‘Mindhunter’ Review: An Extraordinary Crime Show That Reinvents Procedurals
Spoiler Warning: The entire first season of Mindhunter is discussed below.
For TV critics, Mindhunter entered the world surrounded by hesitation. There has been plenty written about the glorification of serial killers on television, especially of late, but this was compounded by the more immediate fact that Netflix did almost no marketing for the series. It wasn’t released for review except to a handful of critics, and even then just the first two episodes. When a network hesitates to release more than one or two episodes, it’s usually a sign that they aren’t confident in the show, or there’s a major twist that they are protecting. In the case of Mindhunter, neither one seemed to be true. The show’s premiere was stilted and a little hinky, but after that it was engrossing. There weren’t any twists to spoil, but the soft launch created an unnecessary shroud around what is now quietly one of the best series of the year.
One of the most fascinating things about Mindhunter (created by Jonathan Penhall but essentially taken over by David Fincher) is how it is a procedural, yet also eschews the typical beats of a procedural. There has been so much snobbery in this Second Golden Age of Television when it comes to procedural setups versus novelistic storytelling, and yet, there shouldn’t be (especially since so many series butcher attempts at the latter). An ace procedural is one of TV’s greatest delights, and the most effective series are ones that successfully incorporate those Story of the Week narratives while weaving them into larger arcs.
Mindhunter tells its story on three levels: the killer we see in the cold open snippets, who is never addressed directly and never resolved; the more-or-less Crimes of the Week, where Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and the progressive but still old-school Bill Tench (a fantastic Holt McCallany) stumble into investigations while doing Road School for the FBI; and finally, the overall story about the expansion of behavioral study at Quantico regarding criminality, and the research into the newly-coined “serial killers.”
Mindhunter is based on the book Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit by John E. Douglas, who is the inspiration for Holden. Douglas has also been the model for a number of pop culture detectives, including Thomas Harris’ John Crawford, Will Graham of Hannibal, and FBI profilers on Criminal Minds. Each of these iterations of Douglas’ persona focus on a man driven to find the motivation and habituation behind some of our country’s most gruesome murders in order to better understand how to catch other killers, or possibly even prevent these kinds of crimes from happening. That is, at least, the lofty goal that Holden aspires to when we first meet him, as someone whose life is work and who, for much of this first season, believes his work doesn’t affect his life.
It’s the perfect background for a series that also knows it needs to deliver the goods episodically as well. The cases that Bill and Holden participate in helped bring killers to justice, which keeps the pace of the series taught and the narrative moving. They also play into the bigger behavioral project, as the Road School is left behind; but the Road School was also an important part of Bill and Holden getting access to these heinous, small-town crimes, and often those who committed them. It was also a necessary check on Holden’s ego, as he – from the very start – revealed a tendency to show off his education, and to look down on those he felt were not operating to his standards.
The series also shows us Holden’s interest and growing obsession with famous killers very early on. His meetings with Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton, who further illustrates the brilliance of the show’s casting) and others showed not only his deepening interest in the darkness these men possessed, but in his own arrogance at being able to draw it out and manipulate them. The conversations between Holden and these men, and between Holden and Bill about them and their crimes, were often disarmingly casual, but Bill’s essential function was as a moral compass and a tether for Holden. The relationship between the two was particularly fascinating throughout this season because of how difficult it is to categorize. They were more than coworkers, but something less than friends, and yet, there was a familial shade in their care for one another. There was respect, but also, resistance. But that push and pull was necessary — Holden had to push Bill into the future, and Bill had to hold him back from taking things too far. In the end, with Bill alienated and Holden left to his own devices, he did take things too far.
When it came to the particulars of the crimes committed by these real killers (one of the best and worst things about the show), Mindhunter has been restrained in its use of graphic violence, something another kind of show would have had a field day with. And yet it was haunting in the way that it used language and suggestion to create the picture for us. Ed Kemper’s acts in particular, explored with such detail, give one’s imagination a nightmarish playground on which to consider his crimes. There is far more power in what was not shown to us than what was, as discussing motivation, behavioral theory, and considering the man (always the man) behind the crime remained the focus. As the DA from Georgia says, until you can fully realize the pain and horror that the victims went through, you cannot fully process what these men are capable of. Yet Holden was never interested in the victims — he humanized and fully realized the assailants. He wanted to know who these men were to stop other men like them. The victims were inconsequential, part of a cold calculation in uncovering a “deviant” murderer. But that distance is also necessary, for him and for us. The show also possesses a heart and humor to it that are essential to not becoming so mired in darkness that we, like Holden, become overwhelmed.
Ultimately, everything we experienced in Mindhunter was through Holden’s filter. When we meet him, he’s a straight-laced guy, talented, but by-the-books. He starts to unravel, though, as his hubris starts to take over. In a way, it mirrors the now-called serial killers that he studies. His anger and arrogance began to fuel him, so much so that he turns on his cohorts (like asking them to lie), taking a position of authority where it hasn’t been earned, and disrespecting his organization. What started off as a kind of civil disobedience in service of this new way of going after criminals was then corrupted into something darker, like when he callously ends the career of the tickling principal after Debbie (Hannah Gross) breaks up with him. It’s Holden at his worst and most self-absorbed.
And yet, Jonathan Groff is exceptionally affecting as Holden. Groff has always had a talent for making his characters empathetic, even when they are behaving badly (Patrick on Looking is an excellent example, as one of the most frustrating and relatable characters I’ve ever encountered on television). Groff makes Holden earnest and driven, but what start as admirable traits end up becoming unbalanced in a way that threaten to undo him. He’s unrepentantly self-interested, but it almost comes off as charming. For Bill and Wendy (Anna Torv), it’s exasperating, but it’s also tempered by their acknowledgement of his skill – something else that allows Holden to get away with more than he should, emboldening him into even more questionable acts.
Still, Mindhunter doesn’t shuffle Bill and Wendy off to the side, and instead, gives them some small but vitally revealing character moments that help imbue the series with potent emotional depth. Both Bill and Wendy have time given to their home life, and the struggles to balance their relationships with the demands of their work. Bill’s wife Nancy is horrified that he would bring his work home with him, especially after their troubled son finds some of the grotesque crime photos, and Bill breaks down over feeling like he has to protect everyone all of the time. Wendy, too, makes a choice to leave her partner behind and move nearer to Quantico for her work, where she mitigates some of her loneliness by feeding a stray cat she hears but never sees … until she finds her tuna can offering filled with hundreds of ants one night and abandons the project.
What’s striking about these character portraits versus Holden’s time with his girlfriend Debbie is that there is no compromise or consideration of the toll the work takes by Holden himself. Debbie eventually breaks up with him over it, but it’s also a hollow act. Despite the shading that Bill and Wendy receive, Debbie never becomes anything more than a collection of emotionless quips and sexual acts, whose sole point of existence is to ask Holden questions. But even when she has one line about how he’s not interested in talking to her unless it’s about his work, it doesn’t hold much weight; their relationship has been over for a long time, since the stiletto incident really (which Holden refused to acknowledge or discuss), and even more so after The Patrick Affair, and then most definitely once Debbie – in an uncharacteristic moments of uncertainty – has Holden break up with himself for her. If there was one weakness with Mindhunter it was Debbie, who suffered the most from our Holden-shaped window into this world.
After Holden’s decent into his own hubris, though, it’s essential that we see him come full circle at the end. It was Ed Kemper who helped embolden Holden’s research, and eventually made him “famous,” and whose opinion meant more to him than most (he was particularly disturbed to think Kemper had called him an idiot). In the end, fittingly, it was Kemper who undid him. He had turned the killer into his own pet and a trophy, something Kemper realizes and confronts him over, finally using his size and his murderous impulses to scare Holden straight. In the moments that follow, Holden runs away from Kemper’s embrace (which could have turned into something more sinister) and hears a cacophony of voices that told him to be careful. He wasn’t, and nearly became the architect of his own demise. Confronted by the weight of it all, he collapses in a panic attack.
It’s a satisfying conclusion as it closes the arc of Holden’s great fall, yet it’s one that signals rebirth and perhaps a more mature attitude going into Season 2. But other than Holden, nothing else from Mindhunter’s first season was “resolved” — not the killer of the cold open (most likely the infamous BTK killer), not Bill or Wendy’s issues in their personal lives, not Gregg’s (Joe Tuttle) treachery, and not Holden’s place at the bureau after thumbing his nose at authority so many times. And that is completely ok. Because when it comes to the establishment of a new kind of behavioral study into criminals, and the creation of a new department and way of thinking, Mindhunter’s first season played out like one long first act. It was reminiscent in some ways of The Wire, which took a season to establish its basement-dwelling special project of investigators (made up of talents and sundries and spies) that the brass wants to shut down but can’t because it’s too successful.
Mindhunter is telling a long story, one that is engaging on multiple levels, understanding that you need strong characters and a compelling episodic structure to make a show great. It covers a lot of ground in 10 episodes, from Holden’s relative obscurity to running a department with two major government funding backers. But it’s also part of an ever-expanding puzzle to identify and incarcerate the most depraved in our society, by understanding what got them to that point, and toeing the line of how close we can get to darkness without letting it consume us.
Rating: ★★★★★ Excellent — Awards material
Mindhunter is currently streaming on Netflix.