Sex and murder are often regular bedfellows and the second episode of Mindhunter squares the focus on the conflagration of these two primal human urges. The template of the series is now beginning to form and in many respects it feels like a longer version of the scene in David Fincher’s Zodiac, where Mark Ruffalo & Jake Gyllenhaal’s investigators interrogate John Carroll Lynch’s imprisoned suspect, one of the most magnetic sequences in a superb picture; indeed many believe that was the closest they ever got to uncovering the Zodiac Killer and it feels like Fincher, and writer Joe Penhall, can see the potential in elongating and exploring that central idea – as Bill Tench says toward the end, “how can we stay one step ahead of crazy, if we don’t *understand* crazy?”.
If the first episode was about establishing FBI agent Holden Ford’s (Jonathan Groff) interest in behavioural psychology, this one is all about figuring out the structure of how that can be applied. Oddly enough, and especially by the end, you get a significant The X-Files vibe from the FBI dynamics in Mindhunter; Holden is, to some degree, the Fox Mulder character, believing in a fringe area of investigation which the FBI—personified by old-school thinker, boss Shepard (Cotter Smith)—don’t really believe exists, eventually resulting in him and his recalcitrant, sceptical partner Tench (Holt McCallany) being relegated to the literal FBI basement to work on their theories, with the threat of closure if they push things too far. Instead of aliens, Holden’s obsession is the mind of a motive-less killer.
As a narrative template, Mindhunter looks like every week we may get the interview of a new and different killer, interspersed potentially with Holden & Tench helping out local law enforcement with cases that lack obvious motive (such as here an elderly woman beaten & molested, with her dog’s throat cut). Holden’s quest, and the show’s structure, isn’t to hunt the killer, but understand them, and thereby aid law enforcement and the FBI in general catch or predict killers before they can hurt more people.
The birth of the Behavioural Sciences Unit won’t be an easy one, with scorn heaped upon Holden for even considering the possibility he might get an interview with Charles Manson. Might this be the golden egg at the end of the season? Maybe. Manson and ‘Son of Sam’ David Berkowitz are the real life murderers looming over Fincher’s show like shadows.
Here, the killer is Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton); almost seven food, overweight, with a bad moustache, combed hair and gawky glasses, but a man who considering he killed his grandparents before murdering his mother and having sex with her severed head, appears remarkably calm and functional. Holden’s journey across the episode is the gradual realisation that trying to understand how a killer thinks, apply motive to unspeakable crimes, there is a thin line between learning and enabling, or being open to manipulation. The more seasoned Tench understands this, and he too has a satisfying arc; he starts off uninterested in Holden’s sojourns to speak to Kemper when he could be playing golf, until he realises Holden’s understanding of Kemper’s psycho-sexual urges help figure out a recent crime.
Something is up with Holden’s relationship with the slightly strange Debbie (Hannah Gross), of this I’m convinced. Theirs is a dynamic tied up with sex, and the application of it, and Debbie feels a touch distant when it comes to how she approaches emotional subjects. Quite why this matters is uncertain but there’s a sense Debbie could end up influencing Holden in a way key to his work, and their relationship cleverly ties into the underlying ideas of matricide and sexual perversion which are key to Holden’s criminal understanding. Hopefully Penhall can continue finding ways to link theme and character in this way.
Yet despite all of these dark elements, Mindhunter can at times be surprisingly funny and darkly comedic in how it presents the sparky interplay of Holden & Tench, who are already a fine and engaging partnership in the making. While Fincher continues lending the show a clinical, restrained, academic look akin to Zodiac, and the developing subject matter is intense and grim, the show has an air of detached, investigative dispassion which makes it very engaging. It’s off to an excellent start.
Mindhunter is now streaming on Netflix. Let us know what you think of the season!