Spoiling the mystery

How to watch an episode of The Mentalist

Patrick Jane, the Sherlock of The Mentalist, rarely needs to solve a case with evidence: He prefers instead to lay a cleverly-hidden psychological trap and lie in wait. Unlike a conventional “whodunit” where the audience gets its thrills from solving the crime in question before the lead detective, in The Mentalist the game is not to guess who did it—it’s to guess how that person will be caught.

After all, with his past experience posing as a psychic, Patrick Jane is more of a manipulator of the psyche than he is a detective. He doesn’t need evidence to close his cases because his traps trigger emotions that only a killer would be feeling after news of a death: paranoia, greed, anger, desire for secrecy. Sometimes Jane intuits which of the suspects is guilty before setting his trap, but you can know for sure that Jane doesn’t know “whodunit” when he gathers all of his suspects into the same room and gives them all the same information—and thus the same opportunity to fall into his trap.

Jane’s most ridiculous trap bait comes from S2E18, but it’s a good example of how a trap works in general: Using hypnotism, Jane implants a behavioral trigger into a victim with amnesia. He brings her to a funeral service for one of the murder victims, where all of the crime’s main suspects are sure to be present. When Jane says the magic words the hypnotized girl begins shouting “They left something behind”—motivating the killer to return to the crime scene to check for clues he forgot to cover up. The investigators then lie in wait at the crime scene to see who shows up.

So how exactly can you spot one of The Mentalist’s traps before the mystery is solved? Here are a few tips:

  1. Whenever Jane has (or pretends to have) a bag of money, a treasure chest, or anything else both valuable and tangible, expect a large gathering to be notified of its presence in a nearby “vacant” room.
  2. If the crime was a poisoning, expect Jane to use the fact that only the criminal will recognize the poison’s vessel or have an antidote on hand.
  3. Look out for Jane asking the same question to every suspect. “Do you recognize these numbers?” “Do you know Mr. Sarkin?” Warning: May yield a red herring.
  4. Always suspect new characters introduced in a side-story as aides, e.g. lawyers, journalists, janitors, etc. The trap for them will usually be a misdirection that occurs as soon as their role is connected to the bigger story.

Armed with only these four tips, you can solve fifteen of the twenty-three episodes of season two of The Mentalist. (Five of the remaining eight episodes don’t even have a trap, being solved as if by chance alone. Usually a story with significant main character drama will mean less attention is placed on solving the crime.)

And remember, watching The Mentalist isn’t about guessing who-dunit—it’s about guessing how-whoever-dunit-will-be-caught.