Monday, September 26, 2011

Red John and the Writer’s Obligation

If you know who Red John is, you know I’m going to talk about the TV mystery show, THE MENTALIST.  If you’ve not seen the season opener, spoilers abound.  Read at your own risk.  (You can watch the season premier for free on the CBS website.)
If you don’t watch THE MENTALIST, I’ll try to give you enough information so you can connect what I’m saying to your own writing.
The Primary Backstory to THE MENTALIST.
Patrick Jane, a pretend-psychic/conman with an extraordinary ability to read people’s hidden physical communication and personalities, makes the mistake of saying publicly that he will help the police catch Red John, a brilliant serial killer who vivisects his female victims.  
Patrick returns home to find his beloved wife and young daughter murdered by Red John.  To save his teetering sanity as well as seek revenge, he joins a special unit of the California State Police which handles the most difficult murder cases.  He swears he will kill Red John when he finds him.
His success rate at solving murders is phenomenal, but his fondness for using others and playing cruel games with people’s emotions makes him unlikable and a thorn in the side of any powerful person he comes in contact with.  
Red John plays his own games with Patrick by using other killers to taunt him and to make him fear for the safety of anyone he cares about.
The Big Twist
Last season involved a whole season story arc about a murder inside of the police station of one of Red John’s minions who has been captured and who would have given Patrick and the police clues to Red John’s identity.  They must discover who the murderer/mole within the department is.  
In the final episode, Patrick lures out the mole and Red John.  Patrick and his nemesis, a bland-looking and successful businessman, come face to face in a mall food court where his nemesis admits who he is and tells Patrick details only he would know about the brutal murder of Patrick’s family.  As Red John who is armed turns to leave, Patrick uses his hidden gun to kill him, then sits down and waits for the authorities to arrest him.
In the season premier, Patrick is in jail and waiting for his trial.  The state hierarchy is so busy protecting their rears that they have done nothing to prove Patrick’s story to be true, and his victim doesn’t appear to be a cold-blooded serial killer.  Patrick’s friends on his police team go behind their superiors’ backs and with Jane’s help prove that the dead man and his wife kidnap and kill women in a hidden room in their basement.
The jury finds him innocent because of his belief that he had a right to stop the man who had killed his family and planned to keep killing.
Patrick then tells his partner Lisbon that the man wasn’t Red John, after all.
Writer Obligations
Quite a surprise twist, wasn’t it?
But did it work?
Was it fair?
Absolutely not.
If a writer is fair to his reader, the clues to the twist have been planted all along, and when the reader looks back, he can see plainly what he’s ignored as unimportant or misread.  
Think about Snape in the Harry Potter novels.  The clues to his big surprise are planted through the novels.  Or Bruce Willis’ character in THE SIXTH SENSE.  His big twist is laid out long before the big tah-dah of the revelation of what he is.
In THE MENTALIST, the surprise twist of not-Red John had no clues that pointed to that fact up to murder in the mall.  All the clues said that the man was Red John.  
The writers and runners of the show had said more than once before and after the airing of the show that it was Red John who died which is a second betrayal of fans.  
The season premier tossed out a few clues to not-Red John, but they were too little and too late in regaining my trust in their honest storytelling.  
Will I continue watching after being betrayed so completely?  I’m not really sure.  
Would I ever write a story that was so unfair or read the author again if they cheated like that?  Absolutely not.
Now, I toss this out to you.  Do you think the writers played fair and did the big twist work?