Available on Netflix
Season one of Netflix’s Mindhunter should have been like catnip to me. Visually styled by David Fincher, director of my second-favourite movie, Se7en, and based on more or less the same foundation as my favourite movie, Manhunter, it should have been a slam dunk for my heart and brain’s allegiances.
But it wasn’t. There was a variety of reasons for that.
It was supposedly based on the creation of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit in the 1970s, in which various agents and psychiatrists went around interviewing ‘serial killers’ – a name they themselves invented – to find out what motivated them and apply that knowledge and psychological science to track down those still at large. Nevertheless, its three main characters were all fictional – composites of real people who worked for the BSU, for sure, but nonetheless characters going through sometimes fictional, sometime real situations. As a biopic or piece of history-telling, that meant Mindhunter lost a little in the telling.
Similarly, it was frequently just a lot of talking, with young go-getter special agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), old hand Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) and psychiatrist Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) going to prisons and chatting with serial killers, and having to deal with office politics and their own issues – rather than actual serial killer-catching. Admittedly, that talking could be truly electric in Fincher’s hands, with Cameron Britton’s Edmund Emil Kemper III a genuinely terrifying presence, despite his only ever talking.
Nevertheless, ten episodes of talking isn’t necessarily the best TV crime viewing.
And lastly, the big issue for me was it was very obviously, very deliberately intended to be a multi-season story, with very little resolved in the first season. In particular, every episode featured the same serial killer going about his daily life, in a narrative that in no way connected with the rest of the story.
I ended up concluding:
Combined with its next season, Mindhunter may eventually be seen as a true classic of prestige television; on its own, the first season is more like a drama-documentary with excellent production values, in which we learn how psychological profiling might have evolved.
Now here’s season 2. So is it a true classic?
Not yet. Maybe with season 3. But we can talk about season 2 with a few spoilers after the jump.
Season 2 of Mindhunter is perhaps even odder than the first season. It’s as though the producers learned from a few of their mistakes and decided to fix them, while forgetting some of the show’s strengths and thus dropping them.
The show follows two main narratives over the second season: the continuing research with and interviewing of serial killers, aided in particular by the arrival of a supportive new boss for the BCU (Michael Cerveris) who has big ambitions for the unit; and the application of that research to a real-life case, the Atlanta Child Murders of 1979 to 1981.
These are odd choices.
For starters, the serial killer interviews don’t really have the same strength as those of the first season, particularly as Britton’s Edmund Emil Kemper III only manages a couple of guest appearances. Instead, we get a good rendition of Sam of Son and a surprisingly well timed appearance by Torv’s Secret City co-star Damon Herriman as Charles Manson – he’s currently in cinemas in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood playing… Charles Manson.
These are good performances but last a few minutes at best and the audience learns little from them – and neither does the BCU, apparently. They’re also certainly not up there with Britton’s performance.
They’re not pointless cameos, by any imagination, and the interviewers’ ability to get ‘Son of Sam’ to admit his fabrications is fascinating, for example. All the same, they end up feeling like ‘guest serial killers of the week’, designed to titillate and attract streaming views, rather than advance the narrative in any depth.
Why Atlanta, Mindhunter?
Meanwhile, the choice of the Atlanta child murders is an odd one, perhaps forced by the fact that’s one of the BSU’s real-life first cases. But it’s a choice that leads to narrative disappointment.
If you were planning a true fiction, you wouldn’t select a case in which you’re not sure if the bad guy really did do it (the case was actually reopened just a few months ago) and he’s only charged with two adult murders and none of the child killings from the 28 known deaths. At the very least, you’d wait until season 3 when the heroes needed to have a comeuppance after an initial season 2 success leading to cockiness.
Yet that’s what we do have.
Again, to be fair, that choice does allow the show to critique both its heroes and the authorities of the time, taking apart the racism both overt and subtle within the FBI, the South and Atlanta itself. Groff is all bleeding heart liberal but nevertheless assumes that because he’s done a few tests in Baltimore, he can apply the same learnings to another poor, majority-black city, Atlanta. At the same time, everything has to be done on the hush-hush, not just because of the infancy of the BSU and its science, but also because of Klan infiltration of the police force, as well as the politics of the city.
And then there’s the FBI bureaucracy that leads to a mad Ikea-moment during a crucial attempt to entrap the murder.
It also allows for more than the occasional homage to Manhunter, including some night scenes with cops reminiscent of the former’s Florida trips, as well as a few scenes set in the Atlanta Hilton that Manhunter visited, too:
But by the end of the season, you do wonder what the point of it all was, since it leaves a big question mark hanging over psychological profiling and the nascent profilers – can they be trusted to get their man if they ignore evidence that doesn’t fit a profile bit on a still young ‘science’?
Holt or I’ll say Holt again
But the second season does do a lot right. There is an actual narrative, with the investigation of the Atlanta child murders turning the show from simple “portraits of serial killers” into a true mystery drama. It also reduces the presence of Groff’s overly cocky, slightly ostracising lead character in favour of the downright fabulous Holt McCallany and Anna Torv. They both get strong personal storylines to match Groff’s season 1 storyline, while Groff becomes the ‘just the facts’ man instead.
True, these are fictional storylines – as you might have guessed, if you’ve seen it, nothing like what happened to McCallany’s son in the second season happened to his real-life inspiration(s), for example. But they do enable him to really shine and be something more than a brake on Groff’s fervour, his experience of dealing with people and politics as valuable as Groff’s occasional inspiration.
Torv’s storyline feels a little more prosaic, by contrast, dealing with her handling her closeted personal life both as it intersects with her professional life and she tries to start up a new relationship. But it does give her the chance to outdo Groff’s character at his own game in interviews, shocking with the personal.
More Mindhunter to come
So is this the classic that I intimated it would be in my season one review? No, it’s just part two of an even longer journey, it turns out. We’re still watching that serial killer do his thing in the background; we’re still watching profiling in its infancy. The story’s further along, but we’re still only in part 2 of a five-part story.
All the same, this is still clearly a very good show that has the potential to be great… assuming it makes it to five seasons. Whether Netflix will let it, given its current “three then done” policy, is a gamble. But I’ll certainly be watching more of one of TV’s best, most sober takes on real-life serial killers.