Mindhunter is a serial-killer series like no other. It doesn’t depict actual homicides. It barely features any blood. And its focus is not on police-procedural sleuthing. Instead, David Fincher and creator/writer Joe Penhall’s adaptation of Mark Olshaker and John E. Douglas’ Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit sets aside those familiar genre building blocks for something far more entrancing: a portrait of pioneering criminal psychologists attempting to understand—and decipher—those who perpetrate multiple murders, all in order to capture kindred future fiends.
Dramatizing its protagonists’ efforts to envision the psyches of the world’s madmen, and asking its audience to do likewise via action involving killers and cops talking about wicked motivations and methods, it’s a work of—and about—imagination.
That’s most strikingly felt in the second episode of Mindhunter’s long-awaited sophomore season, which is now streaming on Netflix. Having been informed in 1979 about the ongoing quest to catch Kansas’ BTK killer (Sonny Valicenti), whose exploits were teased in recurring snapshots during Mindhunter’s first 2017 season, FBI behavioral science agent Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) meets with a man named Kevin Bright, who narrowly escaped BTK’s clutches after suffering three gunshot wounds to the head (his sister, Kathy, wasn’t so lucky). Unwilling to speak face-to-face, Kevin sits in the back seat of Tench’s vehicle; from the front seat, the agent questions him in detail about his ordeal. With their car located under a rumbling train overpass, the prolonged sequence is a master class in evocative tell-don’t-show suspense, as horror and sympathy escalate in tandem as we listen to this man’s nightmarish experience—all of which, the show demands, we recreate in our own mind.
Courtesy of Fincher, who helms the show’s opening trio of chapters, Mindhunter’s return engagement is marked by compositions that highlight fractured interpersonal dynamics and serpentine camerawork that oozes menace. More crucially, it recognizes that pondering atrocities—the calculation that went into them; the urges behind them; the twisted patterns and rituals that guide them—is more chilling than witnessing them outright. True evil resides in thought as much as deed, and in this new world order of Charles Mansons and Ted Bundys, everyone is a possible suspect, and victim. Certainly, that’s born out by the circumstances of innovative, arrogant Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), who’s recovering from the debilitating panic attack he suffered in the prior season finale thanks to a too-intimate chat with the “Co-Ed Killer,” Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton). Rattled by that encounter, which threw into sharp relief the genuine life-or-death stakes of his work, Ford is now an anxiety-wracked mess, and even though he’s retrieved from California by Tench and put back into the field, his shakiness underscores the show’s early going.
Fortunately for Ford, Tench and psychologist Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), official Quantico resistance to their groundbreaking unit is now moot, as their boss Shepherd (Cotter Smith) is replaced by a new D.C.-imported chief (Torv’s former Fringe-mate Michael Cerveris), who views Ford’s methods as revolutionary—and asks Tench and Carr to keep an eye on their unpredictable cohort. Be it Ford’s panicked condition, or Tench’s son’s bedwetting—both of them spontaneous physical reactions to extreme stress—stability is in short supply in Mindhunter’s first three episodes (which were the only ones provided to press). Nonetheless, the threesome, along with snitching colleague Gregg (Joe Tuttle), resume their research, beginning with a visit to one of the era’s most notorious monsters: David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz.
That chilling sit-down with New York’s “.44 Caliber Killer” (who looks just like his real-life counterpart) is another second-episode highlight, both for the way Ford breaks through Berkowitz’s defenses—which compels us to see, literally and figuratively, the man behind the myth—and for its address of another key theme in season two: self-definition. Through letters, interviews and ominous monikers, both Berkowitz and BTK use the media to fashion their own image in idealized form. Son of Sam, for example, repeatedly denies that his reign of terror was sexually driven (and employs an Exorcist-style “the demons told me to do it” defense to counter that impression), even though it clearly was.
Ford and Tench’s investigative work, which demands that they empathize with the worst of the worst, similarly impacts their notions of themselves (as masterminds, as protectors, as family men). And in the former’s case, the process of entering the headspace of such subjects (à la Michael Mann’s Manhunter) is especially perilous, given that it invariably requires, per Torv’s Carr, the negation of one’s own self. Unfortunately, the same narrative and psychological care isn’t bestowed upon Carr, who’s primarily reduced to scowling in the office and trying to woo a local bartender during off-hours—a self-actualization subplot that, for now, feels somewhat thin.
By season’s end, Ford will finally get to converse with Charles Manson (Damon Herriman). Yet in Mindhunter’s initial installments, the “Helter Skelter”-inspired lunatic is briefly mentioned but nowhere to be found. In his place, the show spends time on meetings between Ford and William “Junior” Pierce and William Henry Hance, two killers whose inarticulateness turns off Ford, who can’t see that their unconscious impulses still hold clues to figuring out serial predators. It also, tantalizingly, concentrates on Ford’s introduction to the Atlanta Child Murders. Via that case, as well as Ford’s chat with Hance (a black man who slaughtered four, including one white woman), the issue of race is introduced as a potential motivating factor for serial killers, not to mention a complicating element in stopping them, as evidenced by the arguments of the victims’ mothers and a lead investigator. Like so much of what Ford, Tench and Carr examine, however, bigotry is only one piece of a sprawling psychosexual jigsaw puzzle, and anyone who’s studied the true-life Atlanta Child Murders knows that definitive conclusions will, invariably, be hard to come by.
Following the lead of Fincher’s Zodiac, Mindhunter often revolves around crimes, and killers, that can’t be neat-and-tidily “solved.” The inability to truly know anything, or anyone, is what gives the series its unnerving power; as one grieving mother puts it, “There are no answers to questions you cannot conceive.” The soul-crushing dread that comes from looking into an abyss and realizing that you may never comprehend its nature is vividly felt in the performances of Groff, Torv and especially McCallany, who is phenomenal as a morally upright man struggling to maintain his composure, and sanity, in the face of unspeakable inequity. It’s an endeavor that, in season two, only grows more difficult, as threats emerge around every corner—and outside every unlocked back door. As Tench tells his wife Nancy (Stacey Roca), “It happens everywhere.”