For its 100th episode, “Red Dawn”, The Mentalist eschews its usual explosions and bloody character culls in favor of a surprisingly subdued expansion of Patrick Jane’s Jane (Simon Baker) origin story. We see him here before he joined the California Bureau of Investigation (CBI) team, looking disheveled and lost in grief and guilt a year after the murders of his family by Red John. He’s not the Patrick Jane we know, diffident and manipulative, goading people into trying to land a punch.
He seems rather unformed, but still, regular viewers of the show won’t be able to overcome the niggling suspicion that we’re only going to wait for a brief time before Jane emerges into his familiar role, his isn’t-he-a-clever-boy scheming. In fact, that doesn’t quite happen. Instead, the episode features a less than memorable crime for the CBI to solve, slowly, while team leader Theresa Lisbon (Robin Tunney) tries to dissuade Jane from seeking details of the Red John case.
The mystery at hand concerns the suspicious death of an arrogant barfly who happens to be the son of a prominent judge. This provides Lisbon another source for her eternal political angst, while Jane is well placed, by chance, to provide key insights into the victim and his family, at the same time having to work around the stony suspicion of Cho (Tim Kang) and the amiable oafishness of Rigsby (Owain Yeoman). When the case stagnates, a frustrated Lisbon seeks to use Jane’s “pseudo-psychic powers” to help crack it.
Here, at last, is the big reveal: this is The Mentalist‘s formula. It’s a device of English country house mysteries, in which a simple parlour trick and a little dramatic flourish extract a neat confession and motive from the murderer. This old-fashioned framework yields another, related aspect of the series’ appeal and its strangeness, namely, its challenge to conventional machismo: Jane’s a natural show-off, but squeamish when inspecting a corpse and, as he’s prone to declare, averse to violence. At the same time, it’s unclear how much of this aversion is yet more manipulation.
Jane’s eccentricities are retro too, and sometimes frustrating, are the show’s barefaced recyclings of tired mystery devices in the Californian setting, transported from Miss Marple’s English rural environment. Though The Mentalist lacks the lurid, unlikely murder methods employed by Agatha Christie or the terminally boring Midsomer Murders series, it does have the disorienting effect of making California seem small (even if the inter-agency power plays often seem an anemic attempt to tie the series to our reality). As well, and much like country house mysteries, the series tends to make violent death no more disturbing or complex than a crossword puzzle.
This 100th episode makes a show of fitting Patrick Jane into this formula and also of fitting it to him: it’s not easy to tell which produces the other. He’s one of a constellation of odd, damaged male geniuses in crime fiction about which bemused normals of both sexes orbit. That damage here provides for a dated treatment of women I find tiresome. Here Lisbon’s mother-hen management of Jane, as well as an old school colleague with a short fuse, allows for too many of those tough-but-tender clichés that afflict television’s female cops, nurses, and firefighters. The episode implies that her motives in seeking help from Jane are kind, as well as expedient, to give him a distraction when clearly fragile, made less subtle by a sugary scene later, in which she watches over him as he sleeps.
Such scenes, on top of an irritating emphasis on Lisbon’s relative inexperience, aren’t unique to The Mentalist. The Killing and Homeland also fall prey to that condescending characterization of otherwise capable women with complex jobs, assuming they must be vulnerable and somehow “softened” in order to engage viewers, even as their male counterparts can be gruff, brilliant, mad or bad.
These tropes are no more forgivable in the fluffier universe of The Mentalist, which also regularly neutralizes authority or any suggestion of threat in Theresa Lisbon and other female characters. (The other female cast regular, Grace Van Pelt [Amanda Righetti], is absent from this episode, except as a subject of a conversation that grants her no other value but being “cute.”)
It may be that the end of the episode offers a bit of redress to this gender imbalance when it introduces features a sleek, sinister FBI agent in a late night telephone conversation from the back of a limousine with Director Minnelli (Gregory Itzin). Polly Walker’s appearance as Agent Schultz promises intrigue going forward, even the hope of an intelligent female adversary for Jane.