Created by Joe Penhall
Starring Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany, Anna Torv
Mindhunter, whose second season is now streaming on Netflix, is one of those shows that shouldn’t work, but you’re compelled to binge-watch it anyway. A large part of the drama’s draw is our fascination with serial killers: Based on the memoir of retired FBI agent John E. Douglas (co-written with Mark Olshaker), Mindhunter traces the birth of the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit, the elite investigative division tasked with drawing up criminal profiles for open cases.
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But the cultural fixation on serial crime only goes so far: For a show that is purportedly about grisly crime, Mindhunter doesn’t show a lot of it; mostly, it follows three operatives—the single-minded wunderkind Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), the rumpled and world-weary Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) and the closeted psychologist Wendy Carr (Anna Torv)—as they fly around the country and interview captured criminals, trying to get an inside look at how their homicidal minds work. As such, Mindhunter traffics in talk—lots of talk—as notorious killers like the chillingly clinical Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton) and the volatile Richard Speck (Jack Erdie) recount their lives, and then our heroes engage in airless chatter dissecting their interviewees’ motives more for the benefit, it seems, of the audience rather than their files.
What keeps Mindhunter compelling is the sheer artistry backing up all that voluminous talk. After directing four episodes in the inaugural season, David Fincher returns to direct the first two episodes of the current season, helping to cement his icy visual palette and free-floating dread as the reigning aesthetic of the show. Fincher directs with a cool remove which, ironically, forces you to compensate by leaning into what’s happening. But a lot of work goes into that remoteness.
There is a bravura sequence in the second episode featuring Tench and a Wichita police officer as they interview a disfigured survivor (Andrew Yackel) of the BTK (for “Bind, Torture, Kill”) Killer in a car. None of the characters are in any danger, and yet the confluence of great acting, calibrated dialogue, sharp editing, the occasional rumble of a commuter train trundling past, and the face of the survivor—always about to be revealed but never quite—all contribute to your mounting horror, listening to the ordeal of someone who came so close to a horrifying death. A sequence like this confirms your reasons for watching Mindhunter: It is scarily effective and full of thrilling creative choices.
It’s also full of fake-outs. After putting the sometimes irritating know-it-all Holden and his ill-fated relationship with a graduate student in the forefront last season, Mindhunter begins its new installments with Holden under sedation and restraints, the apparent victim of a panic attack. Is this an isolated episode, the product of his crumbling personal life and a hair-raising visit with Ed Kemper? Or is this a sign of a deeper, lingering issue? Turns out, after much ado for the first two episodes, it never comes up again, as the show basically turns Holden into a supporting character so it can explore the inner lives of his colleagues Bill Tench and Wendy Carr, to varying degrees of success.
McCallany’s buzz-cutted Tench gets more in-depth treatment, as Mindhunterfollows the veteran agent as he spreads himself a bit too thinly—playing guardian to Holden the resolute upstart; navigating the politics of getting a new, too-good-to-be-true superior (Michael Cerveris); and repairing the widening fissures in his family life after a horrendous crime hits close to home. In fact, this subplot might have hit too close: Even though it is treated with as much suspense (a chilling sequence will remind you to check your back door before you go to sleep) and sensitivity as the show can muster, I couldn’t help but feel a bit skeptical at the coincidence of a heinous murder happening in the neighborhood of an FBI profiler. Meanwhile, the opposite is true of Anna Torv’s clinical psychologist Wendy Carr: While the new season gives her a love interest (Lauren Glazier), this peek into her personal life for the most part feels detached and inconsequential to her work or everything else happening in the show.
The feinting continues in the central cases that the agents tackle. After introducing the BTK Killer as a cold open in every episode of the inaugural season, Mindhunter season 2 has Tench take the theories that the Behavioral Sciences Unit has been formulating for a test run, confirming that one murder deviating from the pattern can indeed be traced back to the Kansas serial killer. But just as it seems that the BSU might finally be hunkering down on this case that has been flitting around the periphery since the start, the agents are recruited to help on the Atlanta Child Murders, a series of killings involving African-American children that occurred from the late-‘70s to the early-‘80s. This is when the season really starts to cook, tackling bureaucratic roadblocks and systemic blindspots, throwing Holden’s dogged insistence on clinical hypothesis against the real-world realities of race, injustice and the collateral of grief.
It won’t be a spoiler to say that, by the end of the season, the fledgling BSU finds itself woefully unprepared, logistically and emotionally. But not to worry: The BTK Killer (Sonny Valicenti) is still waiting in the wings, and judging by the fact that he wasn’t apprehended until 2005, it seems Mindhunter is playing the long game.
Photographs from Netflix