'The Mentalist': How the 'Red John' mystery captured the imagination, then lost it

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Image Credit: Sonja Flemming/CBS

It was Rebecca that made me pay attention to The Mentalist. I had never seen the CBS crime drama starring Simon Baker until the eighth episode of season 2. “His Red Right Hand” was the one where a secretary in the Sacramento offices of the California Bureau of Investigation shot Sam Bosco (Terry Kinney) and two other agents on behalf of a serial killer — Red John, a brilliant phantom with a blood-drawn smiley face insignia, powerful influence and connections, and a scores of similarly brain-sick and unnervingly gleeful devotees.

In the last act, an assassin — presumably Red John himself; we never saw his mug — silenced Rebecca by deftly applying poison on her wrists. When Rebecca saw him, she recognized him, and her eyes lit up happily, and she smiled the smile of a fawning fangirl. It was all so eerie, and well played by the actress, Shauna Bloom. In the aftermath, the head of the CBI office, Virgil Minelli, played by Gregory Itzin, aka The Despicable Nixonian President on 24, abruptly resigned to take early retirement. Now that was suspect. I was instantly convinced Virgil was Red John. C’mon! Despicable Nixonian President on 24! And then, Bosco, on his death bed, told the show’s hero, con man-turned-trickster detective Patrick Jane, that if the carny Sherlock should ever catch Red John, he shouldn’t arrest him, he should kill him. He whispered something into Patrick’s ear and died. What did he say? WHAT DID HE SAY?!

My imagination was captured. I knew I’d be sticking with the show to watch Patrick solve the mystery: Who was Red John?

On Sunday night, longtime viewers of The Mentalist will get a definitive answer, as the sixth-year drama is finally closing out the Red John saga. I would like to say it’s about time, but the truth is that this moment is way past due: Red John should have been bagged, tagged, and buried two years ago, maybe three. The creative story of Red John is a cautionary tale reminiscent of two others: ABC’s Alias, the spy-fi series created by J.J. Abrams that spent five years both indulging and resisting its most interesting story — the Rambaldi mystery-mythology — and its natural tendency to be complex and serialized; and The X-Files, a procedural drama that saw its quickly accumulating alien conspiracy mythology take on a dynamic, if unwieldly, life of its own.

With Red John, Mentalist mastermind Bruno Heller had the challenge of figuring out how to service a part of his franchise — a lighter, more conventional crime procedural than the dark fantasy of Alias or The X-Files — that connected powerfully with viewers — more powerfully, probably, than he ever wanted — without altering the show’s tone and storytelling. The result is a mystery epic that captured our imagination and then lost it with a mix of bold choices and miscalculations-in-retrospect.  Red John will leave some once again bemoaning the lack of master plan vision in Big Saga TV. In truth, it merely proves the rule that governs all TV shows, whether it’s a formulaic crime procedural, drawn-out crypto-serial, speed-plotting thriller or competition reality series: The obligation of a hit show is simply to remain a hit show, by any means necessary.

Part One: Red John Rising

The Mentalist never presented Red John as a “follow the clues” puzzle that you could piece together. Yes, there was Red John’s fixation with “The Tyger” by William Blake, which sent us to the bookshelf – or at least the Internet – to study the poem. In season 5, another Red John associate, Lorelei Martins (Emmanuelle Chriqui), told Patrick: “I only wonder why the two of you didn’t become life-long friends the moment you shook hands.” Cut to: Fans clicking through Mentalist wikis, searching episode guides for handshakes. But what was always more intriguing to ponder was how Red John was getting away with all these murders (a high-ranking law enforcement official or conspiracy of such powerful people, perhaps?), and how was Red John able to get so many people to do his bidding. Drugs? Mind control? Really great candy? Only stories could give us the answer, not clue-tracking. And so we waited on The Mentalist to tell them.

The Mentalist did an impressive job of building the Red John mystery during its first three seasons. Sometimes, the show hit the story square on the head with a dedicated Red John episode. Other times, an episode that seemed to have nothing to do with Red John would surprise you with a nifty beat that nurtured it. One of The Mentalist’s best hours, “Red Moon,” was a twisty tale about someone who was killing police officers. The prime suspect was a kooky astrologer, and the story made fun sport of him, but the murderer turned out to be another cop, Todd Johnson. In the last scene, Todd – dying from severe burns after being set on fire by an unknown assailant – chilled Patrick – and us – by simply reciting a verse from “The Tyger.” With that, we understood Todd was another Red John associate. “Red Moon” exemplified another winning storytelling stratagem: Milking great story for more good story. Recognizing Todd and his vivid, cryptic death had made an impression on the audience, The Mentalist spent much of season 3 investigating his murder via another colorful supporting character, J.J. LaRoche (Pruitt Taylor Vince), an imposing mound of no-nonsense with beady Cylon-scanning eyes. The storyline could be seen as vamping – foreshadowing more overt filibustering in subsequent seasons – but it was an organic vamp because the show was dealing realistically with the consequences of what had come before.

The Mentalist has always had a knack for compelling rogues and colorful recurring players and casting them well. Red John benefitted from this. Since season 2 and until recently, Malcolm McDowell played Bret Stiles, leader of a politically connected cult “alternative religion” called Visualize. Fans have always suspected Bret for Red John (his alleged brainwashing practices would explain how Red John controlled his acolytes), and since his first appearance, which had nothing to do with Red John, The Mentalist has fed that theory by integrating him into the Red John lore.

Red John was certainly interesting for what he represented thematically: Our fascination with evil, the pervasiveness of pulp fiction in pop culture. He executed his wickedness like a showrunner, telling sick stories via his agents, i.e. his actors. As the series progressed, Red John would claim he was only doing very bad things for the purpose of keeping Patrick Jane and the CBI team interested in chasing him. Red John was metaphorical meta-commentary on the serial killer genre before The Following, and did it more cleverly.

The other thing that made Red John so captivating – the most important thing – was the emotional hold he had on our hero. Patrick Jane wasn’t motivated by justice, but revenge: Red John murdered his wife and daughter in his own home. This event spurred Patrick to give up the life of a high paid “mentalist” – he was really a con man with a keen understanding of behavior and keener ability to manipulate it – and start using his hustler-huckster powers for good by helping CBI solve homicides and search for Red John. Simon Baker has played Patrick Jane with a breezy, sunshiny air that was fundamentally ironic for it masked – sometimes thinly — a heart gone freezer-burn cold. He had little to zero sympathy for criminals, suspected criminals, or anyone associated with criminals; for Patrick, “innocence” was a crock, and he took delight in exposing anyone’s secrets and shame, no matter how benign. He’s Dr. House’s more smarmy, better looking, better dressed, yet equally misanthropic and alienated kid brother.

Besides being a snarky-smug prick, and recklessly obsessive about apprehending Red John, there have been these two queasy undercurrents: 1. The possibility that Patrick liked playing cat-and-mouse with Red John, that it had become dependent upon the game of the chase for his meaning*; and 2. Would Patrick really go full Dirty Harry and murder Red John? Patrick Jane has been one more example of pop culture’s recent tendency to portray dark knight crusaders who risk damnation with a shady pursuit of justice. Neither characteristic is terribly original. But Baker has embodied all of this very well, in what has been an old fashioned TV star turn, even as signs of checking-out fatigue have crept into his performance. He often looks like he just woke up from a nap. But then, Patrick Jane does take a lot of naps. (In a massive attic/loft office at CBI that he’s basically made his home! Your tax dollars at work, Californians!)

*The Mentalist has occasionally played a beat I’ve never liked: Cranky rival law enforcement types suspecting/accusing Patrick of being in league with Red John because of his icky enmeshment with the case, callous indifference to their authority, and plays-by-his-own-rules solipsism. Such bogus tension. The lesson of Patrick Jane: Sometimes, a mentalist prick is just a mentalist prick.

By the end of the third season, The Mentalist had reached a defining moment. Ratings were strong. Common sense said: Don’t mess with success. But the producers began to worry that Red John was making the series darker and heavier than desired, and that accumulating narrative was too much for viewers to carry forward and might discourage new viewers from watching. Moreover, after three years of building and stretching, clues and misdirection, fans needed a substantial development. The predicament was analogous to romantic dramas with an ongoing when-are-they-ever-going-to-get-together storyline. See: Castle. The producers of that ABC show addressed a similar crossroads at the end of its third season by having Nathan Fillion’s titular novelist/crime-solver character finally declare his love for Stana Katic’s police detective … as she was fading into unconsciousness and possibly into death. She recovered, of course, and spent the next season pretending she didn’t hear him.

The Mentalist followed suit with its season 3 finale, which, coincidentally, aired three days after the aforementioned Castle episode. (I like trivia.) A two-hour, two-ep event – “Strawberries and Cream (parts 1 and 2)” — brought Patrick Jane face-to-face with Red John at a shopping mall food court. Or at least Patrick thought he was facing off with Red John. The dude sounded like Red John – a fey high tenor – and oozed the requisite high-strange sinister. Bradley Whitford (The West Wing, Trophy Wife), in an unbilled cameo, was terrific in the part, and Simon Baker rocked the acting duet with him. The scene was exactly what you wanted from this showdown, and it ended with Patrick cooly pulling a gun and murdering Red John and then returning to his cup of tea.

It was a killer moment. And of course, it was a fake-out. In the season 4 premiere, Patrick and company figured out that Whitford’s character, Timothy Carter, wasn’t Red John, but another Red John proxy. Patrick, always the con man, then let the world believe – while defending himself during his murder trial (he was acquitted; whew!) – that no matter what the evidence said, he believed that he had killed the real Red John. The lie was all about gaining a tactical advantage: Patrick wanted to lull his adversary into think he was done and over the case. It was a clever-clever strategic stall – for Patrick, and for the show.

Some viewers felt burned by the Red John/Timothy Carter bait and switch. It felt like the show was taking back its biggest, boldest, all-time best move and walking Red John back to zero. But for others, the (not completely unexpected) revelation was welcome news: As perfect as that shopping mall showdown might have been, The Mentalist had not yet provided answers for the sub-mysteries associated with Red John, like the significance of the Blake poem or how Red John was manipulating his minions. The show could have kept Red John dead and cleaned up the lingering questions without him. But the most compelling scenario for mystery resolution was this: Patrick had to collar Red John and make him spill his secrets. The season 3 finale misdirect, then, really was pure “Strawberries and Cream” – which is to say, The Mentalist was having its cake and eating it, too. The maneuver allowed the producers to credibly scale back on Red John and focus more on lighter, case-of-the-week stories.

It made a lot of sense. And it was a miscalculation from which the show never recovered.

NEXT: PART TWO: RED JOHN WANING


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