The Triumphant Return of ‘Mindhunter’


Mindhunter is back. Its second season has been available for streaming on Netflix for about a week now. When we were first introduced to the universe of Mindhunter in season one, we were transported to 1977. At that point in time, a paradigm shift in understanding the criminal mind was starting to be forced upon law enforcement. In the 70’s, a reoccurring phenomenon was frighteningly beginning to creep into public awareness: a new reality of senseless, gruesome, cruel and seemingly random murders was becoming less and less a shocking novelty.

To this day, when a crime has been committed, the three pillars of support for a methodic criminal investigation (a formula that dates back, at least, to the 19th century) are means, motive and opportunity. But, sometime in the 70’s, the emergence of hard-to-decipher motives stopped being a statistical unicorn. All of a sudden, the old categories of crazy and just plain evil were either inadequate or simply ineffective to address what were essentially pathologies.

It is in the late 70’s that criminal psychology starts to consolidate as a credible law enforcement tool, largely due to the work done in the field by the Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI. Mindhunter masterfully chronicles that period, with amazing reenactments, of both that era and that era’s most high profile villains: the serial killers that populate the universe of the show. In season two in particular, actor Damon Herriman’s onscreen resurrection of Charles Manson is eerily one for the ages.

Among the things brought to light in Mindhunter’s period reenactment is the early climate of resistance to new ideas inside a Bureau still holding on to antiquated models, distrustful of academia in general (perceived to be a byproduct of counterculture), and of contemporary applied criminal psychology in particular. Some scenes and dialogues show how strange it sounded at the time, not just to FBI brass, but also to local police, the idea of criminal profiling: to many of them, profiling was merely an euphemistic use of language to describe evil.

All on its own, the world of serial killers provides an inherently compelling high stakes plot. But perhaps the moment that sets the tone of Mindhunter as a psychological drama, is when in the very first episode of season one, FBI agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), while addressing a room full of police officers, asks rhetorically: “Why do we behave the way we do? It’s a question asked by poets, and philosophers, and theologians since time immemorial… the playground of Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Freud… the stuff of Crime and Punishment and Beyond the Pleasure Principle.”

Those early stages of the groundbreaking work the BSU did were kick started by interviews conducted by agents intent on understanding deviant behavior. But to sit down across from serial killers and make sense of what they offered as rationale for their crimes meant that these violent and disturbed people would have to be listened to with impartial and open-minded receptiveness. Law enforcement had to open itself up to the complexity and nuance of human behavior, and catch up with what the humanities had already been doing.

As a show, Mindhunter is an interesting hybrid: on one hand, it documents history (the high profile serial killers, the interviews, the timeline of events and breakthroughs), but on the other hand (although loosely inspired by real FBI agents John Douglas, Robert Ressler and Ann Burgess), Mindhunter’s main characters, agents Holden Ford and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), and psychology professor Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), are fictional.

That enables the writers of the show to create interesting parallels between Mindhunter’s universe of new ground being broken and the characters’ lives, as they navigate a cultural shift in the perception and labeling of violent crime. For example, Holden Ford’s girlfriend in season one is a sociology graduate student, and that relationship opens his eyes to a new world of existential possibility, dragging him away from the rigidity of his law enforcement background.

But especially in season two, two personal dynamics brilliantly infuse drama in the story. The first is Bill Tench’s domestic challenge: his own adopted son Brian, who is still in elementary school, is now displaying troublesome behaviors that can be construed as early signs of psychopathology. And that, added to the nature of his work, starts to wear down his marriage.

And the second such dynamic is Wendy Carr’s struggle to negotiate her closeted homosexuality with her work of classifying pathological behavior (often associated with traumatic pasts of abuse, and with dysfunctional and abhorrent sex practices) at a time when the American Psychiatric Association still classified homosexuality as a “sexual orientation disturbance.”

If season one chronicled the infancy of criminal profiling, season two jumps to 1980, when profiling starts to take its first steps as an accepted tool. Having produced some results, perception of its effectiveness has changed somewhat. The FBI now embraces it, and strengthens and expands the BSU. And season two will revolve around the role of profiling techniques in capturing Wayne Williams, the man believed to be responsible for what became known as the Atlanta child murders.

To the world of violent psychopaths amidst a cultural redefinition of criminal psychology, Mindhunter adds the racial tension of the 80’s American South and the ugly politics of Atlanta at the time: the victims of the Atlanta Murders were black children, and the African-American community felt under attack, perceiving the murders to be racially motivated, unreceptive to the idea that the killer could be black, and pressuring black officials and leaders to also oppose that narrative. It’s cutthroat drama.

Season two also carries on with a peculiar storytelling device that was present in season one: through short segments, parallel to the story, we are exposed to random moments in the daily life of someone whom everyone has already deduced to be Dennis Rader, the BTK killer. Since Rader wasn’t caught until 2005, it now seems obvious that a story arc is being written to eventually have him step in as an antagonist and somehow culminate with his inevitable downfall.

Based on Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit (co-written by the aforementioned real-life special agent John Douglas), Mindhunter is a high caliber Netflix original series. The high standards set in season one with the acting, the writing, and the cinematography, were more than met in this sophomore season.

Not unrelated to the quality of the show is David Fincher’s contribution. Well-versed in crime drama and in the thriller genre (Seven, Fight Club, Zodiac, The Social Network), Fincher is one of Mindhunter’s executive producers, and he has directed about a third of the episodes so far.

Nearly two years was how long we had to wait for a second season, and not only was it absolutely worth it, it is also obvious now that there is potential for at least three more seasons. It’ll be interesting to see how the show adapts to portraying the subsequent decades, and whether that will affect its signature dark tone, which, for now, remains tied to the aura of that late 70’s early 80’s era. Who knows? One thing is certain though, these first two seasons worth of episodes are an absolute triumph.

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