The “Real” in White Collar

What is “real?”

It’s such a simple question. It has such obvious answers. Yet when those answers can be disputed, conflict ensues.

Is that a real dollar bill or a counterfeit? Is this a real work of art or an imitation? Is that the real celebrity or politician or authority figure? Is your claim real, or a lie? Are you the real you, the person who owns this identity? Is this identity the real you, or is it something you’re pretending to be?

Is this real? Is this genuine? Is this true?

It was just before Valentine’s Day when I talked about a quote from White Collar, a show about the partnership between an FBI agent and his criminal informant, a world-renowned thief. The quote I shared was about the difference between loving the idea you have of someone versus loving who they actually are, and it got me thinking about the interplay White Collar displays between the ideas of what is real and genuine, and what is false, fraudulent, and forged. I’d like to explore that just a little bit and share my thoughts.

First and foremost, White Collar, by its very nature, delves into our distinction between forgeries and genuine works of art. The cops and criminals are constantly colliding over this. The entire conflict between criminals and lawmen is because society says, “This is worth a large amount of money because it’s real.” That’s why thieves try to thieve it in the first place, and why officers must respond. It can be paintings, sculptures, jewels, relics and artifacts, or most anything else.

By extension, since the world places such a value on the what is genuine, there is naturally money to be made in forgeries. All those artistic works and old relics, as well as passports, birth certificates, and everything else involved in “proving” one’s identity… heck, money itself. How many safeguards are put into the design of our cash, to combat counterfeiting?

It seems that, no matter how dishonest people can be – and there are countless examples of that both in the show and in real life – there remains an automatic demand for honesty. It’s like an unspoken accord between all humans, that we shall value what is real over what is not. Many of our laws have been built on this, as has the justice system around said laws. Heck, even basic street scams have rules, and the scam artists in question use their targets’ expectation of honesty against them. Oh, and woe to those politicians who are finally caught, without the protection of their corrupt colleagues, violating their oaths of office.

And yet, for all this demand for truth, there’s never been a lie told that wasn’t told by a human being. Why? Because somewhere along the way, those finer things in life, those “genuine” things (unless it’s actually a forgery) become too important. Thieves, murderers, and corrupt officials step on people’s lives all the time to get those worldly things they want, those things the society says are worth something because they are (theoretically) real. So we agree on the value of truth within things, yet we overlook the value of truth within people.

White Collar follows the struggle between “real” and “false” in an episodic format, usually. But the real story of the show is about the struggle between real and false within people. This is particularly exemplified in the two male leads of Peter Burke and Neal Caffrey.

Peter is a rock-solid man of truth and law. There is not much “flash” to him, but rather a simple, enduring sincerity. He loves one woman, a remarkable woman, and he is ever faithful to her. He is utterly unflagging in his convictions even at great personal cost. He is, in short, a very real person.

Neal, by contrast, is a thief and a forger, an active agent of what is not truly real. He is fleeting as smoke, easy to touch but impossible to truly feel or hold. He lies even when he tells the truth. Even he doesn’t truly know who he really is for much of the show. That is why he is so often in a quiet pain, because he lacks any true foundation within himself, and he is constantly trying to fill the void within him.

It bears noting here that many activities undertaken against criminals will involve going undercover. This by necessity involves telling lies. Yet, when Peter lies, there is always an element of truth to it, the lie is merely a veneer. For Neal, there may be elements of truth in his lies, but it is the deception which dominates. Even if most of what he says and does is real, in a given circumstance, he is still false and hollow.

Which leads into the single most basic and pivotal point: the value we place on what is real is because that is what our relationships are built on. If that bond is built on something false, the relationship crumbles and fails and ends, often bitterly.

The value of real money, real art, real identities, and real people is about valuing the most real treasure of all: true love. Emphasis on “true.”

That love can be between friends or family, but the most important relationship we ever build is romantic. That is the one that really dictates our future. And here, again, Peter and Neal provide perfect contrasts.

Peter loves his wife, and only her, and they endure together, because their relationship is entirely built on what is true. They have difficulties, but they work through them together. They have problems, but they solve them together. Whatever life throws at them – and life is not gentle in so doing – they are unstoppable, together. That is the power of trust, and truth.

Neal, on the other hand, can’t stop lying. He has never managed to find something entirely true within himself. It is unavoidable for him to bring that into every relationship he ever has, most especially those of a romantic nature, where a man is automatically laid most bare. His friendships nearly end multiple times, and every romance or potential romance he ever has – and there are many women, all exceptionally beautiful – very much ends, several of them tragically. Truth always catches up to him, no matter how he tries to evade it. And in every relationship, it’s not enough for it to be “partially” true or “mostly” real. The whole thing needs to be the absolute genuine article from the very start, or it will not endure. Ever.

Love cannot rest soundly on a forgery, but it stands strong on what is true.

Thus does Peter Burke, bastion of integrity, lead a happy if also difficult life, with loyal friends and colleagues and a beautiful wife in a faithful marriage.

While Neal Caffrey, who can never be one hundred percent true no matter how hard he tries, ultimately lives in lonely misery. He cannot entirely trust anyone, and no one can entirely trust him. That is what repeatedly crushes the easy, comfortable, luxurious life he wants, alongside his soul, until he simply leaves his life behind, along with everyone in it.

Why? Because when he’s asked by a woman he wooed under false pretenses if any of it was real, he cannot answer, “Yes, it was real.” He can only answer, so sadly, “A lot of it was.”

“A lot of it.” But not all of it. Which leaves even the real parts spoiled, befouled, poisoned, and forever lost.

The one thing of value above all: truth. Whole, absolute, and undiluted. True money, true art, true people, true friendships, true promises, true love, true happiness.

There is no neutral ground. Not in the end sum, at least. It’s all or nothing, yes or no, to ask the question, “Is this real?”

That’s the lesson, above all, which I take from White Collar.

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