Posted on September 15, 2015

Can a Procedural be Horror-Lite?: Considering Red John

Elizabeth Erwin

There have been some wonderful think pieces recently about the graphic nature of procedural drama and whether the violence and depravity depicted impacts viewers in the long term. Many of the arguments revolve around whether disturbing images trigger thoughts and even actions in viewers. To horror fans, those concerns are familiar ones. And so I was interested in looking at a procedural and how the images presented echoed or contradicted what we see so often in horror.

Selecting the right procedural, however, was complicated. Initially, I thought that the Law and Order franchise, with its graphic depictions of a wide variety of perverse crimes, would most easily fit the bill. However, in viewing numerous episodes, it became clear that the narratives in this franchise were almost exclusively focused on the aftermath of the crimes. The audience is neither asked to participate in the crime as a spectator nor to have an emotional reaction to the crime as it is being perpetuated. The series fails to deliver the emotional arc inherent to the horror film because there is no anticipation of the horrors to come. And so I finally settled on taking a closer look at The Mentalist (CBS, 2008-2015) a procedural that used victimology and gore in a wholly new way.

The Mentalist is a show that has long struggled with its dualistic identity. On the surface, it is a traditional instance of the weekly procedural. But lurking beneath the narrative, particularly within its first three seasons, is a dark revenge fantasy in which the show’s hero appears destined to become like those he hunts. For the first five years, the hunt for Red John was the overarching mystery upon which the show was built.

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In the end, the charismatic, brilliant, oft-quoted Red John turned out to be none other than posturing Sheriff Tom McAlliste (Xander Berkeley) As most reviewers noted, any reveal was bound to be a bit of a letdown, a sentiment even commented upon by Jane (Simon Baker) in the episode itself. And yet, it wasn’t the reveal of Red John’s identity that soured audiences on the story’s conclusion but how Red John was ultimately portrayed. Instead of possessing the intelligence and dynamic nature viewers were led to expect, the real Red John turned out to be a simpering mess of a man whose villainy resembled more Scooby Doo than Hannibal Lecter.

But before we delve into why this ending was both a disappointment and a nod to horror, we need to backtrack a bit. For those unfamiliar with the series, it centers on a famed, faux psychic, Patrick Jane, whose wife and daughter were murdered by the serial killer Red John. Jane, who bears some culpability in the murders, having brought attention to himself and his family as a means of generating publicity for himself, works with the CBI investigating cases in the hopes that he will uncover Red John’s true identity.


Central to the show’s narrative is Patrick Jane’s ability to read people and to be always two steps ahead of everyone else in the room. In fact, the only person on record to have successfully outsmarted Patrick, and do it consistently, was Red John. Through various twists and red herrings, Red John was revealed by those who knew of his true identity to be so Patrick’s equal in intelligence and charm that many an internet rumor theorized that Jane, himself, was the serial killer. And it is precisely this consistent characterization of the serial killer that proved so problematic in the reveal episode.


In its penultimate Red John reveal episode, CBI Director Bertram (Michael Gaston) was disclosed to be the mass murderer. And while fans almost unanimously smelled a fake out, I think this solution was preferable to the one we ultimately got. Throughout the series, Bertram made a convincing foil to Patrick. Not only did he have the connections necessary for some of Red John’s most daring escapades, he also had an affable quality that could turn menacing without provocation. Even Bertram’s swan song, in which he is shocked to be shot by Red John and utters a “what the…,” had a dark humor to it that the audience came to expect of Red John. By giving us a murderer who was unrepentant and whose bloody exploits were graphically depicted, the show took the audience through the classic horror catharsis. We met his crimes with trepidation, were repelled by the carnage, and ultimately achieved release with the reveal.


It was the carefully cultivated audience expectation that ultimately took away from the show’s reveal. To fulfill the assumptions of an audience in a character you are given mere minutes to embody would seem a nearly insurmountable task to ask of an actor. But the audience saw Bradley Whitford rise to the occasion in the season three finale when the audience thought they had finally gotten their first real glimpse at Red John. Xander Berkeley, who was so brilliant in 24, did not manage to accomplish a similar feat with Sheriff McAllister. Whether it was Berkleley’s take on the character or the writing or a combination of the two, the end result was a watered down Red John who’d be hard pressed to get a date yet alone inspire hundreds to do his bidding. Without giving the audience a truly worthwhile antagonist, the show lost its horror footing and retreated back to safer procedural ground.

There were a couple of moments of horror homage that deserve noting. With so many untapped layers of the Red John mythology, it was fitting that Jane got the fall on Red John by tapping into his well know Ornithophobia. Not only did Jane’s sudden pulling of the pigeon from his coat pocket remind viewers of Red John’s fear of birds, it was also a subtle nod to the mystery and misdirection that has served as the hallmarks of this show. It was a stroke of Hitchcockian genius that reminded the audience of the intimate connection between killer and revenge seeker.


Also, the assumption of the audience was always that Jane would kill Red John by shooting him. Having Jane literally squeeze the life out of Red John made the act more personal and was a fitting end to Jane’s revenge quest. It also gave the audience zero wiggle room by which to explain away Jane’s actions. He was a man in control who did exactly what he set out to do. There was no moment of epiphany for Jane and the realization that the beloved, slightly quirky, hero of the show is now a murderer two times over was a return to the darker undertones of the show’s first three seasons. It also gave us a protagonist who, in the tradition of the titular characters in Dexter and Hannibal, is the point of entry for the audience into the story and yet who commits barbaric crimes.

Television is currently in the midst of a bizarre horror resurgence. While some shows are clearly part of the horror genre (Hannibal, American Horror Story), procedurals do have the ability to draw upon the genre in ways that are malleable but still identifiable. Shows such as The Mentalist force us to consider how elements of horror have been mainstreamed and what that means for the genre as a whole going forward.

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