Red John and Aliens: The Problem of the Omniscient Enemy

I just finished watching the third season of The Mentalist. I was pleasantly surprised at how many of the episodes were stand-alones. I had anticipated a season full of Red John and although many of the episodes deal with him indirectly, few of the episodes deal with him directly. This is good, making the show salvageable (I admit, I fast-forwarded through the finale).

However, the episodes with Red John highlight the problem of Red John, and I don't mean "problem" here in a plot sense but rather in a boy-that-is-dreadful-writing sense.

A suitable comparison is X-Files since Red John carries the same weight and purpose as the aliens on X-Files. Just as the aliens--at least for Seasons 1-6--are never definitely present, Red John is never definitely present. More than anything, the aliens represent Mulder's fate or destiny. Or, rather, they represent the vastness and mystery of life. In many ways, Red John represents the same thing for Jane.

Despite the analogy-taken-too-far factor, the idea of Red John as a force does work. Since I adore Simon Baker, and I like procedural shows, and most of The Mentalist's episodes are procedural, I tend to treat Red John references this way: he represents the chaotic, unknowable side of life.

Until an episode focuses on him, and then everything about the character makes nonsense of everything else.

The idea of a master-mind criminal who has his fingers in every pie and can flip any agent and access any storage locker and bribe any poor slob to take his place, etc. etc. etc. undermines the whole CONCEPT of a procedural show. It means that in every episode, the bad guy could be a pawn of Red John. Every case could have been sabotaged. Every agent could have been gotten at. Nothing is dependable. That isn't a profound statement, by the way. The ultimate conclusion of Nothing is real is So why do advertisers want to pay to keep this show on the air? and the ultimate conclusion of that is No more show, which is very sad and kind of undermines the whole purpose of entertainment.

The absence of real meaning does not make things better. It just makes them boring.

(I believe John Lenin was a great musician, but "Imagine" has got to be one of the dumbest songs on the planet: "Let's erase everything that makes life interesting and valuable. At least, we will have peace!" Yeah, the kind of peace that numbs the brain into oblivion.)

And yet, Chris Carter more or less made the omniscient enemy work.

One of the villains who keeps X-Files
I've thought about why, and I think it has to do more with the writing than the concept. In fact, I think it is entirely possible that The Mentalist writers are in fact aiming for Carter's alien-effect. In Season 2, there's a fairly well-written episode dealing with the shooting of the cops in the CBI building. There are some fairly silly implications (Red John, again, is working through someone, and the ending relies on yet another deus ex machina), but the episode is actually quite tight.

And I think the reason is the same reason Carter's alien episodes usually worked: the episode stays focused on single characters with single motivations, however complex, who are held to the laws of probability. 

Characters held to the laws of probability are far more interesting than an omniscient enemy could possibly be.

*Spoilers follow.*

I have a theory that The Mentalist writers know this. I think this is one reason Red John is never paid off effectively (and no longer can be in any real sense [and yes, in 2019, I do know the ending]). The writers introduce fantastically interesting characters: Hightower, LaRoche. But these characters are more interesting as themselves than as Red John's minions. LaRoche with his cool, pointed questions, his fluffy dog and Hummel figurines is a GREAT boss. (In fact, the whole Red John plot is almost endurable just for giving us LaRoche as a by-product.)

So when it comes time to do the big-reveal, the writers shuffle it off on a nobody, like Grace's fiancé as Red John's mole (he has one? the guy can get moles so easily, I was sure he had about twenty). That was surprising but made no sense and thus, was kind of stupid. (And the fiancé was more interesting as Rigsby's rival anyway.) If it could be him, it could be the guy at the water-cooler. Hey, it could be that guy in that one episode that one time who...I mean, who cares? I'm glad it wasn't LaRoche since that would have ruined a perfectly good character, but who cares in general? Let's move on.

For most of X-Files, on the other hand, Carter managed to keep the focus on the probable despite the show's improbable premise. Now, that's a feat to be applauded!

I will keeping watching my Mentalist, only keeping in (my) mind that Red John is an amorphous force rather than a flesh & blood enemy. That way, the real flesh & blood crimes investigated by Lisbon's team will actually matter, which is what my give-me-a-good-mystery-and-the-world-is-my-oyster soul wants in any case.


Mathew Park said...

Even though I do not watch the show, I think I can understand what you’re saying. Villains and enemies are always a problem specially with television shows. On the one hand you want them to be done well, you keep them just off scene, a sinister force always working in the background. This titillates people, and keeps them watching for hints. Just look at what Lost did. People ate that up.

But, eventually, like in the wizard of Oz, the curtain MUST be drawn. If you end the series never having a face to face with the big baddy we feel cheated. Imagine if Return of the Jedi ended, and we never met the Emperor, we just got a throwaway line saying “guess what, the Emperor was on that death star, we won!” there would be rioting.

But now we come to the paradox that is Idea vs Reality. The idea behind any concept, from conception, will always be exponentially stronger and more likes then any physical representation of it. Part of this is because ideas have no constraints. In the X-files, by not knowing anything about the aliens, we are free to let our minds be free and imagine them the way we want, and then go further, then a little more, then a little more. When we see them, if we see them, all of that is lost. Like waves of probability in quantum mechanics, once something is observed it collapses into one state. That state is always less then we want.

It’s like reading a book then seeing a movie. I can’t remember what Harry Potter sounded like and looked like when I read him so many years ago, since I saw the movie he is just Daniel Radcliffe.

Anonymous said...

I found your essay by googling "Red John" + silly because this improbable storyline has ruined the show for me. "Red Sails in the Sunset" (which I zapped through last evening) provides the perfect example: Jane breaks the prized minion Lorelie out of federal prison and yet somehow, the Omnicient Evil One with his finger in every pie is unaware of this?

Or wait...perhaps he IS aware and it's all part of the plot and...

WHO CARES!?! I wouldn't compare this to X Files, I'd compare it to any garden variety soap where people come back from the dead, or reappear in the form of new actors.

Love the procedural, hate the Red John storyline. Thanks for articulating my feelings so clearly.

Kate Woodbury said...

You're welcome! (Sorry it took so long to post this comment.) I recently finished Season 4 of The Mentalist; I skipped the last two episodes, watching the last five minutes of the final episode. I was so angry at the whole RED JOHN FOILS THE GOOD GUYS AGAIN BECAUSE HE IS SOOOO CLEVER storyline, I was very thankful I hadn't watched the entire 2-parter.

It is so weird for me to feel so conflicted about a show: I adore Simon Baker; I love mystery/detection shows. I loathe "evil bad guy is more powerful than the universe" plot lines. As you say, Who cares?

Villains with a face are so much more interesting!

gdw01 said...

***SPOILER ALERT*** Well, here I am posting 10 years later! I only even heard of The Mentalist after I got a digital TV and Roku about 4 months ago. And I only started watching it when I was sick with a horrible virus (tested negative for Covid, but still horrible, especially night-after-night of insomnia to boot!). Several times I became frustrated with Red John's ridiculously fantastic capabilities (I came to this site after searching "is red john the most ridiculously omniscient villain"). But the characters were so interesting (for the most part) that I kept coming back. I stopped, I thought permanently, when Lisbon and Jane nonchalantly allowed LaRoche to transport a prisoner who potentially could identify Red John, after Jane suspected LaRoche of being an agent of Red John! And of course LaRoche then shot and killed him. Just too unrealistic and even out of character! I had almost permanently quit watching earlier after Jane actually allowed an entire large building full of people to believe that they were about to die and so they could call their families and say goodbyes! Such callousness for the people and their families! Could even catching a serial killer be worth that? There were other times, too. But anyway after a week or two I was back watching--often gritting my teeth over various aspects. But I really did stop for good after Rigsby's fake death. Yes, I checked online and found that it was fake, and that Jane does eventually kill the real Red John. I was glad of that. And thinking it over I realized that it was all a deep plan to draw out Red John, who had so often eluded Jane. I forgave Jane for having sex with Red John's follower in Las Vegas. I realized he was just going along with Red John to convince him that he really had given in, again in order to draw him out. And it was the little girl at the cemetery, who Jane knew Red John would have killed if she could have identified him, that convinced Jane that he needed to come up with a bigger plan that would actually succeed, namely his break-down and all that ensued. But faking Rigsby's death just seemed, once again, too much. No one, not even Van Pelt, could have been told it was fake or else she, and others such as Rigsby's baby's mother, would not have responded naturally and would thereby have given it away. That would just be too cruel to them. So, as I said, while I was glad to learn that Rigsby's death was just faked, and that Jane does succeed in drawing Red John out and killing him, I don't plan to watch any more episodes. I have moved on.