The Mentalist: the Madness behind the Method and the Futility of Speculation

Slideshow image Mentalist

For those out of the loop, The Mentalist is a television series about former fake psychic Patrick Jane, who has stopped fleecing the gullible and now helps agents of the fictional California Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in their work. Next to his considerable skills in observation and reasoning, he uses mentalist tricks like cold reading, neuro-linguistic programming and hypnosis to solve crimes. As we’re fast approaching the end of the series and the revelation of the true identity of Jane’s arch nemesis Red John, I would like to delve a little into the madness behind Jane’s method and the futility of speculation.

The Mentalist is an example of a sub-section of the detective genre where an eccentric outsider injects him- or herself in a murder investigation and through amateur super-sleuthing solves the case. Their unique skills and fresh way of looking at the evidence gives them an edge over the regular police forces. We’ve seen this with writers in the recent Castle and back in the 80’s with Murder, She Wrote; with psychics (both real and fake) in Medium and the more comically-inclined Psych; and of course with forensic pathologists such as in Bones, Body of Proof, and 90’s British series Silent Witness. And sometimes all it takes is a bored old lady, like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple.

Birth of the Super-Sleuth

It all goes back, of course, to Sherlock Holmes. The literary creation of physician and writer Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes is an expert detective who can solve cases based on observing small details and drawing astute conclusions. Holmes operates on the fringes of the law and often has a shaky relationship with law enforcement. The typical characteristics of Holmes have been used in so many other detective characters that he can be seen as an archetype. In a few cases this archetype has broken into other genres, most famously in medical drama House. Interestingly, Sherlock Holmes was at least partly based on a former university teacher of Doyle, the surgeon Joseph Bell, who taught his students the importance of observation. In a way, making a medical diagnosis is similar to solving a crime. You look at the evidence, eliminate suspects, and find the culprit.


The way Sherlock Holmes, and the many characters he inspired, solves his cases is based largely on what is called abductive reasoning. Simply put, you draw the most logical conclusion based on an observation. When I come home, find a window smashed in and my valuables missing, I must conclude that someone burgled my house. When I notice that the glass lies on the outside of the window, I may kick myself for not making my ex give me back her key. It is the super-sleuth who notices the details that others miss. The philosopher who coined the term abductive reasoning, Charles Sanders Peirce, first described this way of reasoning as “guessing” because mostly the conclusion reached through this method is not the only possibility, just the most logical one. Let’s be more kind and talk not about guesses but about assumptions.

The Power of Assumptions

In The Mentalist, Patrick Jane makes a lot of assumptions. They often lead to the right conclusions, though he is known to make a mistake or two. In some cases, he solves the crime in a matter of minutes. This is what happens at the very beginning of the pilot episode. A girl is killed and Jane notices how the mother reacts around the father. He comes to the conclusion that she thinks her husband killed their daughter. He confronts the two and when the husband denies killing the girl, the wife becomes convinced of his guilt. This seems enough to convince Jane as well. Crime solved before the 8 minute mark. Of course, a wife’s intuition would not hold up in court. So far, there’s no evidence, no clear motive and no confession. And then there’s the complication of the wife shooting and killing her husband. Whoopsie.

I should point out at this time that I am, and always have been, a fan of the show. It is about more than a well-constructed plot or rationally-thinking criminals. It is about human interaction and emotion, about obsession and salvation and all that jazz. Because of this, I think I can be fair in my critique. Having said that, I’d like to trot out this quote, often attributed to W.C. fields:

“If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.”

Shows like The Mentalist often encounter a quite common problem. The writers are challenged to write characters that are smarter than they themselves are. Unless carefully researched and plotted, this usually results in plot holes and conveniences, assumptions, leaps of logic and uncharacteristic behaviour by the characters. These twists and turns are intended to entertain and enthral us viewers, but can also result in bemusement. Take the opening scene of the pilot episode, as I described it here above. There are the leaps of logic and inference as Jane draws a very drastic conclusion from the fact that the wife seems uncomfortable around her husband, while it could be due to the distress of losing her daughter, marital problems, or any number of other factors. Recently, there was a similar episode opener when Jane accused a man of killing his girlfriend on the basis that her underwear drawer was messy. He turned out to be right, of course, and this too ended with the man being shot to death. This was after he pulled a gun on the cops, so there’s that, but still. It is not uncommon that a smart villain has a sudden attack of stupidity near the end of the episode. Often this is seen when the suspect, confronted with the speculative accusations of the super-sleuth, reacts by lashing out, running away, or spontaneously confessing. Most of the time, however, the circumstantial nature of the evidence combined with simply keeping calm and shutting up would be enough for any competent lawyer to keep the suspect out of jail. But these shows often are not about convicting criminals, they are about solving the puzzle. Once we know who did the deed, we are satisfied with the result.

Tell us what you know, you smug bastard.

The Search for Red John

Patrick Jane joined the CBI as a consultant after his wife and daughter were killed by the serial killer known as Red John. They were killed in retaliation because Jane described the serial killer on a talk show as “an ugly tormented little man, a lonely soul, sad, very sad”. Jane hopes to use the resources of the CBI to help him track down Red John and exact his revenge. Apart from his inability to deal with criticism, the show presents Red John as a highly intelligent and charismatic serial killer with followers who are willing to do his every bidding. Some of these followers, and possibly Red John himself, are connected to a secret organization within California law enforcement whose members identify themselves with the phrase “Tyger Tyger” (the first words of the William Blake poem “The Tyger”). Red John enjoys toying with Jane and is always a few steps ahead of him. He is a shadowy figure, never seen but for glimpses of hands or a masked face. He is Moriarty to Jane’s Holmes. Red John’s identity is unknown, but Jane is far along in narrowing down suspects.

Throughout the show, hints about Red John’s appearance, character and past are given. The only real physical description is given by a blind woman who was once his lover. She describes him as just under six feet tall with short, straight hair. She says he is not muscular but also not soft and he has strong hands. One of Red John’s accomplices drops the hint that Jane once shook Red John’s hand. According to the notes of a now-dead psychiatrist who supposedly had Red John as a patient, he is middle-aged, in good health, well-spoken and with good posture. Oh, and he is an excellent whistler. Working with all the information he has, Jane narrows down a list of suspects. By the end of season 5, he is down to 7. We are heading deeper into spoiler territory here, so to those we are still playing catch up with the show, tread with caution. The 7 suspects are:

– Bret Stiles – the leader of the Visualize cult
– Gale Bertram – the director of the CBI
– Ray Haffner – a private detective and member of Visualize
– Reede Smith – an FBI agent
– Bob Kirkland – agent of the Department of Homeland Security
– Thomas McAllister – the Sheriff of Napa County
– Brett Partridge – forensics technician of the CBI

There are two things about the list that are very striking. Firstly, most of these do not match the physical description given of Red John. Going by the actors who portray them, and not by any written description of the characters, Stiles and McAllister are too old, Bertram too tall, and Smith is too young, tall and fat. Not to mention that he was in only 2 episodes before he was put on Jane’s list. That’s the second thing that stands out. Some of the suspects were relative unknowns to the audience and did little to merit being on any list of suspects. Like Smith, Haffner too was only in 2 episodes before Jane’s list forced the writers to bring him back and make him act more suspicious. And Sheriff Thomas McAllister was only in one episode, and that was way back at the beginning of season one. How these people came to be on the list remains anyone’s guess. Of the 7 suspects, only Kirkland and Partridge really seemed to both fit the description and behave as likely candidates. And now both of them are dead, likely killed by the Tyger Tyger people. Confronted by an armed Jane, Bertram, Smith and McAllister reveal their three-dots tattoos, which more likely marks them as members of the Tyger Tyger organization than as a possible Red John. Meanwhile, Stiles and Haffner are looking more and more like innocent bystanders. So what are we as an audience left with?

A cool logo?

The Futility of Audience Speculation

It is a favourite pastime of fans of the show to speculate about the identity of Red John. We all want to be detectives and solve the puzzle before anyone else does. This has meant that almost anyone, from main characters to guest and even background characters, have been mulled over by the fans and either discarded as suspects or kept on file for further investigation. The problem is that it is simply impossible to figure out who Red John is and therefore any attempts at speculation are futile. We are not given the necessary information until it is too late to speculate. We can therefore only guess and wait until the show tells us. This does not, of course, prevent speculation from continuing. There are, for instance, still people convinced that Patrick Jane himself is Red John; that he is insane, schizophrenic, at the very least an unreliable narrator. It is a tempting thought, but there are too many reasons why it is impossible. Others still believe that Brett Partridge is Red John and that he is not in fact actually dead. It is hard to believe that his lack of death would have gone unnoticed by Jane and his colleagues at the CBI. Most, however, stick to the suspects the show forces on us.

In a recent episode, a private investigator tried to bug the CBI office. Jane found out, assumed that she was hired by Red John and that she was either one of his accomplices or his next victim. It turned out to be the latter and with her dying breaths she managed to tell Jane that the man who attacked her had a tattoo on his left shoulder. She made three red dots with her bloody fingers. Jane jumped to the conclusion that therefore Red John must have a tattoo of three dots on his shoulder. The woman never told him who it was that hired or attacked her, so this is again a huge leap of logic. First of all, why would Red John hire an inept PI to bug the CBI office while he already seems to know everything that Jane thinks? And if it was not Red John, but a member of the Tyger Tyger organisation, why wouldn’t confirmed member and director of the CBI Bertram himself do the bugging? Like I said before, it is these inconsistencies and plot conveniences that threaten to baffle us with bullshit. We are supposed to follow all leaps that are made and accept them for fact, even if they don’t seem right to us. After all, we have no choice but to go where the show takes us.

In the promo for tomorrow’s episode, “The Great Red Dragon”, voice over guy informs us that “it’s down to the final three suspects” as images play of Bertram, Smith and McAllister showing their tattoos. We are supposed to believe that one of these three is Red John. But why would we?

Show creator and main writer, Bruno Heller, has recently confirmed two things. One, that Patrick Jane is not Red John, and two, that Red John is on Jane’s list of suspects. But can we really trust this? After all, it wouldn’t be the first time we’re being lied to about a major revelation in a television show. Personally, I would be a bit disappointed if Red John were actually on the list. None of the suspects seem able to live up to the near-legendary status that Red John has acquired. On the other hand, if it turns out to be someone not on the list, it would be both a deception and a cop-out. It is a frustrating conundrum for which I can’t see a satisfying conclusion. I can only hope that everything will click into place, Red John does not go down in a burst of stupidity, and that in the end the show manages to both surprise and satisfy me. Then I truly will be dazzled by its brilliance.


Okay, Dammit, I Will Speculate

Red John is on Jane’s list of 7 suspects. But he’s dead. It was Brett Partridge. He fits the best. No, he was not a member of the Tyger Tyger organisation. In fact, they were his enemies. They killed him. You read it here first.