I want to talk about a scene in an episode of The Mentalist today.
The Mentalist is a TV show in which the titular Mentalist “helps” the police solve crimes. I won’t go into the general fiction of the series too much, but I just want to point out one thing to illustrate how the writers of The Mentalist feel about being obvious.
The “outsider helps police” trope always needs an explanation. Is he an author doing “research” for his book who hangs around because he falls in love with the pretty, sassy, unavailable detective? Does he discover a higher calling to use his talents, whatever they may be, for good? Those would be two obvious approaches. Revenge doesn’t seem to fit too well as a motivation for the outsider helping the police, but this is precisely what motivates Patrick Jane. A serial killer has taken his wife and daughter from him. There are no useful leads. By being part of the police in some way, he sees the best chance for Red John to be apprehended. This colours his relationship with most other characters on the show–he sees no reason to play by the rules, he makes no excuses why he does what he does, and he surely doesn’t hide the fact that, given half a chance, he will choke the life out of Red John with his own two hands.
The episode I want to talk about today is 3×18, The Red Mile. Let’s not preoccupy ourselves too much with the plot. The butler did it. I want to shine a light on the relationship between Patrick Jane and Dr. Steiner. We’ve seen Dr. Steiner before. He’s a medical examiner and a rather stuffy personage. Obviously, Jane played a practical joke on him when he first appeared in the show. This is set up early in the episode in the usual way for The Mentalist:
LISBON: We all know how much you like to make fun of Dr. Steiner. So don’t!
JANE: I don’t know what you’re talking about.
LISBON: No humouring yourself at his expense!
JANE: Is he that way? (walks off)
We know what’s coming: a bureaucrat out of his depth playing by the rules, Jane running circles around him, embarrassing him in inventive ways. And sure enough, a note appears on the deceased saying “You are about to think, what the hell? How did Jane do that?”
So far, so normal for the Mentalist. Soon enough, Steiner shows up at the office and asks to help with the case. The corpse has gone missing, he considers himself responsible, etc. Jane is very eager to have him help, and those of us who’ve seen a bunch of The Mentalist episodes before immediately start asking ourselves: what’s the play? What is he setting him up for? Has he understood that Steiner is involved in the disappearance of the corpse? Is this some convoluted practical joke? Lisbon asks Jane point blank, and Jane insists that Steiner wanted to be brought along and he said yes, and that was all.
Then, of course, we find out that Steiner is dying and that Jane understood this immediately upon seeing him at the crime scene. I kept trying to construct plot-paths that would end up with the “I am dying” bit being a lie; at one point, Steiner uses the fact that he’s dying to sell a solicitation for a bribe, saying essentially “why am I asking for $50,000 to keep silent? Because I’m dying, and I’d like to have a few days in comfort.” Immediately I wanted to say, a-hah! Jane has been coaching him for this. Jane has probably told him to mention the fact that he was dying in the suspect’s house so the butler could overhear it, and that would help sell the bribe. It wasn’t a convincing development, and the writers of The Mentalist are more cruel than me: Steiner is dying.
In the scene when this fact is revealed, Jane immediately reveals his motivation for bringing Steiner along: it’s a distraction. Something to keep his mind occupied. Keep him from thinking about the fact that he may not have much more than a month.
The case is solved. The butler and the mother-in-law are arrested. And then we come to the final scene. Jane is at Steiner’s house. Steiner says that he knows what will happen next. That it will be bad, and that it will get worse. Says he has no intention of letting nature take its course. “There are pills I can take.” Jane, being the pragmatic man that he is, just nods and says he understands. But, Steiner continues, the thought of him being the corpse on the slab being examined is something he can’t take. Highly irrational, possibly, but even Jane would probably allow a little irrationality in the face of death. So Steiner has found a solution: if his death were to be witnessed by a law enforcement official, no compulsory autopsy would take place. He is asking Jane to witness his suicide so that he does not have to be dissected.
And here we are. From a setup that reminded us of the practical jokes Jane played on this man a few episodes ago (including the abduction of a corpse to be used as a prop in tricking a confession out of a suspect), from an initial scene that seemed to set up further shenanigans, we come to this dying man’s home where he asks a final favour of Jane.
And Jane says no. The character of Patrick Jane is highly complex, and one of his many facets is that he knows exactly how much he can take. He does not overestimate his mental capacities. And clearly he’s made up his mind that witnessing a man’s suicide is not something he can stomach. As Steiner walks him to the door, apologizing profusely for having brought the subject up in the first place, Jane hesitates and asks if Steiner has tea in his house. This recalls an earlier scene where Jane offered Steiner tea at the CBI offices. Steiner rejected at the time, and we understand now that Jane wanted to create a private moment to broach the topic of Steiner’s sickness. This is a very gentle echo of an earlier plot point, but it gets better.
Now I pride myself on understanding narrative at a deep level. Most series that I watch, I can roughly predict most developments simply because they feel “necessary” to me. I can decipher motivations and immediately understand where scenes are going. The tea threw me, though.
Jane walks into the kitchen. Steiner tells him where the tea is. Adds that there’s cookies in the cupboard. Accepts the offer of a cup for himself. Then, and only now did understanding dawn on me, Steiner says that he’s going in the other room now. And that he’ll only be a few minutes.
When you make a plot development less than obvious, when you make it, dare I say the word, subtle, you manipulate the intake on the side of the audience. Jane could have said “I will pretend to make a cup of tea while you take the pills now!” and whereas that would have made absolutely certain that everyone in the audience understood, it would have been the equivalent of inserting a suppository with a well-aimed blow from a sledge-hammer: certain delivery, but a little all-at-once and not entirely pain-free.
Let me just for a second praise the acting here: George Wyner as Dr. Steiner and Simon Baker as Patrick Jane do a tremendous job of being less than obvious. The distress in Jane as he makes up his mind to stay after all, the gratefulness in Dr. Steiner–all these are handled deftly and carefully, with small movements and subdued facial expressions.
This was the point where the relationship between these characters had come to its final, logical stage: not only does Steiner trust Jane entirely and without hesitation, Jane has come to respect Steiner to the point where he does him a massive last favour. A lesser series would have cut to credits here. It’s clear that Jane will watch him die. A squeamish director would have ended here for another reason: what follows is emotionally brutal. But we linger.
In the final scene of the episode, Patrick Jane is sitting next to Dr. Steiner on his couch. Steiner has taken the pills. He is clearly fading. He asks Jane about the note. Did he have an arrangement with the deputy? Jane confirms that he did. And then we come to the final bit that prompted me to write this little piece here. Jane tells Steiner that he used to work with carnies, that he got a start in close-up magic. And he takes out a coin and demonstrates, vanishing and reappearing the coin in front of Steiner’s eyes.
And as he does this, it becomes absolutely clear to us that the relevant action of the entire episode is replayed to us in summary. Jane distracts a dying man. This is so subtle, so gentle, that it sinks into your awareness calmly and silently. When you realize that you understand, you feel the goosebumps. There was no rectal application of sledge-hammers; only a soft, gradual percolation of understanding.
STEINER: “Patrick. Thank you.”
JANE: “Just watch the coin. And it’s gone. It’s there… and then it’s gone.”