What an imperfect but mesmerizing story we have in the Netflix original series, Mindhunter. Jonathon Groff and Holt McCallany star as Holden Ford and Bill Tench, based on real life FBI agents who, in the 1970s, pioneered a system for criminal profiling that specializes in the pathology of serial killers. VW bugs, marijuana, prison interviews with maniacs followed by sober conversations in dimly lit diners while violent crime rages outside in every direction—all of our favorite things!
Joe Penhall is the show’s creator, but it’s that unmistakable David Fincher (Gone Girl, Fight Club, Se7en) finish that keeps us hooked. He directs the first and last episodes and has an executive producer credit. Even the dialogue feels like Fincher somehow, which further testifies to his distinct style, considering he never writes his own stuff. The characters in Mindhunter rarely answer each other. Rather, they take turns building a monologue, which is itself a working discovery.
Mindhunter has the scaffolding of your standard buddy-cop procedural, with an added layer that these men are forging their own path through change-resistant waters. We take for granted expressions like “serial killer” and “deviant behavior,” but these concepts haven’t been sitting around since the dawn of time; somebody had to invent them, in a basement at Quantico, apparently. Holden and Bill begin their work on the road, educating local law enforcement about their burgeoning discoveries in forensic psychology. From there, the two begin their interviews with America’s most accomplished killers. Chief among these encounters are the agents’ talks with Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton), who murdered his grandparents, several college students and his mother—but more than that, he cut off his victims’ heads and had sex with their neck. The show invites us to reconcile these horrible facts with Kemper’s gentle, polite demeanor, contrasted further with his giant countenance, and boy oh boy: This is where Mindhunter really shines.
Besides all that, we have the domestic dramas of the detectives’ personal lives to contend with. Holden’s a plucky, sincere, straight-laced agent with a hippy girlfriend named Debbie (Hannah Gross) doing post-graduate work in sociology. Is Debbie’s subtle undermining of everything Holden says and does meant to come off as challenging or just mean? (It’s unclear to me whether we’re supposed to like her, but I know I don’t.) Bill’s been at the job a little longer; he has a loving wife at home (Stacey Roca), with whom he could stand to communicate better, and an adopted son. (Bill says: “It’s not going well.”) Rounding out the team we have the academic Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), whose personal life I will leave to you to discover somewhere around the show’s midway point.
Bill and Holden do their work in spite of upper level suits at the bureau who hate change and don’t get the point of talking to killers like they’re humans. Always when it comes to how we regard criminals, we must contend with people who see the issue in black and white. “Charles Manson is a mass-murdering nutbar,” the old school police officers seem to say. He must have been born this way, and killers like him deserve to rot in prison, or worse. From this vantage point, any attempt to understand the killers gets confused with sympathy. But why can’t it be both? This resistance to change sits at the heart of Mindhunter, and maybe it really did go down that way, but all of that pales in comparison to the revolting yet charismatic killers we came here to see. You’ve really done it this time, Netflix. Season 2 can’t come fast enough.