The Mentalist: An Impossible Period Piece

TV Jul 30, 2023

The Mentalist might be the best police procedural I’ve ever seen. Across seven seasons the show achieves huge tone shifts and stylistic evolutions while maintaining this core tension: the story orbits the relationship between Patrick Jane, a huckster Mentalist who can effortlessly read and scam people, and California Bureau of Investigation team leader, Teresa Lisbon. Jane joins the CBI in the hopes of finding and murdering the serial killer Red John to avenge the deaths of his wife and children.

Like the classic CBS procedurals of the era, ala Monk and Sherlock, Jane colours outside the lines of the law more often than not to solve the case of the week. But unlike its contemporaries, The Mentalist positions Jane in opposition to his colleagues. In the early seasons, Jane is constantly pulling sketchy plans to catch crooks without telling anyone: will frequently use his colleagues, the suspects, even victims’ families, in his ploys to reveal or catch the killer.

Not until Jane and Lisbon begin to zero in on Red John’s trail does Jane begin to treat Lisbon as a partner. Jane doesn’t just view one aspect of law enforcement as ineffectual, he views every constituent part, rituals, procedures and actions as insufficient. He spends the show developing his own method for solving crimes that puts his colleagues in danger, and very often doesn’t work, resulting in extra casualties. It’s this aspect, that Jane continues despite the consequence, that makes the story so arresting.

Yet Jane himself has a sunny demeanour. He maintains a cheerful, flippant affect that keeps everyone around him off balance, save Lisbon. It’s this method of navigation that makes Jane so effective: he’s human can-opener who effortlessly positions reality to trick culprits into revealing themselves. While the story doesn’t share the 80’s imaginary of evil as self-defeating, via Jane, The Mentalist seems to view these killers and offenders as “asking” for whatever punishment or ends they arrive at.

Lisbon insists that Jane not kill Red John - that he let Red John be punished by the law. But as more and more bodies pile up, she relents: at least let me be there, Lisbon says. Jane agrees, though like Lisbon, we don’t quite believe him. And that’s the trick with Jane: you never quite believe him. He’s always playing an angle. Their investigation of Red John proves Jane right about the CBI’s institutions. Turns out Red John runs a covert network of corrupt police and agents, and it’s the head of the CBI himself who is behind everything.

Once Red John is off the board, the show goes on for another season and a half. The CBI is disbanded, and to avoid prison time, Jane lands a job at the FBI, brings Lisbon along with him. Perhaps the show’s more impressive prestidigitation is that it does not feel like an unnecessary coda.

Instead, Jane is freed from his psychological stasis. While aspects of their time at the CBI and Red John haunt them periodically, largely the story moves on. Jane tries to decide what he wants with the rest of his life. And the obvious becomes realised: he and Lisbon get together. Not only does he complete his revenge, he builds a new life for himself in the act. The show, and Jane, refuse to give in to nihilism. The stories remain dark, yes. Cases are as grizzly as ever. But Jane and Lisbon are happy. They’re constantly smiling at each other. They build a new, supportive team at the FBI.

The story balances the tension between the romance and the grimness of their case work, allowing each to push and pull, raising questions for Jane about this job. He doesn't want to work at the FBI forever. As his relationship with Lisbon grows and becomes more permanent, his past trauma throws him off balance. His worry for Lisbon’s safety gnaws at their relationship.

Here, Jane’s affect produces a peculiar effect for us. Unlike during cases when we were unsure how Jane would perform a trick to reveal or catch the killer, this moment produces the same ambiguity for Lisbon. Even when he assures her he’s okay and isn’t going anywhere, Jane can’t quite sell it. We start to wonder, as Lisbon does, whether Jane is capable of sustaining not just this relationship, but any truly meaningful relationship. This isn’t played for melodrama or to up the ante as the story winds to its conclusion, but is rather a side product of the nature of these characters.

Of course Jane is struggling with the thought of Lisbon being hurt, of losing her like he did his family. Of course he’s going to react in ways he himself can’t predict. Of course he can’t sell that he’s ready for this, because how could he be sure himself.

The story doesn’t quite decide whether the FBI is a sufficient institution or not - it certainly seems more effective than the CBI at the very least. For Jane, he simply bends the systems to his needs. And in some ways the show starting in 2008 and wrapping up in 2015, Jane feels the perfect protagonist. He’s an school type of guy. He owns one pair of shoes that he has repaired. He wears simple suits for the most part. He feels more apiece drinking red wine and eating steak at his cabin by the water than he ever does in the chrome and glass offices of the FBI.

He is in some capacity the ideal centralist protagonist: he doesn’t quite stand for anything beyond doing what’s morally right, he distrusts law enforcement but ultimately capitulates to their needs when he deems it ethical. Most interestingly, because Jane is old school, a sort of quick talking sherif archetype, the story is never forced to contend with the internet and the very real rising tide of fascism in the United States during the show’s final years.

Which makes it feel, honestly, more timeless than something like Sherlock which is all about texting and the internet and mobile phones. Sure, The Mentalist has iPhones by the end, but they are framed as mobile phones, not smartphones. No one is looking up a perp’s Facebook account or reddit posts. By avoiding the questions of the internet entirely, the story occupies a timeless 2008 mode of reality: the world is connected by phones and you can look things up, but social media doesn’t exist, not formally.

In not contending directly with the dominance of social media or the formal systems of policing in the US, the story allows its structure to comment on these questions indirectly. Because the story is from Jane’s perspective and he does not consider these at all, we don’t see them presented. Even as Jane and Lisbon chase, pressures, trick and coerce criminals into revealing their guilt, the best the story can do is present straight-laced agents shaking their heads at Jane’s antics.

I don’t mean this as a criticism so much as a description. In voiding itself of the politics of the police, the story demonstrates how the existing structures are ineffective without concerning itself with alternatives. This is what I mean by Jane as the ideal centrist protagonist: he is aware the system is flawed, but his solution is to remain apathetic, and, ultimately, to escape the system entirely by moving to his cabin by the lake, off-grid, with his new wife. Jane even plans to renovate the cabin himself, the ultimate off-grid prepper fantasy realised.

How this lands will vary based on how sufficient you find Jane’s criticism of the policing system. But because Jane is not forced to rebel against the social demise of meaning online, The Mentalist gets to live in an idealised reality where all of the utility of the internet remains but none of the existential threat to meaning and the very real exploitation of the exploited by each other exists. In effect, The Mentalist is a period piece based in a period that never quite was, and never could be again.


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David McNeill

David McNeill is the author of Maynard Trigg and editor-in-chief of ZeroIndent. He's a dedicated storyteller with a background in literary analysis and comms.

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