Sunday, January 18, 2009

What Does "He Is Man" Mean?

My wife and I are always on the lookout for good new television shows to supplement our current viewing lineup (for a long time, The Office was our only must-see program, and we also make time for ER and Law and Order SVU). Last fall, we watched the pilot episode of CBS's new crime drama The Mentalist and were instantly hooked. The title character, Patrick Jane, reminds me of Law and Order: Criminal Intent's Detective Robert Goren in a way, in that the writers have given both characters the ability to put together the details of a crime long before everyone else knows what is going on and to use that information to coax dramatic confessions from the most difficult of suspects.

The difference is in the actors behind the characters. Goren is played by Vincent D'Onofrio as an odd duck, the type of guy the baddies know they can get the best of - until they realize he is actually an observant genius who has had them figured out all along, by which point there's nothing to do but throw their hands in the air and give up. Simon Baker's Jane, on the other hand, is a handsome charmer, a former TV psychic who asks all the right questions at all the right times and pays attention to all the right details to arrive at the desired result.

Jane uses his skills to assist the California Bureau of Investigation as a consultant, but he is clearly driven by a deeper desire: the overwhelming need to find and punish Red John, the serial killer responsible for the murders of Jane's wife and daughter.

In a recent show, Jane met a prisoner who claimed to have information on the killer, information he would gladly share if Jane were able to prove that he had been falsely imprisoned and had not actually committed the crime with which he was charged. Jane did, of course, but the would-be informant ran, certain that although Red John might know his identity, he would be spared if he refused to provide any information to Jane and the CBI. He was wrong, of course, and the show ended with Jane finding him in a bathtub with a prostitute, both dead, Red John's trademark smiley face and a message - "He is man" - written in blood on the wall.

I was idly looking at the show's page at IMDB.com today and decided to look at the message boards, where those three words were the source of much discussion. Two great debates were evident: one, was the message written by Red John or the dead man in the tub, and two, what did the words mean? Many people seemed to believe that it was written by the dead man, that he was trying to tell Jane something about his killer. I 'm more inclined to think that it was written by whoever writes the smiley face. Presumably, that's Red John, but I can also see it as something that he makes his victims do as a final show of power before the end.

As for the meaning of the words, there were some weird ideas. One poster suggested that it was meant to say, "He is Manelli," meaning Virgil Minelli, Jane's boss at CBI. Someone else thought that maybe we didn't see the whole picture clearly, that maybe the latest victim noticed something about the killer such as a wedding ring and was trying to write, "He was married," when he died. And a third thought it said, "He is mad," which isn't entirely crazy because that's what I thought myself when I saw the show.

I'm sure all of those either weren't serious or the product of people who were at least trying to put the pieces together. At the very least, their thoughts inspired me to think about the question in a bit more detail.

First, I can't find video anywhere, so I'm gonna go with "He is man" as the official words on the wall. From that starting point, I thought about who we're dealing with here: the creator and writers of the show. What would they have meant by those three words? Certainly not Minelli - it would be too easy, not to mention strange that the killer would be someone Jane, a skilled evaluator of people, talks to fairly often. (Prediction: the killer will end up being someone Jane talks to fairly often.) And if we assume that Red John was the originator of the message, why choose something that might offer the slightest clue to his identity, even if it was an intentional misspelling?

"He is married"? Doesn't immediately make sense - who is married? Jane? Red John? The victim? Is Red John killing for moral reasons now? Is that the deal? And wasn't it Red John who authored the writing on the wall? Where am I going with this? I don't think it said, "He is married," that's where.

It seemed to me that if this is designed to be a series-long story, the writers might not be going for something literal, like a clue, but something abstract, a message from Red John to Jane, something designed to show Jane that he might be in over his head. With that in mind, I Googled the phrase, "He is man." Many of the results were related to religion, which was sort of the direction I was leaning, but I also found a few that mentioned Socrates. I added Socrates to the search string and came to the book "Socrates" by Alan F. Blum. The following passage was highlighted:

"The oracle does not converse. He says what is true (because 'it would not be right for him to lie') and thus, he depends upon human labour to 'check the truth' of what he says. In contrast, man converses and, because he is man rather than divine, depends upon other men to engage with him in 'checking the truth' of what is said. Whether or not he is co-present with friends is both that which his work addresses and that which it cannot guarantee. Dissatisfaction and unhappiness with the results of conversation derive from man's thinking him-self an oracle, from his thinking that he has the power and glory to name an other who will hear him as the oracle named Socrates."

Based on this, I think Red John was sending Jane a message. One of the minor points in the show is Jane's tendency to "show off". He's good at reading people, he knows it, and every so often the showman in him comes out and he surprises people with how much he knows just because he can. He presents himself as an oracle to these people, saying "what is true" and allowing them to check the truth. When Jane and a coworker are talking immediately after the discovery of the bodies, Jane notes that Red John was further ahead of him than he had realized. With the message, Red John was reminding Jane that he, Jane, is not an oracle. He does not have any great access to the truth regarding his, Red John's, identity. In reality, he knows nothing, which makes sense considering it was only the eleventh episode of Season One.

Or, I'm wrong and they're setting Minelli up to be revealed as Red John at some point in the future. Could go either way at this point.

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