Dropping on Netflix in November of 2017, the first season of Mindhunter, a 1970s-set show about the early days of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, could not have arrived with a more impressive pedigree. With David Fincher and Charlize Theron listed as Executive Producers, and Fincher himself directing four of the initial ten episodes, the show was also able to attract Asif Kapadia (Senna, Amy) to the project. For all of that – and an impressive set of reviews for the debut run – Mindhunter made only a limited impact on public consciousness, with general awareness of the show buried beneath an avalanche of high quality competing products, in an age where there is almost too much television. With only ten episodes in the bank, the show then took 21 months to produce a second run. Could season two deliver both for the casual viewer, with no recollection of the show, as well of those of us who’ve waited nearly two years for Mindhunter‘s return?
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Season two, again, sees David Fincher take the directorial reins in early episodes (handling the first three of the nine), before this time handing off to Andrew Dominik, director of the exceptional – and equally under-seen – The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the 2007 Brad Pitt/Casey Affleck western. Rounding out the helmers’ roster is Carl Franklin, an actor and director responsible for episodes of shows such as House of Cards, Homeland and The Affair. Once again, we are in very safe hands.
The focus moves deftly this time, between the BTK Killer referenced in the first run and the Atlanta murders of 1979-1981 (the growing focus of the season as it develops), as well as a domestic murder case in Bill Tench’s (Holt McCallany) neighbourhood – in a case that will rock his family to its core. The show deals with the fallout of the panic episode we saw Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) suffer after his encounter with serial killer Ed Kemper. His palpable discomfort in many of the professional engagements his job requires adds greatly to the discomfort of these uneasy set-pieces. There is also an expanded role for Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), as the unit – completed by the socially awkward Gregg Smith (Joe Tuttle) – most often work as a group of four (though interviews with serial killers are handled typically – though not exclusively – in pairs). The dynamic is altered further by a change of boss, with Michael Cerveris’ Ted Gunn character replacing Cotter Smith’s Robert Shepard – a change necessitated by the fallout from Ford’s falsification of interview transcripts late in season one. There are many other subjects and surprises in the course of this run, but they are best experienced “cold”.
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The first piece of good news is that viewers can approach this without watching/rewatching season one. Deliberately viewing this without that refresher, all salient points needed are provided very quickly in the first episode – without, perhaps, as many specifics on Holden’s falsification as might have been helpful – and character dynamics are reestablished in rapid fashion.
In fact, perhaps the biggest strength of Mindhunter‘s sophomore run is in the strengthening of the team interplay. As good as the first run was, it often felt like a ten-episode proof of concept. There was a subtext of the show arguing for its premise, at the same time as the officers were arguing the validity of this new avenue of inquiry and study. Ford and Tench were establishing their dynamic, as the actors sought to find their characters, while the show seemed to struggle with how far the nature of the work should begin to affect the nature of the men. This time Tench, rather than Ford, feels the slightly bigger character, while Carr enhances every scene in which she appears. The divide between the personal and private is smoother – and thinner – and the show is confident enough to rest plot threads for several episodes at a time. This latter point making perfect sense, as real-life cases will ebb and flow, with developments often arriving irregularly.
Performances are excellent throughout. Holden Ford is damaged (at least in the earlier episodes, as across this run this does fade), yet has to hide his fear from his subjects, whilst Jonathan Groff is quietly portraying it for the camera. It is a difficult balance, but one that he manages expertly. McCallany has really found the Bill Tench character this time. On debut, he played the character by his contrasts with Holden Ford: older, less bookish, perhaps less open-minded. Here that generation gap is considerably narrowed, and Tench’s smarts reveal themselves – he’s simply more straightforward than Ford, rather than more limited. Torv may be the star player this time, if nothing else than for what her extended presence gives to the show. Professionally, it gives the team gravitas (as she is a professor), and allows for a fresh voice and perspective. Personally, it brings in questions of the social mores of the era, as well as how her life, and her ability to have fun, has been damaged by her need to prioritise career. We sense a woman still learning – at close to 40 years of age – who she is.
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Sitting down with the intention to sample, perhaps, the first couple of episodes, the opening five were immediately rattled off in one viewing, with the show completed in two sittings. It’s a marvel that a show this heavy in subject matter can wear such darkness so lightly. The show never exhausts the viewer, and the tough subject matter is never explored in a fashion the viewer could find prurient or oppressive. It is likely Mindhunter will remain under-viewed, but it’s hard to imagine it will have anything less than stellar audience appreciation ratings. With the sheer amount of real world inspiration from which, sadly, this show can draw, there is no reason that Mindhunter cannot enjoy a very long run indeed. We urge everyone to join it on its journey.