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'The Mentalist' ends: Why the finale worked

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Robert Voets/CBS

Procedural, part-time serial, and flawed character study of a flawed hero, The Mentalist resided at an intersection where many early-century trends in pop culture have met, crossed, and even dead-ended. Patrick Jane, an unrepentant con man who became born again crime-fighter following the murder of his wife and daughter, was a dangerously detached Sherlock, trauma-warped Dark Knight, Lost-ish redemption seeker, tamed American Hustler. He was a rake, a gamer, a brilliant bulls–t artist who lived to bust lesser, lousier bulls–t artists of all types—religious hucksters, self-help gurus, corporate scammers, chaos-bringing serial killers—by using their bulls–t against them. He bowed out on Wednesday night after seven seasons and a series-long arc that represents a few things at once: A transition away from “antihero” chic; a cautionary tale about master-plan showrunning; a litmus test for happy endings.

Arriving in the fall of 2008, Patrick Jane was a gleeful “Gotcha!” guy for the groaning “Gotcha!” moment, when the culture was exasperated by so much “truthy” spin and outright swindle, be it by political candidates, big business, or certain television shows steeped in mystery that had us sweating issues of master plan vision and ultimate pay-off. (That was a Lost joke, obviously, though the 2008-09 season was a peak year for Pulp Serial Anxiety. See: Heroes, Fringe, Dollhouse, Life on Mars, Harper’s Island.) The Mentalist wasn’t the only new show that season with a protagonist skilled in detecting and exposing prevarication: There was also Lie to Me, the Fox drama starring Tim Roth as another zealous crusader serving the cause of truth, justice, and transparency. Lie to Me was fine and did well, but The Mentalist was better and more popular for a variety of reasons, the most significant of which was Simon Baker.

Where Roth was all grumpy pitbull, the star of The Mentalist was a golden retriever, adorable and playful, so of course we liked him better. But he made Jane more complex by letting the aloofness, coldness, hardness of his character burn through his pleasant facade; he was the embodiment of the ironic smiley face calling card of the show’s phantom menace and Jane’s mirror twin, Red John, the seemingly omniscient and omnipresent (via a vast network of brainwashed acolytes) serial killer who butchered Jane’s wife and daughter. He was pitiless in his cynical unbelief in the notion of innocence, he took smug pleasure in his mean deconstructions of people (perps and victims), and he came to enjoy stalking Red John, even as he relished the prospect of one day murdering the monster with his bare hands.

In addition to Baker’s compelling performance (which earned him an Emmy nomination in the first season), The Mentalist entertained by telling solid mysteries-of-the-week with some truly memorable villains-of-the-week (Morena Baccarin’s Erica Flynn and Malcolm McDowell’s Brett Stiles were among many standouts) while nurturing an ongoing mystery and some increasing mythology—the Red John stuff—without letting those elements overtake and burden the storytelling. Often times, the writers found clever ways to let the procedural nourish the serial, turning an average episode into an essential “mythisode.” Still, by season 3, the Red John saga was running too hot. The more interesting the mystery became—and the writers did a commendable, faultless job of making it interesting, of imbuing its phantom menace with real, palpable menace—the more the show wanted to be about the mystery. It was changing Jane, too; those dark shadings of his character were growing darker, threatening the tonal balance.

As we’ve explored in an earlier examination of The Mentalist, the show’s greatest moment was its greatest miscalculation: the season 3 finale, in which Jane murdered a man he believed to be Red John, played with megawatt creepiness by Bradley Whitford. It would have made for a killer series finale, except, of course, it wasn’t. The fake-out was a ploy to slow down the Red John runaway train. What it did instead was killed the momentum and frustrate the rest of series. Season 4 was a tedious wait for season 5, which was tasked with re-energizizing Red John. But the story the writers chose to tell exposed their lack of vision for how to pay it off, and more so, couldn’t solve the problem that threatens the integrity of most mysteries that ultimately hinge on a grand conspiracy: What starts as so very intriguing becomes so very impossible to believe by the end.

According to an interview with Mentalist executive producer Tom Szentgyorgyi, the original plan was to finish the series with the resolution of the Red John storyline, but The Powers That Be ordered the writers to put the troubled plot down. Jane’s murder of the real Red John early in season 6 was an anti-climax for the ages, mitigated by two factors: Baker’s acting (the long shot on Baker’s face as he strangled Red John was a sad, savage thing of beauty); and the twisted subversion of the specific kind of Great Man narrative that The Mentalist represented—the hero who plays by his own rules for his own reasons, enabled and coddled by a culture on the condition that he do the right thing by everyone, for everyone when the defining moment of truth and justice for all arrived. Jane failed. His vigilante murder damned him, and the friends, colleagues, and the system of justice that aided him in his pursuit of the terrorist who destroyed his life. (Project your own interpretive reading upon all of that here.)

After some too-quick processing of everything that was provocative about Jane’s actions, The Mentalist rebooted. It tried to get back to being a brisk, light procedural, tried to recover some of its appealing chemistries and relational dynamics albeit via some new characters and new setting. Jane—who fled to Mexico after killing Red John—was caught and brought back yet given limited freedom, provided he work for the FBI. This “new” Patrick Jane met a moment that emerged shortly after the end of Breaking Bad, in which pop culture has tried to move away from purely amoral and immoral anti-heroes toward… well, slightly diluted amoral and immortal bad guys, and more specifically, bad guys breaking good… for a while, at least. See: The Blacklist, American Hustle, Guardians of the Galaxy. We’ll see where this trend takes us.

Patrick Jane’s story—fractured and frustrating as it was—came to a conclusion with a just-okay two-hour finale episode that allowed him to put to rest his painful past, say goodbye to the ghosts of his family, and move into a better future. He married his longtime beleaguered Watson and wrangler, Agent Lisbon, and played one last mind game to nail a bad guy, using his wedding to bait and capture another villain that represented another mirror twin for him, a demented serial killer named Lazarus, driven to commune with the ghost of his father. (The storytelling successfully generated some genuine dread as we watched Lazarus, well played by Aubrey Deeker, hunt Jane and tease us with the possibility of a tragedy.) The final act was a pile-on of happy endings, an overflow of blessings to reward Jane for his degrading job period. Personal issues tamed! One last symbolically loaded dragon vanquished! Romantic wedding! Lisbon pregnant! But the scenes were smartly underplayed, and the energy generated by the cast infectiously joyous. That hard-working bunch earned their party. I think the show honored the fans who stuck with it and by it. On a personal note: My late wife—who loved The Mentalist, who turned me onto the show, who found the show easy to forgive and enjoy after the disappointment of the Red John denouement—would have been very pleased. I enjoyed it on her behalf, and chose to take the story’s conclusions, as easy and sentimental as they may have been, as a challenge to hope and optimism for a better tomorrow. Jane and Lisbon, thank you for that gift.