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Why I like "The Mentalist"


My husband and I stumbled on CBS' The Mentalist in the midst of its second season and have been hooked ever since—and last week’s “Blinking Red Light” is a good example of why.

The series is a twist on the criminal procedural, focusing on former psychic conman Patrick Jane who uses his “unorthodox” skills to help the fictional homicide unit of California Bureau of Investigation solve murders and crimes. Jane’s wife and child were murdered by a serial killer named Red John after Jane arrogantly taunted him on television five years before the series begins. While Jane works with the CBI unit to solve crimes, his singular focus is tracking down the elusive serial killer. In “Blinking Red Light,” Jane works with the unit to track down another serial killer: the San Joaquin Killer. 

The series’ appeal in general probably has something to do with why I, like so many others, are drawn to procedural dramas. In a post on WetPaint, Drew Belsky says we are drawn to dramas like Law & Order, Bones, CSI and The Mentalist because they reassure us:
As Mark Twain and others have said, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.” In other words, we love shows that solve a mystery or cure a disease in thirty to sixty minutes because that makes sense in an often nonsensical world. These shows give us faith in societal systems (hospital, law enforcement, justice) that often sorely test us in reality.
That makes sense to me. Series like these reveal how we and the world we live in are broken and play to the longing we all have for a world that works right—a world set right. In some sense, these stories echo that longing in Scripture for the return of a world created good, just, full and right—a world and a people who exist and live as they were created to.

The Mentalist is also a good story. Through its stories, crimes and investigations, the series consistently explores why we do the things we do and the consequences of the choices we make. Through the characters and their own stories we learn something about ourselves, the world we live in, the people we walk with and those with whom we cross paths.

But it is also a well-told story, and this episode really exemplifies that. I went into episode spoiler-free and did not see the ending coming (which, frankly, is rare for me)—though I would have picked up a clue if I’d been paying attention to the episode’s title (every episode with the word “red” included has to do with Red John).

Warning: spoilers ahead.

That twist (and the episode as whole, really) skillfully gets at some of Jane’s most intrinsic characteristics—the ones that make him so dang interesting and keep me coming back each week. There is, as in every episode, his impressive and uncanny ability to cut through it all and read people and situations. And the twist at the end—where he sets up SKJ to mock Red John on television (just as Jane himself had done years before) and thus not only ensure the serial killer’s own death but also bring Red John back into open—reveals Jane’s sometimes chilling calculation that almost mirrors his nemesis. Jane’s childhood and the loss of his wife and child have deeply damaged him; he is singularly obsessed (sometimes unsettlingly so) and has repeatedly demonstrated he is willing to sacrifice himself or anyone else in his pursuit of Red John—which, as we saw at the end of last season, seems will only end in his own death or the death of the serial killer.

But this episode also movingly portrays Jane’s capacity for compassion and selflessness: In a rare and moving physical gesture, Jane rests his hand in compassion and empathy on the shoulder of a father who is watching a video of his daughter who was killed by SJK. Jane usually keeps emotions like these deeply hidden, most likely because the only time he allowed them to flourish was when he loved and was being loved as a husband and a father. Like most of us, having something like that ripped away creates a wound in which we want to bury anything associated to that because it makes us vulnerable. But having been loved and genuinely loving others can deeply brand one’s soul. We see the survival of love’s transformation in moments like this one. They are, ultimately, aspects that give us hope Jane will eventually come through a healed rather than destroyed man—and that ultimately reminds us of the hope we have for our own transformation and the transformation of those around us.

So, yes, The Mentalist appeals to me because of the reassuring nature of criminal procedural dramas and its skillful storytelling. But it is Patrick Jane that brings me back each week. I want to know the end of his story because his story seems to, with all its flaws and grace, reflect something of our own.