“The Mentalist” Ethics: Patrick Jane Osamas “Red John”

Red John's bloody calling-card will be found at serial killing scenes no more.

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.

As I wrote regarding Osama’s death:

“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.

Good show!

20 thoughts on ““The Mentalist” Ethics: Patrick Jane Osamas “Red John”

    • Nah. Dexter’s easy. Dexter combs through files and information to find enough evidence that he’s got the right guy and that he’s guilty. He could easily turn that evidence over to the proper authorities and bring them to trial. But instead, in true vigilante fashion, he executes them. That’s unethical. Fun and wildly entertaining, but unethical.

      • Tim’s right. There’s nothing ethical about summarily executing bad guys, especially when you’re one yourself. Dexter’s just a sicker version of Charles Bronson in “Death Wish.” He’s a one man jury, and that’s a violation of basic human rights, which everyone, even killers, absolutely deserve.

        Except for Osama bin Laden and Red John, of course.

        • I agree with Tim, but not with you Jack.

          Bronson snaps and goes after everyone that he thinks is bad in the name of vengeance. Dexter has the need to kill, and channels it into the people he determines are bad. The only ethical thing for Dexter would have been to kill himself, or commit himself to the nearest mental institution.

          • Ethically, I don’t think that distinction makes a difference. Taking a life is taking a life, whether the life is good or bad, or whether you would take someone else’s life in the alternative. The ethical thing for both Dexter and Bronson would be to turn themselves in.

            • I find some severe differences.

              Bronson is simply on a bloody rampage and doesn’t care what happens. a-ethical, if you will. Dexter, on the other hand, understands ethics. He knows murder is wrong and attempts to channel it to make it morally right. He fails spectactularly, but I find a large difference between poorly reasoned morals and nonexistent morals

  1. Righteous vigilantes exist in film and other media, and many of us are entertained by the drama surrounding them. In real life, most of us can empathize to some degree with a person who acts vengefully after seeing a loved one victimized. However, comparing the acts of an individual, whether or not we regard him or her as behaving ethically, with those of a powerful state, is at best unhelpful and may be quite dangerous.

    States are not subject to sudden, passionate fits of anger, although those who govern them often do inflame their citizenry with emotional appeals calculated to gain support for the illegal, unwise, or unpopular courses they undertake. International law — toothless as it is when brazenly ignored by the U.S. — exists, among other reasons, to define what it is that a state should not do, perhaps especially if its machinery is in the sway of angry and vengeful forces. And, because of the potential to cause widespread and lasting harm, the actions of a state must be held to a higher standard than those of an individual.

    The assassination of Osama bin Laden was illegal. The invasion of Pakistan was illegal. There can be no disputing these facts. Now, there are those who agree but claim that, nevertheless, justice must be done. These people should think long and hard about that contention. Must justice be done?

    We do not, and cannot, live in an ideal world. On the contrary, frequent compromise is a necessity. Justice is important, but so are the many freedoms we like to enumerate, and so is having enough to eat, adequate health care, meaningful work, love …. The list of what we value in our lives is very long, and it often happens that some of these things mutually conflict. Again, states are not individuals, but in their governance they are subject to pragmatic considerations — more so, in fact, than are individuals. A rational foreign policy would concede that it is more important to attempt to maintain a working relationship with Pakistan — a nuclear power — than to invade its territory in order to execute the purported mastermind of the tragic events of September 11, 2001.

    From a rational standpoint, what the U.S. did must be seen as foolhardy. Rather than enhancing its security and its international standing, these belligerent acts will undoubtedly beget even more terrorist violence and cause other countries to become increasingly circumspect when dealing with the United States. I believe there is only one explanation for such a course that makes any sense at all: Osama bin Laden was killed for the gratification of a segment of the domestic populace — a large segment, it must be admitted — in the hope that those held in thrall might be distracted momentarily from reflecting on the increasingly gloomy economic and environmental events of the day. Unfortunately, things are bound to get much worse before they get better, since both major parties tend to employ similar tactics.

    • My position regarding the killing of bin laden is a matter of record, and I’m not going to rehash it here. A terrorist/criminal/outlaw/ head of a warring international organization is a special case, practically a unique case.
      This statement however…“A rational foreign policy would concede that it is more important to attempt to maintain a working relationship with Pakistan — a nuclear power — than to invade its territory in order to execute the purported mastermind of the tragic events of September 11, 2001.”.…is clearly wrong. The US props up Pakistan with a lot of money; it has a right to cash those IOUs. Pakistan knowingly protected Osama, the same offense that led to the US invading Afghanistan.and removing the Taliban. Pakistan, which has betrayed America, got off easy,

      • I should keep in mind that your blog is centered around “ethics”, so I shouldn’t be surprised that you seem to be focusing on who is in the right: e.g., “[the U.S.] has a right to cash in those IOUs.”

        I could but do not choose to engage in a discussion of ethics in this case. Instead, I am more concerned with what works and what does not. It seems to me that what does not work in terms of making us more secure is for the U.S. to persist in all-too readily adopting military solutions to problems, ignoring any international conventions or laws that might be inconvenient, weakening the internal support for Pakistan’s ruling regime (which, as bad as it might seem, will perhaps one day look good in comparison to the thugs who might eventually control its nuclear material), killing one terrorist while inspiring 100 more.

        The U.S. can be as righteous and as bad-ass as you want, but for all that, we citizens are not better off.

        Any how, I found this site while looking for news concerning plans for another season of the Mentalist. As often occurs, though, I got sidetracked by a number of interesting things you and others have posted here. After this comment, I’m going to give it a rest. Thanks for hosting these thoughtful dialogues.

        • I’m grateful for the kind words.

          The US has been served well by its willingness to get its hands dirty rather than indulge the European realpolitick, which usually just opens the door for corruption and cynicism—a la Iraq.. I very much doubt that anyone will become a terrorist because Osama got his just desserts who wouldn’t have been one anyway. America does best when it acts like America,and it won’t inspire less hate from those who oppose its core values when it tries to act like Switzerland or France. True, the current President does understand this, and the Osama adventure was the exception. Looking at what works, and not what is right, it works to make sure everyone knows that people who launch sneak attacks on Americans end up with bullets in their heads, and that the countries that hide them will be sorry they did. This causes due reflection. I live near DC, and I think it is very likely that if Jimmy Carter had been president after 9-11, my family and I would be dead today.

  2. Sorry, but the ethics aren’t exactly cut-and-dried here.

    For one thing, even if the guy *was* Red John, he clearly told Patrick that he was giving up his life of crime and “retiring”. He also apologised to Patrick (sincerely or not) for any pain he may have caused him. If he had been taken at his word, then Patrick wasn’t helping to prevent future crimes, he was merely getting even for what was taken away from him. And that’s a selfish motive for taking a human life, which makes it unethical.

    Even if Patrick believed “Red John” was being disingenuous in pledging to give up his criminal career, he had ample opportunity to throw himself at the guy while yelling “SECURITY!!!” at the top of his voice. They were in close proximity for such a loooong time. If Patrick wanted to have detained RJ alive, he could’ve done so. It’s true RJ had a gun, but Jane’s supposed to be so monomaniacally bent on bringing RJ to justice that he wouldn’t care for himself. Right?

    Then there’s the bigger concern – was the guy really RJ? Personally, I’m no criminal mastermind, but even I would’ve figured out that Patrick might want confirmation of RJ’s identity by asking him for some personal detail about the one crime that’s haunted both their pasts. In RJ’s place, I would’ve prepped my decoy to handle this. In Patrick’s place, I would’ve anticipated this (knowing how good a chess player RJ is), and asked about some other minor detail that only the killer would know (but a decoy with a canned response would not). Patrick should’ve considered the possibility that this guy was a decoy, and RJ was still at-large. Sparing him would have not only been the ethical thing to have done, it would’ve been the utilitarian thing as well, because now they’ve lost their very best lead to the real RJ.

    But a clumsy tussle in a crowded mall doesn’t make for surprising TV. And showing Jane coldly shooting this guy then having a cup of tea just plays to the persona already established by his cold unflappability when he did the same while his Coroner friend (Steiner) committed suicide. And the writers know that in this post-Dexter era, most TV viewers will be able to look past Patrick’s cold-bloodedness.

    (If I’ve given the impression that I disliked Patrick’s actions, I didn’t mean to – I actually LOVED the way they handled it. But noone can argue it’s ethical. But Jane’s lack of ethics in this one area doesn’t perturb me – I’ve always felt he was a borderline sociopath anyway).

    • A serial killer promises that he’s through killing. I would say that such a promise has no credibility or force whatsoever.

      I’M arguing that it’s ethical (and illegal). “Security!:??????? Yeah, that’s the ticket. Red John wouldn’t even be arrested. …and Jane probably would—AND he would have ticked off a homicidal maniac.Obviously Jane felt that Red John identified himself sufficiently, and after all, reading such things is his specialty. From his standpoint, he was 100% certain, and at that point, taking out the killer was in everyone’s best interest. And, in the best tradition of civil disobedience, Jane accepted the consequences.

      It’s a sui generis scenario, as with Osama, but Jane did the right thing. And the writers know it—you don’t let your hero act like a cold-blooded killer, and what makes it killing acceptable is that the audience—like you—approves. Because it’s ethical.

      I have no control over whether the character is or isn’t Red John—Jane could wake up and find that Red John was a dream, too. I’m evaluating the fictional story according to real life rules.

    • Jane definitely could have shouted “Security” but Red John had a gun. Who’s to say that Red John wouldn’t have shot any guards that tried to arrest him? It wasn’t a choice between turning Red John in and killing him- it was a choice between killing Red John or letting him go or risking a shootout that could have killed innocent people.

  3. Jane killed Red John because he Red John murdered his wife and child. Simple as that.

    Would Jane killed Red John on the spot if he is just a serial killer and not the murderer of his family? The answer would be no.

    There are so many ways for Jane to stop Red John from escaping. The could pull out his gun and stop him. When the security arrives he can flash his CBI consultant ID and tell the security that he had evidence that the man is a dangerous serial killer.

    It is not for the greater good.

    It is for the sake of justice and vengeance.

    And I would have done the same thing if i were him.

  4. Well, the first episode of the new season has played out. And, as expected, the person Jane killed was NOT Red John (like the writers would kill off their golden goose!).

    For all we know, Jane’s “victim” (if you will) might not even had the remotest connection to the murders of Jane’s family, except for what the real Red John instructed him to taunt Jane with. And clearly, Jane is neither all that smart nor careful, because the simple test of probing further for other details (as I mentioned in my previous post) would’ve conclusively excluded a canned response.

    After all had been said and done, Jane didn’t seem all that broken up about having killed “the wrong man”. OK, the “victim” here was hardly innocent (he and his wife were clearly RJ’s “followers” and had kidnapped and restrained that girl), but Jane had set out to kill RJ and RJ alone. Yet Jane had no apparent compunction about deceiving the jury (he admitted as much) into acquitting him, and seemed to feel no real remorse at all. All this confirms what I also suspected about Patrick Jane – he IS a sociopath in his own right.

    Still think what he did was ethical?

    • Absolutely. You are confusing Moral Luck and Consequentialism with ethics.
      If an action was ethical given the facts and circumstances known, knowable or predictable at the time the action was taken, then it was ethical, period. If, for example, to everyone’s shock and surprise, African-Americans were actually androids planted on Earth by ancient aliens to prepare for an invasion centuries later, and they were accidentally foiled by the institution of slavery for centuries…and Abraham Lincoln’s ending of black slavery allowed aliens to finally attack and wipe out the human race, you would say, “Still think what he did was ethical?”

      Sure, writers specialize in playing this trick. That’s not my concern. My post was about the ethical calculations at the end of the season, based on the facts as they were known then. What “happens” after is of interest to me as a fan of the series, but as an ethicist, not at all.

      • Ah, but those things you refer to as “known facts” can hardly be justified as such, even from the vantage point of last season’s final episode, can they?

        As I highlighted previously, it was completely reasonable to doubt the claimed identity of Patrick’s victim. Patrick did not take adequate measures to confirm his identity, so he has no basis to be sure enough to kill on the basis of it.

        You wrote: “I’m evaluating the fictional story according to real life rules.” And of course, mistakes happen, not just in real life, but also in the stylised make-believe world of fiction. Which is why it’s generally a very bad idea to do something irrevocable like take a life in cold blood, when one has a choice. And this is why I still maintain that what Jane did was unjustified and unethical, even from the perspective of last season’s cliffhanger.

        The egregiously far-fetched analogy you constructed is irrelevant, because it would not have been considered reasonable (or even sane) to harbour such suspicions about African-Americans pre-emancipation. In contrast, it is completely reasonable to have harboured doubts about the identity and guilt of Jane’s victim last season. And that makes it unethical for Jane to have killed him on that flimsy basis alone. The fact that the mistake has been revealed for what it is simply vindicates my viewpoint, but is ultimately irrelevant to the “ethical calculations”, as you put it. *Even* if the victim had turned out to have been the real Red John all along, it would *still* have been unethical for Jane to have done what he did, without an adequate basis.

        Note that I didn’t even bother to reiterate the additional argument that I believe that Jane had a viable choice in how to deal with the guy – yet another thing that renders what Jane did unethical.

        • I not only said it was generally a bad idea, I wrote it was almost always a bad idea—wrong, in fact. And if it turns out (as I believe it will) that the man Jane killed WAS Red John, essentially pulling the kind of crazy suicide gotcha that Kevin Spacey played on Brad Pitt in “:Seven”, will you then say it is ethical?

          My analogy was intentionally far-fetched, but not that much more unbelievable that a man would go out of his way to make the vengeful father/husband of his murder victims believe he was the killer when he wasn’t. In real life, this is fact doesn’t happen, and Jane was correct in concluding that it wasn’t happening.

          You are correct in this respect: if you believe you have an ethical exception that justifies breaking a core rule, you better be right, and you deserve to pay big time if you’re wrong. But Jane was right. I don’t think the rest of the Emmy winning, top-rated series is going to be about a life-prisoner, or a boob who kills people by accident, do you?

          • Well, the second episode just aired. Jane maintains that the man he killed wasn’t RJ, and the blind girl confirmed his suspicions at the end.

            So if, as you persist in stating, Jane was right, *which* Jane? The one who was certain of his facts before, or the one who’s equally certain now of the exact opposite? 🙂

            Perhaps the rest of this Emmy winning, blah-blah series IS going to be about exactly that sort of “boob”?

            Clearly Jane isn’t perfect, and he makes mistakes. There’s even precedent on the show – the entire premise of the RJ mytharc is based on a *humongously* bad miscalculation made by Patrick that caused the deaths of those he loved most. Jane’s one besetting sin is pride…OK, let’s call it “overconfidence” to eschew being so melodramatic. Jane killed the wrong guy by mistake. He seems fairly chipper about it, but that’s in keeping with his sociopathy, a trait I find far more fascinating in his character. At the end of the day, this argument about the ethics of Jane’s actions, while fun, may be completely meaningless if he’s a sociopath (as I strongly suspect) because ethics depend upon a functioning conscience to uphold them.

            • Sorry, I forgot to address this:

              “My analogy was intentionally far-fetched, but not that much more unbelievable that a man would go out of his way to make the vengeful father/husband of his murder victims believe he was the killer when he wasn’t. In real life, this is fact doesn’t happen, and Jane was correct in concluding that it wasn’t happening.”

              Why is that unbelievable coming from a complete wackjob? Is it any more far-fetched than people falsely claiming to be serial killers just for the notoriety? And, honestly, I can cite far crazier things happening in *real life* than in “reel life”. You know what Mark Twain said about truth and fiction, right?

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