day, I will have to find out whether the writers like to make Matt Bomer jump off of things, or if he’s the one who enjoys it. (Even in his feature movie, “In Time”, one of the famous shots in the previews was Matt Bomer jumping from a tall bridge. Can we not keep this guy on solid ground?)

Tension builds between Peter (Tim DeKay) and Kramer, as you would expect, even as Neal and Peter become closer. Kramer asks the other burgeoning question, and if it wasn’t on your mind before, it is now: Is Peter handling Neal, or becoming Neal? Has he actually crossed a line at some point, or is he just backing his partner as usual? It’s a good question, and not an easy one to answer even by those of us who have seen everything to this point.

As you consider that question, Neal finds himself for the first time (that we’ve seen, ever) in a situation that he can’t seem to con or craft his way out of. At the end of the day, it’s Peter and Sara (Hilarie Burton) who bail him out, and Peter and Kramer face off on the topic of people, faith and trust – heady issues on a mid-week cable drama-comedy, but well-placed in this series that tosses around character issues with thoughfulness and skill.

We get a touching moment between Peter and Neal, as if they needed to be more endearing than they already are, and in the final scene, we find out whether Peter has enough faith in Neal to recommend him for commutation. It’s a dramatic cliffhanger that, as usual, forces us to fall back into the arms of the White Collar writers as we trust them to deliver us gently into Season 4.

I have watched the final camera shot of the scene about six times, and I still can’t decipher the range of emotions that we see on Neal’s face. Artistically well-written and dramatically well-acted, he remains one of the most interesting and inscrutible characters on television today.

Jeff Eastin, you did it again. See you for Season 4, with bells on.

By Ceil Kessler, follow her at @ceilck on Twitter.

Full disclosure: Ceil Kessler loves White Collar, in case you couldn’t tell.