Credit: Michael Yarish/Warner Bros.

After three years of hunting the brilliantly cunning serial killer that murdered his wife and daughter, Patrick Jane (Simon Baker) finally came face to face with the mysterious Red John last night, and the monster turned out to be… a former fast-talking White House aide turned semi-competent Texas cop. Which is to say: Bradley Whitford! The former star of The West Wing and The Good Guys was scary-good in the epic, game-changing scene that closed The Mentalist’s season 3 finale. I had theorized that Virgil Minelli (Gregory Itzin of 24), Patrick’s former boss at the California Bureau of Investigation, would be exposed as Red John. I thought for sure the villain would be someone our hero (and we) actually knew. (I still could be correct; more, later) Instead, The Mentalist surprised us by putting someone we had never met in Red John’s seat, and pulled it off with exceptional casting. When Whitford put on the creepy high voice that Red John has used to speak with Patrick in the past, I was chilled. And sold.

But is that the end of the Red John story? That’s the burning question fans of The Mentalist must be asking themselves this morning. In the season finale, Patrick set an elaborate trap designed to expose and snare Red John’s mole inside the CBI. Mission accomplished: The traitor turned out to be FBI agent Craig O’Laughlin (Eric Winter), who outed himself by trying to assassinate Virgil’s replacement, Madeleine Hightower (Aunjanue Ellis), who had been framed for murder and gone into hiding, protected by Jane and Agent Lisbon (Robin Tunney). O’Laughlin managed to wound Lisbon before dying from a hail of bullets fired by his fiance, Agent Van Pelt (Amanda Righetti), and Hightower. With all due respect to poor Van Pelt, I wasn’t sad to see her beau go. I think The Mentalist’s attempt to expand the scope of its storytelling by getting into the love lives of its core characters has been something of a bust. And given how the show gave less and less time to those storylines as the season progressed, I wonder if the producers felt the same way.

Patrick figured out O’Laughlin was dirty after realizing that he was wrong about his first choice for the mole, CBI director Gale Bertram (Michael Gaston). He had brought Bertram to a public space — a food court at an upscale shopping mall — with the intention of confronting him. After his O’Laughlin epiphany, the psychic sleuth cut Bertram loose, then had another epiphany: What if Red John was nearby, watching him? Patrick called Lisbon and asked her to hit redial on O’Laughlin’s phone and then tell whoever answered that O’Laughlin was dead. Patrick heard a ringing at nearby table. A man sitting alone reading a newspaper answered his cell phone and responded in Red John’s fake high tenor. The showdown ensued. Red John froze Patrick in place with a gun hidden under his paper. He congratulated Patrick on his victory. He portrayed himself to Patrick as some kind of do-gooder, whose twisted acts of violence were attempts at making the world a better place. He revealed to Patrick that he intended to retire, adopt a new face and identity, and use the vast resources at his command to pursue his brand of social justice and reform in a less perversely sociopathic fashion. You know, working with kids or something. (Was he serious?!) He told Patrick that he should abandon his vendetta against him because his desire for bloody vengeance would only corrupt his soul. He then said goodbye to Patrick and stood up and began walking away.

And Patrick almost let him. Instead, our hero asked Red John to stop and prove he was who he claimed to be. Red John sighed deeply and proceeded to describe Patrick’s wife’s scent, and Patrick’s daughter’s scent, too. Patrick shot Red John dead right then and there with the gun hidden in his pocket. He then calmly sat down and drank the rest of his tea, looking serene and profoundly satisfied as the cops swooped in to arrest this mad man of the mall.

So is that it? Is the Red John mystery over? I don’t think so. Red John leaves behind a lot of mysteries that need to be resolved, all of them nifty opportunities for story. Who was this man? How was he able to pull of his intricate, elaborate crimes? How did he convince his lackeys to do the things they did, even willfully, joyfully killing themselves? (See: The lady assassin that threw herself out of the hotel window in last night’s episode.) Did Red John leave behind deadly contingency plans in the event of his demise?

I could see the early episodes of season 4 exploring many of these questions, with Patrick Jane helping Lisbon from behind bars, playing Hannibal Lecter (minus the serial killing cannibalism) to her Clarice Starling. Then again, maybe not. Because the bigger question is this: Was Bradley Whitford playing the real Red John, or was he playing a man posing as Red John? My guess is that next year will pivot on a disagreement between Patrick and Lisbon about the answer. One will be convinced that Red John is dead; the other won’t. It would be a nice role reversal if Lisbon is the one who becomes the obsessed conspiracy theorist fixated with the notion that Patrick put down the wrong man. She’ll succeed, and Patrick, humbled and wracked with guilt, will have to deal with the fact that he murdered an “innocent” — “innocent” insofar as Whitford’s character would be revealed to be a man just like him, a tragic victim of Red John’s evil, warped and manipulated into acting in an evil manner himself. And so it will go that when Patrick meets the real Red John — most likely in the final episode of the series — he’ll have the chance at a do-over. Will our hero once again choose bloody vengeance, or will he choose a different, better path for himself?

Those are my thoughts. Yours? Do you think the true Red John was exposed? If not, who do you think it could be?


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