1. She is not needed that often:
Before I expand on this some basics about actor contracts and the difference between regular and guest characters: An actor playing a regular has certain rights, including getting credited as such and turning up in a certain number of episodes. As far as I know, a regular at White Collar gets a scene in at least ten episodes. The downside is that the actor is bond to the show and can’t take on other projects that easily. Rumor has it that this is the reason Sharif Atkins is still officially listed as a guest star. Even though Clinton Jones turns up in nearly every episode, the actor is free to take on other engagements. And normally, a guest star wouldn’t be included into the credits the way he is now since White Collar reverted back to the original theme song. I’m convinced that the only reason he gets regular credits even though he is still a guest star is because the audience had trouble understanding why originally Hillary Burton was included but not him. But for my point the real crux of the matter is the number of episodes Sara HAS to turn up in order to fulfill Hillary Burton’s contract.
I remember back when the news broke that Hillary Burton would be a regular the following season, many critics voiced doubts if it made sense to guarantee the actress so many episodes, if it wouldn’t be too difficult to include her o often. Well, they were right. This season, the writers barely managed to include Sara in ten episodes. In fact, they only managed by giving Hillary Burton one totally pointless one minute scene in “On Guard” and stretching the break-up scene between Neal and Sara into the episode “As you were”. And her appearance in Stealing Home was only related to the overall story arc, not to the case itself. That leaves only seven episodes in which her presence was in some shape or for related to the actual case.
One could argue that Sara’s break-up with Neal is the reason for this. After all, Elizabeth has more than enough scenes which add to the episode, without the case being about her. The difference is that she has a certain function in the show. She is Peter’s confidant, she is needed whenever the writers want to give the audience a look into Peter’s mind and when Peter needs another perspective (on Neal). Neal already has a confidant in Mozzie. Sara is not really needed for dynamic for the show. And the one time the writers tried to give her a role similar to El’s, at the beginning of “Veiled Threat”, it backfired spectacularly. It makes sense that El would teach Peter how to act towards woman, since we know that Peter is not good at flirting at all. But Neal is a con man, supposedly one of the best. He certainly doesn’t need advice from anyone how to deal with women or how to play a mark. So, what does Sara add to the show, aside from being an eye-candy and Neal’s love interest? Bringing strange equipment? Mozzie already does that. Discovering information? The FBI should be competent enough to discover information on their own. Providing contacts? Perhaps, though Diana is already very well connected. The only thing I can imagine a female love interest for Neal could bring on the table, is to caution him when he acts impulsive again. If there is anything “Taking account” and “Scott Free” has proven, than that Sara is not this kind of character. If anything, she eggs him on. It’s telling that there is a scene in which HE is worried about HER, but not one scene in which SHE realizes that things she might be able to do and get away with a slap on her wrist, are a ticket for a livelong prison sentences for Neal.
Bottom line: While I would be happy to never see Sara again, I can imagine the character turning up once in a while when is somehow fits the story. I can’t imagine her being in ten episodes without useless or contrived appearances.
2. She distracts:
Even though White Collar has a lot of really awesome side characters and awesome guest characters with recurring appearances, the center of the show is and always should be the relationship between Peter and Neal. It’s the constant push and pulls between those characters which makes the show different from other shows with similar themes. I’m watching the show to see them working together – that means, when one of them goes undercover, the other one is there as back-up, when one needs help, the other provides. Alternatively, one tries to go behind the others back (Neal does it all the time, Peter whenever he keeps something from Neal for his own good) and the other one is trying to figure out what is going on.
In “Power Play” the main theme of the episode is the role exchange between Peter and Neal – sadly, the theme takes a backseat very fast, because instead of Peter telling Neal how he has to act as an FBI-Agent and Neal explaining Peter the tricks of his trade, Neal is off busy with Sara in the archives for most of the episode. In “Veiled Threat”, Peter goes undercover and Neal goes home to have dinner with Sara. Or the other way around: In order to give Neal time to investigate a case with Sara, Peter is stuck at home with Elizabeth in “Pulling Strings”, which results in a distorted mess of an episode, in which two totally different storylines (plus Diana’s wedding, plus the upcoming commutation hearing) clash together, and which I regard easily as the worst episode so far.
3. She is inconsistently written:
Rewriting parts of the history of a character and a certain laissez-faire approach concerning time-lines is nothing unusual for TV-Shows, and White Collar is guilty of this too, for nearly all its characters. But with no character the writers messed up so often and so obvious than with Sara.
In her very first episode she already gets presented as two different personalities, the kick-ass power woman and the vulnerable lonely person who lost herself in her career. It’s a dated cliché I’m not really found of, because it implies that under ever strong woman is in reality some delicate flower who just wants to lean on the shoulders of a strong man. This version is especially bad, because the shoulder Sara decides to lean on is the one of the con man she was still hunting at the start of the episode. But I don’t want to harp too much about this cliché – I have seen characters like this before which worked for me nevertheless.
The real problem is that we get a real information dump about Sara in this episode. In fact, we learn more about her, a totally new character, than we learned about most of the regulars in all the episodes beforehand. And what we learn doesn’t match up with what we learn in later episodes at all. She is an orphan and only child with no family or friends who lives for her work only. In “Power Play” she suddenly tells Neal about a sister who vanished. And in “Pulling Strings” the writers add the story about having been engaged. When exactly? And why did she go back together with her ex, when he didn’t even bother to send flowers to her funeral?
“Taking Account” is all over the place concerning her character. Her little speech about not crossing lines she can’t go back from is nice, but not very convincing considering that she defrauded a bank in the very same episode. Where exactly are the lines she doesn’t cross?
Similar inconsistent is her relationship with Neal. The writers tend to portray it as a casual thing, a fling with next to no expectation from either side. That would be okay, but in that context it doesn’t make any sense that Neal would even consider telling her anything about the treasure, especially considering her profession. Neither does it make sense that after she finds the password because Neal was playing with the idea to tell her, after Neal made the “so you know what I have to offer” speech, she is still surprised when Mozzie tells her that Neal considered including her in the deal. I thought the point was clear already.
The problem is that Sara is often more a plot point than a character. The writers needed someone to tell Keller about the IP-address, let’s Sara do it, even though she should know better as a competent insurance investigator. They want her in a diamond bustier, let’s think up an excuse to put her into one, even though it makes no sense that she shows it off to the guard.
4. Every character loves her:
Yeah, I know, that sounds like a strange problem, but this is the aspect which makes Sara Ellis as a character very Mary Sueish. I don’t have a problem with Sara being abrasive and often a little bit bitchy. Neither do I have a problem with her character making mistakes (as long as the mistakes are something I can imagine a character like her would make). But I do have a problem with all the other characters acting out of character and not reacting like they usually would when she is out of line.
Let’s start with Peter. Peter is someone who likes to keep the control over things (especially things which relate to Neal). His main goal is to keep Neal on the straight and narrow. He is also unable to deal with crying woman. So, why should he be okay with Sara taking over his office twice (first in “Unfinished Business” and then again when she delays a meeting in “Under the Radar”)? Why should he go and comfort Sara, even though he hates dealing with emotional woman? And why should he think that Sara is a good match for Neal? I can see him pushing Neal into a relationship. But with an insurance investigator who is still hunting for a painting he stole? A woman who acquires illegal equipment from strange places? Okay, perhaps he thinks that Sara might be better able to keep up with Neal than an average woman. But shouldn’t the shopping spree in “Taking Account” tell him, that she is not a positive influence on Neal? So why is acting like an excited shipper all the time, trying to push Sara and Neal together? Doesn’t make sense to me. And while I can see Elizabeth hosting a dinner party for Neal and Sara, I can’t see her doing it the very same day her husband got kidnapped and nearly killed – again.
Remember when Mozzie meet Diana for the first time? How much he was fussing around? Sara might not be an FBI-agent, but she is someone who hunted Neal. The appreciation Mozzie shows for her in “Burke’s Seven” is therefore totally out of place. June has her first encounter with Sara when Sara stormed her home with a warrant and a lot of police men in “In the Red”. There is no reason she should like this woman, especially not to a degree that she would give her relationship advice. And that Alex gives the relationship her stamp of approval is just idiotic. I’m okay with her letting go of Neal, but this is just too much.
Sara makes a lot of mistakes in Season three. She helps Neal to con Diana. She eggs Neal on in “Scott Free” and “Taking Account”. In the latter episode she even participates in Neal’s plan without knowing what the next step is. She gives Keller the IP-address. She doesn’t tell Neal that her ex knows what he looks like in “Pulling Strings”. The only time she faces some sort of consequences is when Peter tells her off in “Taking Account”, and even then he spends the next episodes trying to convince Neal to give the relationship with her another try.
While I don’t think that a truly competent insurance investigator would fall for Keller’s scheme that easily (and it really angers me when the writers misuse a character this way for a plot point, even if it is a character I don’t like), I could excuse this, if not for her exclaiming that she did it to protect all of them. What? Let’s pretend that Keller had been real, then Sara gave an Interpol agent who formerly had nothing but suspicions the proof that she does know something and that Neal is involved.
Let’s compare that the Agent Matthews, the other character who makes a big mistake in season 3. When she realizes that she has been conned, she acknowledges the fact. When she leaves, she does it with dignity – her whole behavior and stance says: You got me, but I’ve learned from this, you won’t get me that easily again. That’s what I call a strong and realistic female character.
5.Neal needs to move on:
I always thought that the objects connected to Neal’s relationships are symbolical for the relationships themselves. The relationship to Kate was as empty and fake as the bottle they used to fill up. The relationship to Alex was like origami: complicated and beautiful, but just a piece of paper in the end. And for Sara, the symbol is a painting, Neal originally stole for Kate. I think that is very telling.
When Neal entered the relationship with Sara, it was way too early after Kate’s death. She was the fallback girl. Their relationship started with a con when Neal played nice towards her in order to get the flight record. After all the lies Neal’s told, no self-respecting woman would try again with him. Never mind that she had her share of lies, too. But a relationship has to be build on trust, and there was never much trust between those two. Giving back the Raphael is a good ending point and I sincerely hope that the writers won’t try to restart a relationship, which is already too messed up to rescue.