Serial killers hold a special place in the American psyche. The names of twisted, horrible men like Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, and John Wayne Gacy are storied in their own right, but less so the names of the men and women who helped bring them to justice. Mindhunter, a Netflex original series based on John E. Douglas’ and Mark Olshaker’s book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, tries to shed some light on team that began the disturbing process of understanding the inner workings of some of humanity’s most perverse minds. In less capable hands, Mindhunter could have been a fairly pedestrian drama, interspersing bureaucratic tensions and interpersonal conflicts with gory action, but industry veteran David Fincher (and his fellow directors) elevated the series by identifying the key questions that make its subjects so very fascinating. What drives a man to murder, again and again, in brutal, cruel ways? How can such people walk amongst us, as colleagues and neighbours, as husbands and fathers, without our knowledge? And perhaps, most importantly, what must it be like, confronting the worst specimens of the human race, in close quarters, unguarded?
These are the questions that drive Mindhunter’s story relentlessly forward, more than any story about the inner workings of the FBI could. The series opens relatively slowly, spending perhaps more time than absolutely necessary presenting the lay of the law enforcement land in the late 1970s. Watching our protagonists, the young and idealistic Holden Ford (played by a post-Hamilton Jonathan Groff) and the more jaded Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), struggle to drive change within the FBI is only tolerable because of the promise of what lies just beyond. The series overall narrative arc is sufficient but rarely exciting, focusing largely on conflicts that are incidental to the story (office politics, romantic relationships) rather than fundamental to it. However, the fundamental conflicts, when given space to shine, make for incredibly compelling television.
These scenes typical revolve around Ford, occasionally accompanied by Tench, interviewing serial killers (enactments of their real-life counterparts), rapists and child molesters, touching on psychological drivers and emotional sore spots. These scenes are filled with tension; driven partially by the omnipresent threat of violence but equally by the anticipation of discovering the horrors these men created and the often troubled backstories that inspired them. The other half of the conflict equation, of course, is that as the protagonists spend more time with these sociopaths, their influence begins to become increasingly felt; after all, there is only so long you can spend with the devil before you begin to become a little devilish yourself.
These conflicts are helped, to a degree, by how the story is told. There is a balance, albeit an uneasy one, between the academic and applied aspects of the work that the unit does. The audience benefits from this balance however; watching the extraction of the insights is intriguing but so is seeing them applied in crimes within the show’s setting. This back-and-forth creates something of a cycle; as the agents learn more about the criminal mind, they are able to apply their learnings to a wider array of cases, which in turn informs them of questions that they still don’t have the answers to. This cycle, then, becomes the source of significant character progression and development, as Holden and Tench, due to a mixture of workplace pressures, personality differences and exposure to psychopaths, begin to evolve in their attitudes to their work.
The story’s setting is put to good use as well. Rather than serve as simply an excuse to bring out the classic 70s roadsters and rock-and-roll, Mindhunter explores the circumstances of the 70s and the impact that time period had on the American public’s relationship with authority and crime. There is some postulation about the correlation between the violence of wars – World War II, Korea, Vietnam – and the proliferation of serial killers. The public’s increasingly polarized view on sex and sexuality, as well as the strength of the counter-culture movement features strongly as well, though in the end, what is most remarkable is how little has changed since then. Corporate bureaucracy was every bit as implacable a foe to change then as it is now, as are the necessary but annoying requirements for documentation and adherence to protocols. In the show’s best, most intense scenes, there is little about the setting that seems specific to the time period; which in turn, highlights the universality of the insights drawn from such scenes.
None of these aspects of the show, however, come close to stealing it. That thievery is performed by the casts’ performances. Strangely enough, the main characters suffer from the worst relative performances – Groff, for example, stumbling in some of the less dramatic moments, though the role demanded a far wider range of performances of him than of his co-stars. Even so, the difference between the show’s best and worst performers is far from drastic – with one undeniable exception. Cameron Britton plays Edmund Kemper, a renowned real-world serial killer, in a manner that is inexplicably terrifying. Despite being shorter and smaller than the real Ed Kemper, Britton’s portrayal of the gigantic man emphasizes his physicality subtly while also playing up Kemper’s mild-mannered personality. Britton masterfully captured the constant, implicit threat of violence that Kemper embodies while maintaining an aura of inscrutability despite the friendliness of the character. Each of the serial killers is portrayed well; Britton’s Kemper towers above them all, literally and figuratively.
Mindhunter takes the audience back to a time when serial killers did not yet exist in the public perception yet were disturbingly real and seemingly common. In its finest moments, it centres its narrative lens on these individuals and the civil servants who strove to better understand them. Vicariously, it brings us in uncomfortable proximity with individuals that we feel sure will be utterly alien to us, and reveals that is worryingly possible to, if not sympathize, at least empathize with some of them. In doing so, it asks questions of our shared humanity and what really separates us.
Looking back at all the television reviews that I’ve done – and then stopped doing – over the years, Mindhunter will be the first that I did not do an episode-by-episode breakdown of. In hindsight, that was certainly a mistake; Mindhunter is a compelling piece of television with plenty in it to critique. Unfortunately, it was so compelling that I ended up running through the entire first season in about two days and despite its undeniable quality, felt too reluctant to return to it for a more detailed rundown. As long-time readers are likely aware, any work that I review on this site has a special defining characteristic that compels me to discuss it in more detail. For Mindhunter, that defining element was its ability to depict, with terrifying realism, the tensions of confronting some of the worst specimens of human nature that have exists, in close, unguarded quarters.
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