Unleashed on Netflix nearly two years ago, the first season of Mindhunter was a gloriously detailed period procedural about the creation of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) and its pioneering criminal profiling methods, based on the experiences of real-life FBI profiler John E. Douglas, who helped build the first centralized database on serial killers by interviewing dozens of them in prison in the late ‘70s. In the hands of creator Joe Penhall and executive producer/director David Fincher, Douglas’s story became an enthralling descent into hell that also felt like the culmination of Fincher’s career-long interest in the subject.
Like Fincher’s 2007 masterpiece, Zodiac, Mindhunter Season 1 was talky, deliberately paced, and more interested in the co-dependence between its obsessive investigators, agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff, Looking) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany, Fight Club), and the monsters they study than indulging audience bloodlust. While the show featured a rogues’ gallery of infamous real-life killers gleefully recounting their sins in stomach-churning detail, Penhall and Fincher diligently avoided romanticizing or mythologizing them, instead exposing the mundane grotesqueries of their pathetic, broken natures—the petty resentments, the self-deception, the delusional narcissism, the sexual and social impotence.
Season 2 carries on in the same vein, but with a breathtaking urgency largely missing from the more ambling first season.
It’s only natural that a show about the FBI and serial killers set in 1977 would feature more misogynistic white dudes than a presidential locker room, and the writers on Season 1 were careful to balance all the talk of violence against women with a measured discussion—largely initiated and carried by Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv, Fringe), a psychologist who jumps ship from academia to BSU early on—about the culturally instilled misogyny that helped form these killers. Even Ford, our emotionally obtuse boy scout hero, becomes so myopically focused on understanding killers of women that he has no time or room left for understanding Debbie (Hannah Gross, The Sinner), his patient grad-student girlfriend. Gross is a terribly charismatic presence, and her committed performance teased out a dimensionality to Debbie that didn’t necessarily exist on paper.
The first episode of Season 2 opens in Park City, Kansas, with a quick drop-in on Dennis Rader, aka the BTK Killer, whose story continues to be told through brief, enigmatic vignettes at the beginning of most episodes. For those aware of how Rader’s story ultimately played out in real life, these cold opens during Season 1 were both tantalizing and frustrating, since (Spoiler Alert) we knew that Ford and Tench wouldn’t be catching him anytime soon. In Season 2, that futility becomes the point: no matter how sophisticated the new profiling methods, the twisted mysteries of human nature can leave the most astute detective confounded. The limits of control is one of the great themes of Mindhunter, and it’s embodied by Rader’s presence.
That theme doesn’t end with Rader, though—it’s in the DNA of Season 2. When we catch up with Ford, he’s strapped down to a hospital gurney and in the throes of a panic attack, one of many he’s had since visiting Ed Kemper (the terrific Cameron Britton, rightfully nominated for an Emmy) at the end of last season, during which he received the most traumatic bear hug in the history of television.
Meanwhile, despite an open OPR investigation stemming from Ford’s unorthodox interview of Richard Speck, BSU is thriving, but change is afoot. Quantico assistant director Robert Shepard (Cotter Smith, The Post) is retiring, and his replacement is the politically polished Ted Gunn (Michael Cerveris, Ant-Man and the Wasp) who turned down a job on the top floor of the Hoover building for a chance to work with Ford, Tench and Carr in the FBI Academy’s basement. Turns out he’s a BSU fanboy and has big plans for expanding the unit and codifying their experimental methods as official FBI protocol—as long as Tench and Carr can keep Ford on a leash.
Last season treated Ford as the show’s lead, focusing on the slow disintegration of his relationship with Debbie as he became consumed by his work and convinced of his own genius. This time, Ford, sufficiently humbled and learning his own limits, takes a backseat to Tench and Carr, whose personal lives become thematic prisms for the season’s overarching plot involving the search for a killer of children in Atlanta. This narrative throughline is fleshed out by a handful of subplots, digressions and supporting characters, including the woefully under-utilized character actor Joe Tuttle as Atlanta field agent Gregg Smith and Lauren Grazier as Carr’s free-spirited love interest Kay.
It’s in the Atlanta story that timely issues of race and identity emerge; the data on black serial killers is limited, but everything in Ford is telling him the Atlanta killer must be a young black man—“Serial killers almost never cross racial lines,” he reasons. The growing pool of grieving mothers are outraged at the inability of police to catch the killer and the lack of attention paid by the FBI to the local KKK presence. They’re stranded on an island in a sea of political concerns, and Ford’s well-meaning reassurances offer little comfort as kids continue to disappear and Atlanta news anchors ask grimly, “Do you know where your children are?”
Bill Tench has no clue where his son Brian is, even as he watches him sleep. Brian has recently started regressing, withdrawing from his parents, wetting himself, sucking his thumb and playing with toys he’s long outgrown. There’s something wrong with him, but Tench is too devoted to the demands of his job to be an attentive father. The mystery of Brian’s behavior is one of the more unsettling plot points of Season 2, but also one of the riskiest—it always feels a little too neat, but Fincher pulls back when Brian’s story threatens to become ham-fisted.
Speaking of ham-fisted, the most surprising thing about the much-anticipated Charles Manson digression is that it’s not. At least a few of us scratched our heads when it was announced that Fincher and Quentin Tarantino had both cast Australian actor Damon Herriman to play Manson in separate projects. It sounded like a vulgar stunt, a marketing grift worthy of Manson himself, and news of the double casting made Herriman’s role in both projects (the other, of course, being Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood) seem much bigger than it turned out to be.
In Mindhunter, though, Manson’s presence isn’t a gimmick or a grift, but a warning to our heroes about ego, about parenting, about the lies we tell ourselves to sleep. Herriman is riveting, dressing down Ford and Tench with feral rage while making an impassioned, indignant case for his innocence so convincing that, for a brief moment, his audience, including us, buys it. When Ford follows the interview with a visit to Tex Watson, the Manson devotee who led the siege on Cielo Drive and arguably did more actual killing than anyone else, we realize how much control Manson actually had over his followers—and, for a moment, over us.
This is the tension at the heart of Mindhunter. We’re drawn to spectacle, we’re seduced by rulebreakers, we impose patterns on chaos, and we’re convinced of our own genius. We think we’re in control, but we so rarely are. If there’s any lesson to be taken from men like Manson and Rader, or from the frustrating half-victory that concludes Season 2, it’s that control is an illusion, whether you’re a serial killer or an FBI agent or David Fincher or a Mindhunter fan.