At first–and maybe even second–glance, The Mentalist would seem like any other CBS cop show. It opens with a grisly murder. It ends with the killer brought to justice. In the middle, an Elite Team of Crime-Solving Professionals works tirelessly to bring about that outcome. Everything about the show is extremely competent,* and for its efforts it is rewarded with a massive, CBS-sized audience. But what makes The Mentalist better than every other show on the network–with the obvious exception of The Good Wife, of course–is its subversion of the CBS cop show tropes.
(*There are no The Capes on CBS. Only NCIS: Los Angeles really threatens incompetence.)
“Blood for Blood” is pretty representative of this subversion, though there’s one element it doesn’t really touch on: Patrick Jane’s distaste for gore and violence. The Mentalist is a violent show, but its violence is more in the tradition of Law & Order; there are dead bodies and much more implied violence than actual depictions of violence. Contrast this with something like Criminal Minds, which is a basically a slasher anthology, or CSI, which pores over dead bodies as though they were fetish objects. And it’s significant for the main character of a hit show on a network that wallows in excessive violence to consistently express disgust over that kind of violence.*
(*I should also probably acknowledge that this is far from an original trait for a crime-solving detective sort. Jane is awfully similar to, say, Monk in this regard. And in a lot of other regards.)
Having said all that, for an episode of The Mentalist, “Blood for Blood” features quite a bit of violence for Jane to be disgusted by, and some of that violence is pretty darn manipulative, as violence involving children and revealed in shocking twists tends to be. At the end of the episode, Jane reveals (Jane is big on the big reveals) that the murderer is in fact the victim’s daughter (played by Kaitlyn Dever in a nice turn). As Jane explains, the victim was an abuser who murdered his wife, and when his daughter found out and confronted him about it, he threatened her with a gun. There was a bit a of a struggle, the girl and the gun wound up on the floor and when her father lunged at her, she shot him in the chest.
As I said, this is all shamelessly manipulative, especially since the case had appeared all wrapped up until all of this last-minute exposition. But at least the show doesn’t simply use the twist for shock value. Rather, it uses the admittedly manipulative ending to raise questions about the efficacy of the criminal justice system. After all this exposition, Lisbon takes out her handcuffs and prepares to arrest the girl. Because that’s the law and therefore the right thing to do. But Jane disagrees and rather eloquently argues that the system doesn’t always work and will cause nothing but damage in this particular circumstance. By this point the audience is siding with Jane and against the process of law and order, which is not a common development on a CBS show. And so, in one last bit of manipulation,* Lisbon takes the girl downtown for booking, but at the last minute lets her go. Because, after all, Jane’s right.** The system really is broken. Putting this girl through it would only make things worse. What she needs is help, not punishment.
(*Seriously, enough with that, show.)
(**Note: Jane is always right.)
But in case you haven’t noticed, The Mentalist likes to have its cake and eat it too. And, indeed, there is a healthy dose of violent punishment before we all learn this valuable lesson about how punishment isn’t always the answer, at least in the case of adorable little girls. All episodes of The Mentalist are mostly about Jane, but some episodes are at least ostensibly about other characters too. “Blood for Blood” is a Van Pelt episode and opens with her working a witness protection gig. Unfortunately, she gets knocked out on a sweep of the perimeter and the witness becomes the victim. Fast forward through the requisite number of red herrings, and we discover (falsely) that the murderer is Righetti’s witness protection partner, who has in fact been performing hits for the drug dealer the witness was set to testify against. At what seems like the end of the episode, before the twist about the girl at the end, Righetti shoots the supposed murderer in the chest. Around six or seven times. He dies, and she seems content with that.
This obviously represents a certain amount of hypocrisy on the show’s part (violence is bad; here’s some violence! Punishment is bad; here’s some punishment!), but it makes more sense once you realize that The Mentalist’s Elite Team of Crime-Solving Professionals that’s always doling out violence and punishment is more like a parody of what an Elite Team is supposed to be. In most cop shows (both on CBS and on other networks), the Elite Team does important stuff and solves crimes and whatnot. But in The Mentalist, the Elite Team fucks shit up and is just, in general, useless.
Van Pelt’s arc in this episode doesn’t seem that unusual, for example: she screws up at the beginning of the episode and redeems herself at the end. That’s the sort of thing that could show up on any other show. But this is The Mentalist, so she doesn’t just screw up some evidence or something; she is, in fact, indirectly responsible for someone dying. And she “redeems” herself by horrifically murdering the wrong person. Of course, as Jane says later, he was a bad guy anyway. But this is not what redemption is supposed to look like.
This is basically what the Elite Team is like all the time: they screw up a lot and never actually solve any crimes. In fact, the best way to figure out the murderer in any given episode is to just assume it’s whoever the actual police officers haven’t listed as a suspect. Odds are, Jane’s already concocted some elaborate trap to get them to confess. The team’s just there to do busy work, have some humorous and/or dramatic interactions, provide a couple of red herrings and, most importantly, get roundly mocked by Jane and the show for sucking at life.
Given that the show’s subversive perspective and gimmick are both entirely wrapped up in the central character, it seems obvious that everything that makes The Mentalist so successful is largely unrepeatable. Which is kind of too bad, because I’d much rather have two Mentalists than two Criminal Minds. But on the other hand, that’s maybe the show’s biggest joke at its network’s expense: it’s unfranchisable.
- Jane’s collection of dainty teacups is endlessly amusing, especially for the way he always manages to gain access to one, no matter where he is.
- I shouldn’t have concluded on that note. In a couple of years, there’ll probably be four different spin-offs set in cities all over the world and WON’T I LOOK RIDICULOUS THEN.
- Yes, I am aware that “unfranchisable” is not a word.
- And yeah, the title of this piece is sort of a joke. According to the ratings and a million hacky jokes, The Mentalist is very much your mother’s crime procedural.