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.