While the long-running television series has long been a staple of American life, stories with underlying themes of evil and revenge have had great popularity in recent years, driven by colorful (or colorfully uncolorful) characters such as Tony Shalhoub’s Adrian Monk (Monk, 2002-2009) and Simon Baker’s Patrick Jane (The Mentalist, 2008-2015) . Both characters seek solutions to long-standing, unsolved murders of their spouses (and for Jane, his daughter is a victim as well), and the quest forms a significant portion of the ‘sub-plotting’ over several seasons. Both quests, and their resolutions, provide interesting cases for the question of nihilism in film, similar in many senses to discussions by apologetics & film luminaries Thomas Hibbs and Phil Tallon on Batman and Harry Potter.
The charge of nihilism in films arises from the nature of the evil portrayed as well as from the types of solutions thus offered. Hibbs’ discussion of nihilism in Shows about Nothing cites the (long-standing) genre of horror as typically seeking to expose contradictions in civilized society (for instance, the arbitrary nature of justice, lack of sympathy wherever it may be found), while in Through a Mirror Darkly, Tallon develops the idea that horror exposes the insufficiency of Enlightenment and Modernity style optimism. Hibbs as well cites a deeper critique of Enlightenment values, while Tallon extends the significance of horror to the postmodern stance which tends to be nihilistic about any ‘overarching meta-narrative’ on the meaning of life, thus begging the question (or pointing to the need to beg the question) ‘Is there any sense to be made of this mess?’
We can follow Hibbs’s discussion ‘Defense Against the Dark Arts’ (in Shows about Nothing) and Tallon’s various articles in looking for threads of enduring meaning and solutions to the nothingness that nihilism proposes. Both cite Batman as a Christ-like figure in the battle against evil, while Hibbs declares the Harry Potter series “is not only not part of the problem, but it is part of the solution to what ails popular culture.”1 The overriding positive themes of friendship and love in Harry Potter (like that of ‘the fellowship’ of the Lord of the Rings series) provide a large part of the redemptive key of meaning provided.
With Monk’s character, Monk, we see the results of loves lost as Monk has retreated into his obsessive, cut-off from the world, neurotic personality while he solves episode after episode worth of crimes (he reaches 100 at one point, a nice even number, and wishes to retire). Once the brash Sharona was replaced with the Natalie Teager as Monk’s personal aide, Natalie with her own widowed situation and daughter to raise, we get to see Monk’s human side (some, or more, of it anyway). The dialogue of the series including Natalie shows Monk slowly, painfully and of course, in his own inimitable neurotically comic style, moving outside of himself and showing some caring for others (in one episode he nearly adopts an abandoned baby). In the finale, after he manages to identify and confront his wife Trudy’s killer, he discovers her abandoned child with whom Monk reunites and begins to enjoy life outside of his compulsion for revenge. This new Monk is uncharacteristically carefree (he even agrees to attend the germ-infested public theater, though still preferring to see ‘whatever is showing in theater 10’).
While the question of God is not typically addressed in Monk, issues of morality underlying the murder mystery series do not typically exhibit the pathological, random types of crimes one might find in a darker murder mystery; it is family viewing after all. The restoring power of the affections and love reminds one of C.S. Lewis’s discussion of Divine Love in The Four Loves:
William Morris wrote a poem called “Love is Enough” and someone is said to have reviewed it briefly in the words “It isn’t” … To say this is not to belittle the natural loves but to indicate where their true glory lies. God is love. Again, “Herein is love, not that we loved God but that He first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:10)… He communicates to men a share of His own Gift-love. This is different from the Gift-loves He has built into their nature. These never quite simply seek the good of the loved object for the object’s own sake.”2
Throughout the series Monk slowly opens up to natural love, and upon resolution of the horror of his wife’s killing, his discovery of his wife’s daughter for whom he is able to practice a love for someone outside of himself exhibits the redemptive power of love, reminiscent of the divine type of love described by Lewis.
The tale of The Mentalist’s Patrick Jane follows that of Adrian Monk, as Jane seeks Red John, the serial killer he once taunted into exposing himself, only to find Red John did so by murdering his own wife and daughter. While Jane has hustled himself into independent wealth by passing himself off as a psychic, he blatantly states that there are no such things as psychics, and is dismissive of God and religion: when other characters claim to be psychic and communicate with ‘the other side,’ Jane states “there is no other side.”3 The criminals he is up against are often darker than those in Monk, with Red John being the most cunning and darkest, a serial killer with a flare for the particularly vindictive, bordering on demonic at times.
Like Monk, Jane begins to show his human side throughout the series, and his brooding commitment to bringing his family’s killer to justice (and one that he will get to personally administer) is offset by his smirky (contrasted with Monk’s quirky) character who otherwise understands the human psyche so well he is able to read and play people as he solves crime after crime.
The character of the nemeses in both series exhibit various degrees of sophistication. Monk’s nemesis is a politically ambitious District Attorney who had to resort to murder cover up his affair with Monk’s wife Trudy while she was his law student. The DA nevertheless has provided for his and Trudy’s child throughout his life when he was able; he is something of a good man who got in over his head. Patrick Jane’s nemesis is much darker, luring many of his string of victims into apparently preferring death with his blessing over their breaking free from his influence; they often cite the William Blake poem title Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright when signifying their allegiance to Red John. Red John similarly hellishly toys with Jane, which amounts largely to a battle of the wits, though Red John wants Jane to simply accept that evil can be gotten away with. Perhaps only for personal reasons, Jane does not accept Red John’s offer, and pursues him to his ultimate demise. Elements of what one might call moral realism (or a universal moral law, which begs the question of a lawgiver, or God) seem at play in Jane, though he never does admit to anything more than the (understandable) desire for personal revenge.
Jane’s revenge itself was considered controversial, as he manages to track down Red John and, while alone in a cemetery, asks Red John if he was sorry and wanted to live: Red John gives two ‘yes’ blinks to each while Jane has his hands around Red John’s neck. Jane nevertheless completes his revenge by strangling the evil Red John with his own hands. Simon Baker commented of the scene: “There is no human act more intimate — not even sex — than killing another human being with your bare hands and watching him die. It is really subversive for a network series. The risk is huge.”3 Various critics were supportive of Red John’s finale, citing the visceral and satisfactory recompense of evil.
The conclusion of Jane’s character arc is nevertheless similar to that of Adrian Monk, with new love providing a sort of elan vital for the next act of Jane’s life. After resolving the Red John case, the cast splits up and largely moves from CA to partially reassemble with the FBI in Dallas, where Jane and his boss Theresa Lisbon finally admit their feelings for each other and the show concludes with their wedding. Jane exhibited a healthy balance in his life throughout the process, as he increasingly arranged for Lisbon to be away from critical investigatory actions, preferring her safety to the lure of solving yet other crimes, a choice between professional and personal lives that would have been wise for both protagonists of the recently viewed The Prestige.
Some critics noted the difficulty of making the villain interesting, esp. given that Director Bruno Heller had commented on how “once the curtain is drawn back from these evil Wizard of Oz characters, they tend not to be very interesting dinner companions,” and that the nemesis and his evil was drawn out over several seasons compared to that of say Se7en who was fully presented in the course of just two hours. It is perhaps fitting that characters exhibiting evil be less than fully dimensioned, as it is the heroes or heroines who become, like Orual from Lewis’s fictional or mythic tale of love, Till We Have Faces, “a thousand times more her very self than before”4 (she was redeemed by divine love). By contrast evil, defined as the absence of good, amounts to increasingly insubstantial, weightless ghosts of Lewis’s novel, The Great Divorce. Sparks of a struggle betwixt evil and good can be seen in both Monk’s and Jane’s nemeses, though the main struggles are played out on the stage of the title characters themselves, the meticulously moral Mr. Monk and The Mentalist‘s realist-to-cynical, Patrick Jane.
- Thomas Hibbs, Shows about Nothing (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2012), 184.
- S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988), pp.116-128.
- Logan, Michael (November 24, 2013). “Simon Baker Breaks Down the End of Red John and The Mentalist’s Future”. TV Guide. Retrieved October 4, 2013.
- S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces (New York, NY: Harcourt, 1984)p. 306
Hibbs, Thomas. Shows about Nothing. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2012.
Lewis, C.S. The Four Loves. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.
Lewis, C.S. Till We Have Faces. New York, NY: Harcourt, 1984.
Lewis, C.S. The Great Divorce. Harper Collins Books, Ebook Edition, 2009.
Tallon, Philip. Through a Mirror Darkly.
Tallon, Philip. “Christian Nolan’s Dark Worldview,” posted July 20, 2012.