MAJOR SPOILERS: After more than five seasons, we finally came face to face with Patrick Jane’s phantom menace…
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?”).
The one aspect of Red John’s identity I did like was the introduction of The Blake Association. Sure the name sounds like a condo management company. But a secret league of corrupt cops is credible concept and helped explain Red John’s power and access. That McAllister is a cop, at least, felt on target.
— DID NOT WORK: Red John’s capture: The format of The Mentalist is that each week a killer is revealed and then captured or killed in rapid succession. Red John’s storyline did the same thing, despite its importance to the series. Bummer. If Red John was going to be McAllister, I wish the show would have spent fewer weeks/months/years hiding him, and more time having fun with these two rivals going after each other, especially since concealing Red John’s identity was so creatively limiting. Baker said something similar during our interview — that he wished the show could have explored a 24-style serialized format when chasing Red John, but lamented that since The Mentalist is on CBS, they had to stick to a procedural format.
Plus, Red John has outwitted Jane for years, yet not once after he was revealed did we get a sense that Red John was close to Jane’s brilliance. Red John only outmaneuvered Jane off-screen as the show’s writers invented ways to keep him out of Jane’s reach. Why couldn’t The Mentalist actively show Red John’s stunning mental prowess at least once after he was revealed? I wanted to see why McAllister was Jane’s match (Whitford’s version, at least, hinted at it). That would have then made Jane capturing him so much more satisfying. Instead, McAllister smugly held a gun and monologued, like every other villain.
And then … and then …
Jane held out his closed fist to give McAllister a mysterious object. In this history of dumb villain moves, has there ever been a dumber one than McAllister accepting it? Was he thinking? “Sure, Jane is obsessively seeking to kill me for murdering his family and has been chasing me for years, but I’ll just walk right up to him and take whatever he wants to give me. I, Red John, like presents!” This guy was supposed to be the smartest, most sadistic villain ever. Instead he accepted a mystery gift from his arch-nemesis and freaked out over a pigeon (should we even point out that Red John’s bodyguard found the gun on Jane but missed the living bird in is pocket?). Jane’s pigeon-attack trick must have seemed fun in the script — Jane, that brainy magician, had a pigeon up his sleeve-sorta! But it played silly, and made Red John seem like a paper tyger.
Oh, and Red John’s claim that he got Jane’s secret list of suspects because he’s “psychic”? That’s like the writers saying: “Yeah, we don’t have a really good answer for that one.”
I did like Jane planting a gun in the church in the previous episode (a device that was, unfortunately, spoiled in CBS’ promos last week).
Yet I almost forgot almost all of these gripes, once I hit this next scene… Here’s what really worked:
— WORKED: Red John’s death. For Patrick Jane, this must have played out like he’s always fantasized (or, at least, how Heller has always fantasized giving his protagonist his revenge). Red John is gut-shot wounded on his back on the grass near the cemetery where Jane’s family is buried, still very conscious, but can’t really fight back. There’s nobody around, not yet, so Jane doesn’t have to hurry. Patrick Jane straddles Red John. And when we see Jane climb on top his nemesis there’s something uncomfortable about it. Jane is so proper, so stand-off-ish. Simon Baker may be Australian, and his character may be an American, but Patrick Jane has always struck me as British — the three-piece suits, the tea, the aloofness, the aversion to physical violence and parlor intellectualism. He’s quite like the Brit character upon which he is based — Sherlock Holmes. So to see Jane climb on top of another person is strange and that it’s Red John makes it even stranger.
Jane puts his hand on John’s throat and tells him to blink once for no and twice for yes. He does this, I assumed, because he wants to be able to have a firm grip on Red John’s life, to feel total dominance while he’s answering. Jane asks two questions: Does he feel sorry for murdering his wife and daughter? Red John blinks Yes. Jane’s reaction is very striking. “Good,” he says, and sounds … and this is the most brilliant part of the way Baker is playing this … Jane sounds giddy. Then he asks, Are you afraid to die? Yes again.
We’re not sure what’s going to happen next. We’re trained to think that the TV hero will show he’s above murder. That he’s not going to “sink to Red John’s level.” But that would betray Jane’s character. From the outset Jane always said he would kill Red John. He previously shot a man once that he thought was Red John. You could reason that Red John is far too dangerous to leave alive, but that justification has nothing to do with Jane’s motivation. Now here’s the other great part of this scene: The camera stays on Patrick Jane. And we hear Jane choking Red John to death. The camera stays on Jane partly because it makes this revelation more surprising. But it’s also because Red John is not important. What is important is what murdering Red John means to Jane and how it impacts him. And Jane’s face is an almost indescribable mix of emotions. Baker rocked this scene.
Now, with Red John dead, Jane runs and runs and runs. I suspect some will assume he’s running to escape from being caught. He might try to avoid the law moving forward, but I don’t think that’s what’s on his mind here. I liked to think Jane is running because, for the first time since his family was killed, for the first time since we met him, he is free.
Check out our interview with Heller and Baker about the Red John episode. And definitely read Jeff Jensen’s deep dive on how the Red John mythology gradually lost its way.
Here is a scene in the show’s second episode, “Red Hair and Silver Tape,” which Jane unwittingly meets Red John for the first time. Jane didn’t know he was meeting Red John, and sadly neither did anybody else involved in The Mentalist. After that, there’s videos of Jane meeting the fake Red John played by Whitford in the season 3 finale (starts around 3:00). Though McAllister’s actual death scene was more satisfying, this confrontation was more tense and interesting.
UPDATE: Some of you commenting below refuse to be believe McAllister is Red John — which is totally understandable. According to Heller in that interview, he really and truly is. That was it!