The Mentalist Recap

November 26, 2013 by  

The Mentalist Recap, The serial killer who slaughtered Jane’s wife and child…

The villainous mastermind with outwitted and frustrated the brilliant Jane for years …

The powerful leader of a massive conspiracy who has put countless minions under his hypnotic spell; convincing groupies and law enforcement officers alike to kill and die at his whim.

Red John is …
That bumbling sheriff from the show’s second episode … who upon being unmasked this evening, casually chatted with Jane, made one of the dumbest moves in TV villain history, and then died. The end.

Yes, Sheriff Thomas McAllister (Xander Berkeley) is Red John. He wasn’t really blown up a couple episodes back. After watching this hour of The Mentalist last week under top-secret embargo, I initially felt quite pleased: Red John’s death was equal parts shocking and satisfying. Then I made the mistake of thinking about the rest of the episode, both what happened during the hour and all the missed opportunities along the way.

Here’s what worked (and mostly what did not) about Sunday’s “Red John”:

– DID NOT WORK: Red John’s identity. There is a very sly line in Seven, when Morgan Freeman tells his partner (and, by extension, the audience) that mysterious serial killer John Doe cannot possibly live up to their expectations. That film was only a couple hours. You cannot tease a villain’s secret identity for more than 100 hours and five years on a TV show and not leave viewers feeling at least a little let down at the end. Once The Mentalist committed to making Red John somebody on Jane’s list of suspects, our expectations were dutifully lowered. With the exception of cult leader Bret Stiles (Malcolm McDowell), they were all fairly mundane characters. Jane even made a comment tonight about being disappointed in Red John’s identity himself, as if to echo and soften our own thoughts. So a degree of disappointment was probably inevitable. Just not this much.

In an interview with reporters about this episode, creator Bruno Heller made a stunning admission: He didn’t decide Red John’s identity until sometime within the last couple years. That explains a lot about why the Red John story became so impossibly loopy. For at least three seasons, the show gave us Red John clues without knowing who Red John was. That’s maddening. The Mentalist is show about mysteries! This is the one that matters the most! Yet until recently they didn’t know whodunnit any more than we did! Heller says he had some backstory for Red John that filled in various blanks in the plot, but if he didn’t know Red John’s identity, the most important aspect of his character, who cares if he knew Red John’s favorite color and secret hideout. No wonder Red John could seemingly be anywhere and do anything — when a character has no identity, they have no limitations. Red John was smoke and mirrors and then, “Oh hell, let’s just have Red John be that guy.”

And it wasn’t just the choice of McAllister that stumbled, but how dull he was once unmasked (this is nothing against Berkeley, who was great on 24 and didn’t have much to work with here). Heller seemed to address this potential criticism during the interview, echoing Jane’s dialogue by claiming that mysterious villains are inevitably disappointing: “Ideally you want [Red John] to be Sean Connery with horns and a tail in a cave, but that guy doesn’t exist” and “Once the curtain is drawn back from these evil Wizard of Oz characters, they tend not to be very interesting dinner companions.”

Except when they are. Except when the villain is Hannibal Lecter, or John Doe (who met our expectations despite Freeman’s warning), or Norman Bates, or Red John’s literary inspiration Moriarty as he is portrayed on the BBC’s Sherlock, or even Joe Carroll on Fox’s The Following (at least he has some charisma). Or more pointedly: The Mentalist‘s own previous version of Red John. An uncredited Bradley Whitford gave us a more convincing and creepy fake Red John at the end of season 3 (video on next page) than we saw tonight from the real Red John. So to claim Red John was doomed to be this much of a yawn doesn’t wash.

Looking back, that food court confrontation with Whitford should have ended the Red John story. What was the point of dragging out the mystery if Red John was just going to be an unremarkable “disappointing” minor character, somebody who means nothing to Jane, and then their climactic confrontation was going to structurally play out the same way as the food court scene — both times, Jane and “Red John” have a single conversation and then Jane kills him. I can only assume producers were scared to lose the show’s big mystery. (During that conference call, when reporters asked star Simon Baker if he was satisfied with Red John’s identity, the actor tellingly replied: “I was eventually satisfied with the way I killed him — how about that?”).

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