Before we begin again, I want to start with a bit of a clarification: this series of essays isn’t just me ranting about characters I don’t like, nor is it a condemnation of the characters featured. I spent all of last time saying that I thought Kratos was a Sue, which several people disagreed with, and having seen how he’s depicted in God of War: Ascension, I’m going to have to say that his character actually can be portrayed sympathetically. So kudos to all of you guys who said I was wrong—you have a solid point.

The point I was trying to make with these essays was to highlight characters not often seen as Sues and draw attention to their Sue-ishness or the tendency of their writers to overpower or treat them as speshul. I’m not going to write about Bella or Eragon because, duh, they’re Mary Sues, and several kajillion articles on the Internet have already been written on the subject, some of the more notable of which can be found here on ImpishIdea. I’m attempting to look at characters we don’t often look at so critically, and raise the possibility that maybe we should.

That being said, I just have to throw this out there: I think Neal Caffery from USA Network’s White Collar might be a Sue.

Look, put those down, okay? Just hear me out: no one’s saying he’s an irredeemable character that needs to be scrapped. And I’m not saying we should all boycott White Collar —I’m certainly not going to, and I still think it’s a really enjoyable show if you’re the type for that kind of thing. And Neal Caffrey is very entertaining to watch on screen. But dear God, does Neal Caffrey so easily become a wish fulfillment character.

Okay, for those of you not in know, Neal Caffrey is one of the two leads on White Collar, in which he plays an ex-convict who acts as a criminal consultant (with a tracking anklet) to the FBI, specifically his partner Special Agent Peter Burke, in the white collar division in New York City. Peter’s a by-the-book agent, the only one smart enough to catch Neal—twice. Neal’s a con artist and forger who can charm his way out of almost any situation. Together, THEY FIGHT CRIME!

I think the thing that makes the show so interesting to me was the contrast that existed between the two leads. Peter is seen to be frustrated by how glamorous and easy things seem for Neal, while Neal himself realizes that Peter has a stable job and family, things that he’s never really had. It’s an interesting dynamic and makes it an entertaining show. But Neal often comes across as being the one with the better half many times.

Neal is a con artist—he can talk his way anywhere, flirt with any woman (any straight woman that is) and forge seemingly anything—art, signatures, documents, and even counterfeit scotch well enough to fool the guy who makes the scotch he’s counterfeiting. He doesn’t like guns, but he’s inexplicably an expert with them, a skilled duelist in fencing, can pick any lock, and received fanmail from women in jail before he was working for the FBI. And no matter how he decides to bend, twist and outright break the law, Peter will always help him out of trouble because of the power of friendship or something. And despite the fact that Peter is supposedly the one who was smart enough to catch Neal twice, Neal’s brilliance is often at the expense of Peter gripping the Idiot Ball and telling his wife and friends how he’s distrustful of his partner. This is incredibly stupid, because there’s one point where he suspects Neal to be hiding a thought-to-be-destroyed treasure, when he can just use the tracking anklet to see if Neal’s been anywhere that it doesn’t make sense for him to be.

And what’s worse than this is that Neal Caffrey is never portrayed in anything but a sympathetic light for his actions. Sometimes this makes sense, but in other cases he’s very clearly in the wrong, and he continues to get off scott-free. Yes, he still has to wear a tracking anklet, but other than that, there are pretty much no repercussions to his illegal activities. This guy hid the above-mentioned horde of priceless treasure from the FBI, and fled the country to an obscure island (which was totally not Puerto Rico). There’s an episode where he assaults an FBI agent, which is understandable given that he thinks the guy killed someone he cares about, but is still massively illegal.

During all of this, the storylines have less and less to do with Peter. For the most part, it’s Neal’s storyline that Peter takes part in. You know how in the first couple seasons of the show Supernatural, the actual story arcs tended to focus on Sam, and it wasn’t until later that Dean was actually given something to do that was a driving point in the story other than deal with what was going on with Sam? In that case it seemed as if the makers of the show realized that Dean, as one of the two leads, needed to have a role that made more of an impact. This doesn’t happen with White Collar, in which Peter mainly just cleans up Neal’s messes.

It’s not as if I don’t understand why; I do, actually. Given Neal’s backstory, there’s just more room to add in interesting plot lines. How he became a criminal, who is holding his girlfriend captive, his mysterious family and all that jazz. It’s just easier to start there. But while I get that’s the easiest place to start, I by no means think that it means that it’s the only place one can start, and after four seasons the show can afford to branch out and give Peter some of his own storylines. The guy’s been a badass FBI agent for years, surely he’s made some enemies that aren’t just using bureaucrats or people trying to get to Neal?

Remember when I did that article on fanservice? Neal’s like that—the fans love watching Neal Caffrey be brilliant, so the makers of the show often decide to show nothing but Neal’s brilliance while forgetting that a characters are supposed to have limits. The guy has actually has more skills as the plot demands, almost more than Mulch Diggums. I know that sometimes the audience has to be Wowed with spectacular feats, but they all come from Neal Caffrey, and it seems less like a realistic progression of the character’s abilities as much as the writers coming up with a situation and deciding that Neal’s got it covered because the guy can do anything. And since that’s the viewers were hoping to see, no one’s really be complaining.

The reason I find this so frustrating is that I am of the opinion that the show would be so much more interesting if it were about the cooperation and clashing of two minds, Peter’s and Neal’s. But it all too often comes across as Neal’s brilliant mind working with Peter’s always playing catch-up.

I’ve seen fans excuse all this because it supposedly doesn’t matter, because White Collar is actually supposed to be about the audience’s fantasy man or some such nonsense as that, which is kind of sort of bullshit. Just because a character is played by a handsome actor, that does not mean he was created to be your personal wish fulfillment. Nothing in the show’s setting or marketing makes it fantasy, other than playing fast and loose with how exciting working for the FBI in New York seems to be on a day-to-day basis, which is something a lot of crime shows do. And even if White Collar was made as a wish fulfillment, that’s no excuse for the character to be that unrealistically talented.

Like I said above, I’m not saying that we should all go and boycott White Collar and all bash it on the Internet. I’m not advocating that we label Neal Caffrey as an irredeemable Mary Sue and call it a day. I don’t even think that Caffrey is that unlikable of a guy, like I did with Kratos. I do think, though, that we should note that he’s yet another character that is written as being inexplicably awesome at everything that comes up, and barely anyone bats an eye at it because…reasons. Well, more likely because it’s a well-received television show with a good-looking lead. Which is really shallow and disappointing.

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  1. sanguine on 1 October 2013, 19:39 said:

    Great article! I never really noticed anything sue-ish about Neal until I read this. You made some good points about Peter’s character as well. I too wish to know more about him.

  2. Ziggy on 1 October 2013, 23:35 said:

    I really liked the line about Mulch Diggums, because I feel like that’s how a lot of characters like “Mary Sue” end up developing. It might not have been originally intended to be wish fulfillment and the character isn’t really an avatar of the author in any logical sense — if that’s the limitation you want, then Caffrey probably isn’t a Sue.

    But where he crosses the line is when the writers simply add new attributes to him to solve whatever problem they’ve written for him in an effortless and stylish manner. It also causes the weird distorting effect that Mary Sues have — where other characters in the series suddenly lose their competencies to make them look good. A highly skilled FBI agent becomes a clueless dork…

    It’s kind of like what bad writers do with Watson in Sherlock Holmes stories.

  3. Asahel on 2 October 2013, 09:57 said:

    It’s kind of like what bad writers do with Watson in Sherlock Holmes stories.

    I was going to mention the same thing. In many ways, it’s a bit worse, though. Watson is an intelligent man, but Sherlock Holmes is beyond brilliant (so, bad writers, of course, make Watson a moron because they can’t quite grasp how to differentiate between intelligent and super intelligent). In this case, Peter has caught Caffrey twice before? Unless it was just sheer luck, that implies Peter should be about as crafty and intelligent as Caffrey (perhaps even more so). It’s like writing a Sherlock Holmes story, having Sherlock and Moriarty working together (for some reason), and Moriarty constantly showing up Holmes as an idiot.

  4. Ziggy on 2 October 2013, 17:20 said:

    I think it can be hard to really portray a super intelligent character though. To do it right, you have to have them go up against genuinely brilliant people and prevail by being one step ahead. This can be hard because most writers aren’t as smart as their genius characters, and this task almost requires them to not only be a genius but also be one step beyond that, to show how their awesome character can beat a genius.

    I thought the Artemis Fowl books do a reasonably good job of that though. The author Colfer manages to give antagonists or villains like Jon Spyro and the fairy Commander Root reasonably good plans and deploy their resources effectively. Artemis usually overcomes them by using something that makes sense within the context of the story and has been pre-established. The author occasionally does cheat a little (as the article notes, dwarves don’t have any magic but have so many bizarre and helpful biological features) but he’s usually careful to make sure that the villains are intelligent and resourceful so that when they lose it’s because the hero is smarter, not because the author handicapped them.

  5. Thea on 5 October 2013, 00:07 said:

    I am so happy to see this article because I love White Collar and this is the reason I’ve been finding it increasingly difficult to watch, but I’ve also been feeling very alone in thinking so. It’s especially sad since when Peter and Neal were presented as equals, it gave Neal a really interesting arc. Bit lately, as you say, is just watching Neal get away with stuff while being handsome and totally innocent (because hot guys aren’t ever really guilty).

  6. Juracan on 6 October 2013, 10:02 said:

    I’m glad the Mulch Diggums comment worked as well as it did— I do think that Neal’s case is much worse, though, because while Mulch is a recurring character, he’s surrounded by people who in his league of intelligence. Foaly, for instance, figures out pretty quickly that he faked his death in the first book.

    Neal, on the other hand, continues to baffle everyone around him for nonsensical reasons, and unlike Mulch, who gets skills thanks to “species abilites,” Neal just randomly happens to know how to do everything he does with little in the way of explanation. What makes this worse is that we’ve seen a flashback to how Neal became a bigshot New York criminal, and there’s no way he would have had the time to learn all these things.

  7. Samantha on 9 October 2013, 11:17 said:

    What makes this worse is that we’ve seen a flashback to how Neal became a bigshot New York criminal, and there’s no way he would have had the time to learn all these things.

    “What’s on the agenda today?”

    “Well, Mr. Caffrey, you have a Whiskey Counterfeiting seminar at 9, a Sculpture Counterfeit Detection seminar at 11, a noon lunch with the police chief to convince him you’re an upstanding citizen, a one o’clock seminar on Finding Long-Forgotten Nazi Submarines Filled with Countless Treasures that Really Belong in a Museum, a two o’clock seminar on Hiding Stolen Nazi Treasure from People Who are Paid Quite Well to Find It, and a four o’clock seminar on Womanizing Any Woman Who is Not a Lesbian, Married, or Both.”

    “Ohhhh, a womanizing seminar, you say?”

    “Mr. Caffrey, please take your hand off my hindquarters or say goodbye to your appendage.”

    “Which appendage?”

    “Use your imagination.”

  8. Rhyson on 20 October 2015, 02:05 said:

    I’ve watched the entire series and yeah… I see what you mean. For a good chunk of the series, Neal gets off scot-free. But don’t worry too much. Consequences do eventually catch up with Neal and bite him in the ass big time. He also gets to see how his actions bite other people in the ass.

  9. Juracan on 20 October 2015, 08:44 said:

    Except…. they don’t bite him in the ass. At the end of the series, he still gets off scott-free, implied to be continuing his career as a criminal, and he does it all without telling Mozzie, his supposed best friend. And Peter just smiles, thinking about how mischievous Neal is while now some other agent in Europe is going to have to hunt him down.

    …I didn’t like that finale so much, in case you couldn’t tell.