Netflix Review: Mindhunter (Seasons 1-2)

I halfheartedly watched the first episode almost two years ago…it starts with a bang (literally), I remembered that much. But I must have started losing interest during that episode as it still drags a lot in the wake of Special Agent Holden Ford’s “success.” Apparently the sprawling city titles and narrative-inducing self-pity couldn’t stave off my boredom of 1970s white-washed lecture halls and slide projectors. I honestly don’t remember what else my attention could have been preoccupied with at the time (school, probably…), but Mindhunter is one of those streaming series that makes me wish I could go back in time and demand a do-over to, if nothing more, simply watch one more episode instead of subconsciously acting on Holden’s lecture: “If it feels like you’re buying time, well…that’s because you are.” I shouldn’t have postponed this show, it’s that good. And if you haven’t figured out how this whole streaming review thing works by now, or you’re new to reading my thoughts (hey thanks, welcome you!), the act of me writing about a show means that I enjoyed it enough to watch # of seasons. And this was a show that I had several people, including readers, tell me to give another chance. So yes, I very much recommend Mindhunter.
The show focuses on the true formation and early years of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, following the fictionalized characters of two special agents and a psychologist. Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff, Frozen) is a special agent newly promoted to teaching at Quantico in season one, but quickly realizes that there is a lot he doesn’t know about why bad guys do the things they do: “Where do we go when motive becomes elusive?” His inquiry into criminal psychology leads him to special agent Bill Tench (Holt McCallany, Gangster Squad, Sully), an older agent who spends most of his time traveling the country sharing innovative behavioral science techniques with local law enforcement stuck in the outdated work of the MMO method (means, motive, opportunity) in an attempt to keep up with more complicated crimes. Finding interest in the work, Ford tags along and discovers two things: 1) He is terrible at speaking to people, and 2) Few people want to hear the “garbage” occupying space in his mind. Not yet anyway. But as they continue to teach they stumble upon opportunities to “mind-hunt” through interviews with convicted killers, and their conversations with these killers begin to even further influence the way they think about open cases and how to solve them (a.k.a. criminal profiling). With this new technique being developed, the duo seek help from a psychology professor, Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv, Fringe), who after consulting with them on several cases is eventually asked to come work for the FBI as a full time consultant. Following the official formation of the team, they continue to interview famous killers such as Edmund Kemper (Coed Killer), Jerry Brudos, Richard Speck, David Berkowitz (Son of Sam), Elmer Wayne Henley Jr., and Charles Manson in order to learn about their reasons for killing (or influencing the killings of) multiple people. In season two, they become more involved with the Atlanta Child Murders and use their new skills in criminal profiling to help overcome incompetent local police work and find the person responsible.
Although created by Joe Penhall (The Road), the more recognized and successful David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac, The Social Network) was brought aboard as an executive producer in season two, and I must say that I enjoyed the overall pacing and character work of the second season much more. The series draws heavy inspiration from the non-fiction book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, written by retired FBI agent John E. Douglas, a criminal profiler whom Agent Holden Ford’s character is loosely based. Ford is the primary focus of the first season and continues to be the main character through season two, although the focus shifts more to support and round out the characters of Tench and Carr.
Season one relies heavily on the interviews and interrogations, specifically with one man: Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton, The Umbrella Academy). Kemper carried every scene he was in and was by far the breakout star of the season (which makes it all the more disappointing to only see him once in the second season). Every interaction with Ford and Tench is tension cut by his finely-tuned, down-to-earth formalities, which create a character worth loving and reviling all at once (he can go from offering a drink to talking about severing heads all in the same thought…). Their Kemper sessions teach the team a lot about the inner-workings of a serial killer because he also discusses other killers’ motives with them, since he claims that killing is a vocation: “Butchering people is hard work.” Aside from Kemper, the first season really does dive into Holden Ford. He is driven to be absolutely certain of his work and is willing to plumb the depths of these killers souls to find the answers, and in doing so he not only finds major consistencies between himself and the subjects but consequently begins falling farther and farther out of graces with his FBI superiors. His tactics of working with criminals slide from professionally developed to off the cuff and unorthodox, and the division between Ford and Tench becomes clearer as the season goes; they are two very different people. But as dissension in the unit grows, they remain capable of overcoming their differences and closing cases together along with the help of Dr. Carr, who becomes more of the glue to their working relationship, especially as the the show enters season two. And as season one draws to a close, Ford finds himself in the midst of an anxiety attack brought on by an emotional whirlwind of his own doing.
Season two picks up with the aftermath of Ford’s hospitalization, as Tench is asked to go pick him up and every attempt is made to sweep it under the rug. The team has been funded by government grants to accomplish their work of interviewing subjects, classifying their behavior, and creating a profiling manual for widespread use, and the FBI doesn’t want their reputation stained with agent Ford’s condition. Additionally, his deviant actions taken in recent interviewing not only showed his willingness to cross the line, but it also lead to his boss being asked to step down. And that’s where the story stagnates with Ford, leaving viewers wondering what’s stirring in his brain while watching him struggle to maintain interview composure and keep his life from falling apart. Meanwhile, Agent Tench was a bit of a mystery to start the first season, but it was eventually made known that he has a wife and adopted child, but that there is also a lot of familial tension. In season two, that tension grows exponentially around a situation the family finds themselves in, and Tench does his best to hold it all together while attempting to keep his private life and work life separate. He is tasked with keeping Ford in check while investigating in Alabama, a job that Tench finds all the more difficult to accomplish while flying home every weekend to appease his wife. Similar to Ford’s emotional break at the end of season one, Tench reaches his boiling point near the end of season two as he lets loose on Ford as well as letting Charles Manson get under his skin during an interview (Damon Herriman, who also played Manson in this year’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood). Then there is Dr. Carr, who plays a much bigger role in the second season until she is sidelined by the Bureau in a very sexist fashion. Although she does not join Ford and Tench in Alabama, she continues her work back home and even gets involved in interviewing criminals. But moreover, it’s revealed that she is lesbian and hiding it from everyone, except her new partner. Their passionate relationship resembles Ford’s in the first season (oh yeah, Debbie was an interesting hippie girl who played a part in his declining mental state) and ultimately fills in the duplicitous puzzle: each main character is hiding something, just like the men they interview. And that, among a few other details, is what makes this show interesting.
Reasons why I really enjoy this show:
1) The depth of the characters all intersect. Each of them (Ford especially) desperately wants their work to matter. But they are working in the realm of the unknown; everything is new and unexplored. They are learning as they go.
2) While the first season centers around a need for certainty, the second season casts a theme of doubt over everything. At the end of the first season, Ford makes the comment, “The only mistake I made was ever doubting myself.” But as Kemper states, “Seems to me everything you’ve gleaned from serial killers has come from the ones who’ve been caught.” They can’t be certain about their work because most of the time their “evidence” is circumstantial at best, a rough science. The team builds consistency, but it’s also clearly evidenced that while sometimes their gut feelings pan out, there are other times of failure and doubt (e.g. the Atlanta Child Murders). Like in Zodiac, even with all the knowledge of criminal profiling we actually end up certain of very little.
3) Although there is a clear air of non-fiction writing/real-life events that tows the undercurrent and creates a very entertaining form of television, this show stands out by keeping its focus mostly fictionalized because it isn’t on the criminals, but the team. True crime shows have been around for a while but are more recently all the rage (American Crime Story, Making a Murderer, American Vandal, The Act, etc.), and yet Mindhunter has found a special place among them.
4) The mysterious mustache man. At least that’s how I referred to him for the entire first season and part of the second. Every episode starts with this dude, and the 30-ish seconds of tension are a perfect transition into the work of criminal profiling, because as the team continues to uncover patterns among serial and sequence killers, we can only hope that they get the chance to apply it to finding and apprehending this creepy bastard in the next season. The man seemingly lives a normal life, and it isn’t until the season finale that his weird circumstances tip over the psycho-scale and we see him for who he truly is. One Google search later and the curtain is lifted. But I won’t spoil it for you, you have to get to that point yourself 😉
The overall feel of the show is tense, especially during scenes when the team is working and talking to convicted criminals, but it is also broken up nicely by moments of compassion and tenderness…and 90 second montages of life on the road (obviously my favorite). Their basement bunker situation reminds me of Mulder and Scully from The X-Files, since nobody cares about the work they’re doing when they are first starting. As the show progressed into using profiling with open cases, I can only hope that it remains the objective of the next season while also adding a touch of twist (maybe like in Hannibal, Ford finds himself slipping into psychopathic tendencies…?). I will be eagerly waiting and if you’re not sure on the show right now, you have some time to decide because the next season could still be two or more years away. Think about it, and in the meantime check back this weekend(?) for a review of Joaquin Phoenix in Joker! I’m going tomorrow night and I’ve only heard good things so far, but stay tuned and I’ll let you know my thoughts and recommendation. Cheers!

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