Tonight marked the season finale of “The Mentalist” on CBS, and by happy coincidence, Bruno Heller’s odd-ball murder mystery drama ended with its hero, Patrick Jane (played with brio by the excellent Simon Baker) executing his nemesis, the serial killer “Red John,” in a crowded food court…a Osama bin Laden style killing that, like the death of the Al Qaida mastermind, was both technically illegal and completely ethical.
Red John, for those of you who do not follow “The Mentalist,” is the self-chosen monicker of a brilliant maniac with financial resources, who slaughtered California Bureau of Investigation consultant Jane’s family as well as untold others. Jane has spent the three years of the series in an Ahab-like quest for revenge, wittily solving other murders along the way. In the final episode, Red John plotted the death of Jane’s boss and maybe love interest, Theresa Lisbon, played by Robin Tunney. Red John’s henchman managed to kill two officers and wound Lisbon before he was foiled, leading to a dramatic confrontation between the serial killer himself and the hero.
In fine James Bond villain tradition, Red John smirkingly explained to Jane at gunpoint that he would never be caught, that he was in complete control, and the Jane’s efforts at revenge were unhealthy and futile. He tortured “the Mentalist” with details about his dead wife and daughter that the killer learned in the process of murdering them. Then he began to make his retreat into the crowd, almost certainly to elude capture for years and perhaps forever, and probably to kill again—perhaps to target Jane’s current friends and loved ones again.
So in the final moments of the episode, the still-grieving hero blew Red John away. Then he sat down at his table, asked for his check, and put his hands in the air to await arrest.
Vigilante executions are illegal, and must be. This one, however, was the right thing to do, just as it was right for the Navy Seals team to gun down Osama bin Laden. The fictional Red John was the kind of special case that the law and law enforcement are ill-equipped to handle: a deadly, ruthless, unpredictable, brilliant, and educated murderer with both support networks and financial resources. It might have been impossible to tie him to his many murder scenes; and he had just been responsible for the deaths of two police officers and the wounding of a C.B.I. agent. The only way to make certain he would not kill more families and other victims was to kill the monster, and Jane did it the right way: openly, and ready to accept responsibility and be accountable.
“The right conclusion is, I think, that all rules have exceptions, including very valid and important ethical principles, and this is one of them. It is an extreme case, one that is not a good fit for any universal rules or even clearly delineated exceptions…[one that] justified a solution outside usual ethical restraints…His death cannot be used, however, to justify other trial-free executions, or other summary killings…An exception is an exception, sui generis and applicable only to itself, neither the basis for a broader principle or the disproof of one.”
The execution of Red John was just such an exception, a rare utilitarian solution in which the end does justify means that are almost never justified.
And for this reason, “The Mentalist” creator and head writer Bruno Heller has managed to keep his hero legitimately heroic despite conduct that amounts to cold-blooded murder, while giving Michael Moore and the chorus of critics questioning the ethics of bin Laden’s death another lesson to help them get their head, and ethics, straight.