I caught up with the season finale of The Mentalist, one of those shows I don’t watch regularly but sort of feel like I should. The show has for some reason become a punchline – all the hacky jokes about old people watching Matlock and Touched By an Angel have been transformed into hacky jokes about old people watching The Mentalist – but it’s a pretty strong show in many ways, and certainly different from most of the other procedurals. (It probably helps that it’s produced by Warner Brothers and isn’t an in-house CBS production.) It focuses less on the “magical technology” element that has been part of the genre since CSI, and has more of a timeless style.
It also has a pleasantly classy look to it, thanks to shooting on 35mm film and making some reasonably creative use of colour sometimes; this seems to be a Warner Brothers TV thing, since the studio has many of the best-looking shows – they produce the exceptionally colourful and charming-looking comedy The Middle. Compared to the washed-out HD look of Hawaii 5-0 (to say nothing of that show’s washed-out writing) it’s usually at least nice to look at even when the stories don’t make a lot of sense. It has too many weakish characters (guest and regular) to be a fully satisfying series, and and the mysteries can be a bit perfunctory; if it were on any other network, the Red John arc would be dominating almost every episode by now, though that wouldn’t be a good thing. But it is a watchable show with a strong star – i.e. not Alex O’Loughlin – and its own distinct approach.
In many ways it’s a superhero show in plain clothes: Patrick Jane’s superiority to everyone around him is hyped up to nearly-parodic levels – to the point that some have speculated that Bruno Heller is secretly making fun of the whole concept – he has a super-powerful arch-nemesis, and the police can’t solve cases without this crazy civilian who fights for justice. The whole Red John concept even reminded me a bit of the way the Joker was portrayed in The Dark Knight, which came out the same year, and as the series has gone on it’s amped that up to beyond 11; like the Heath Ledger Joker, Red John is this lone lunatic who also happens to be infinitely powerful and influential. It’s a bit ridiculous, as it was in The Dark Knight, but it is part of the show’s personality, just like the willingness of Fringe (another Warner Brothers TV production) to go crazy.
That brings us to the season finale, which will be discussed below (spoilers):
If I could have believed that Jane actually killed his arch-nemesis in the finale, I would have been quite impressed with the show’s audacity. It was a pretty audacious finale one way or the other, since it’s not every day you see the hero kill someone in cold blood, but getting rid of the Red John thing would be super-audacious. The casting was well-handled: to play the previously-unseen bad guy they hired an actor who is well-known enough to be recognizable, but not such a big star that he could never appear on the show again. (If it had been anyone bigger, we’d have been clued into the fact that he probably wouldn’t be back.) Just getting rid of the ongoing mystery would be quite an amazing coup, and maybe even a good one: so many shows drag out their big mysteries to the point that it consumes and eventually destroys the whole show. I would think The Mentalist could get more mileage out of dealing with the fact that the hero cold-bloodedly killed for vengeance – I mean after they pull off some plot contrivance to keep him from getting the Chair – than from a mystery/conspiracy that has already been milked for three years.
Of course I don’t believe that we were meant to think that story is over, and creator Bruno Heller (Rome) is already being all cryptic about that. They left themselves all kinds of ways to demonstrate that either Jane killed the wrong guy, or he killed the right guy but it wasn’t the only guy. One theory I could see the writers going for eagerly is that Red John isn’t one person, that it’s some kind of collective name for a larger conspiracy. That would be nuts, but no more nuts than what’s happened on the show up to this point, and of course writers love dealing in giant all-consuming conspiracies. Whatever they do, I’m assuming it will turn the whole season finale into a bait-and-switch of some kind. They could announce that he’s not really dead for all we know. That’s what cliffhangers are all about in TV: bait and switch.
Still, it was a pretty shocking thing just to see a hero, an unambiguous if annoyingly smug hero, shoot a man in cold blood. Apparently Heller originally wrote it as Jane shooting the guy in the back, which Simon Baker refused to do, so they added an excuse for the bad guy to turn around (because he can’t resist the temptation to gloat over the hero’s grief a little more). If the Mentalist is basically a plainclothes version of Batman, he’s Batman without any of those scruples about killing people. He’s not the first TV hero to kill someone that way – Magnum famously did it – but it still has an impact because today’s TV heroes aren’t regular if ridiculously handsome guys, like Magnum; they’re either anti-heroes, who you expect to do morally ambiguous things, or they’re superheroes, who are better than all of us. If The Mentalist were to have its superhero kill the Joker/Lex Luthor supervillain and live with the consequences, it could do some pretty fascinating things. Again, I don’t expect that to happen, but it would be nice if they were to take that opportunity.