Why is popular culture so fascinated with serial killers? There are all kinds of reality television shows and their fictional counterparts dedicated to examining their perverse methodology. What compels these murderers to kill several people in all kinds of horrible ways? There are as many reasons why as there are serial killers as each one has their own unique motivation. Our fascination comes from the morbid speculation that one’s next-door neighbor may have a bunch of severed heads in their fridge. It’s rubbernecker syndrome – an interest in the gruesome details of the murders. It is also the relief in the knowledge that you’re still alive and safe and not the murder victim, that in some way you’ve cheated death.
In 1995, David Fincher directed Seven, one of the best films about serial killers. With the commercial and critical success of that film, he was careful not to get pigeonholed in the genre and didn’t return to it until Zodiac (2007), which was a very different take indeed. His fascination with serial killers continues with Mindhunter, a show created by Joe Penhall, based on the true crime book of the same name by John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker, that he is executive producing and directed four episodes for Netflix.
Set in 1977, the show focuses on the FBI’s nascent Behavioral Science Unit with two agents – Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) – fighting against internal resistance – their superior (Cotter Smith) thinks they’re wasting the Bureau’s time – and external ignorance – local law enforcement doesn’t understand what they’re doing. We meet Ford working as a hostage negotiator as he unsuccessfully tries to defuse a situation involving a man armed with a shotgun and holding a woman hostage.
After failing to calm the man down, which results in his death, Ford is ordered by his superior to continue teaching his hostage negotiator course at Quantico. It is here that we get the first inklings that Ford is different. He’d rather settle a hostage situation peacefully than through excessive force by reasoning with the criminal and the way to do this is figuring out what motivates them…but how?
After his latest class, Ford overhears a lecture in a nearby classroom. The instructor is talking about David Berkowitz (a.k.a. The Son of Sam) and offers up this observation: “You could say that the guy is crazy or that he’s pretending that he’s crazy but if we’re looking for a motive we can understand we suddenly find there is none. It’s a void. It’s a black hole.” He points out that in Hoover’s heyday, criminals like John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson were easy to figure out because they did what they did for personal gain.
Someone like Berkowitz is completely different. “Where do we go when motive becomes elusive?” the instructor says. It is this line that hits Ford like a thunderbolt and serves as an epiphany. He and the instructor have a fascinating discussion that is really the show’s thesis: if the world no longer makes sense, then neither does crime. They both agree that they don’t know what to do about it, which Ford wonders, “But we’re supposed to, right?” to which the instructor replies, “Sure. But here’s the troubling thing – no one’s even asking the questions.” This is just one of many well-written, masterfully acted conversations depicted over the course of the ten episodes of Mindhunter. This scene also sets the tone: this is going to be a character-driven show that eschews traditional cop show heroics in favor of dialogue-heavy explorations into what motivates serial killers.
The first half of episode one focuses not just on Ford’s professional life but his personal one as he meets a witty, attractive woman named Debbie (Hannah Gross) at a rock concert that is just as smart as he is if not more so, much to his surprise. Their initial meet-cute turns into a first date where she takes him back to her place and gets him to take a bong hit in an effort to loosen him up. They even go see Dog Day Afternoon (1975), which he is so impressed with that he shows it to his class. Debbie isn’t afraid to call Ford on his bullshit and is willing to challenge his beliefs, which makes for an entertaining give and take between them in their scenes together. There’s a sexy and smart frisson between these two characters that is a lot of fun to watch. After sex one night, she playfully chastises his naïveté about sex, calling him a monk, chiding him, “How can you figure out the criminal mind if you can’t even figure out your girlfriend?” Good point.
Jonathan Groff plays an atypical FBI agent. He’s youthful and sensitive – hardly the Melvin Purvis type. He’s also very smart but lacks the street smarts to excel in the field as evident in the bungled hostage negotiation that kicks off the show. He needs more time in the field with an experienced veteran showing him the ropes. His boss arranges a meeting with Tench and the elder agent instantly reads the younger one. He asks Ford to tag along with him on the road, teaching FBI techniques to local law enforcement all over the country.
Initially, it appears that Fincher is treading on familiar turf with the Ford-Tench duo – the idealistic young agent butting heads with the older, more experienced agent. What Ford lacks in experience, he makes up for with intelligence and soon his enthusiasm for profiling serial killers is contagious enough to convince Tench and then their boss to interview them. Ford isn’t the brash, impulsive person that Mills was in Seven and Tench isn’t ready to give up on humanity like Somerset was in that earlier film.
Their first teaching gig does not go well. Ford gets too cerebral, his college training confuses most of the cops while Tench tries to keep things simple. Ford ends up pissing off a veteran detective who then asks them for advice on a grisly local murder case. They offer several theories but nothing concrete for the clearly frustrated detective, which only upsets him even more. And so it goes. Not every case can be solved but it is unusual for one of the protagonists to admit it so honestly. The episode ends with nothing resolved and tangible tension between Ford and Tench.
Setting Mindhunter in the late 1970s is an interesting choice. As Fincher has pointed out in interviews, it was the end of the J. Edgar Hoover era with the last vestiges of the stereotypical FBI agent idealized by Melvin Purvis and represented by Ford and Tench’s boss being replaced by people like Ford. Tench represents a bridge between the two eras. He still adheres to old school practices but is receptive to Ford’s new way of thinking and Holt McCallany does an excellent job of showing how his character deals with these contrasting schools of thought – the old vs. the new. Initially, Tench doesn’t reveal much about himself but over the course of the show he’s given moments, like a quiet scene in a bar with Ford in the fourth episode, where he reveals a very personal detail about his home life that is wonderfully conveyed by the actor who displays an impressive amount of vulnerability. A few minutes later, we are shown a glimpse of his home life in a heartbreakingly understated scene.
In order to understand the criminal mind better it makes sense that one should talk to criminals. Ford wants to interview Charles Manson but he’s unreachable – ever for the FBI – and so at one of their teaching gigs a cop says they should talk to Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton) a.k.a. the Co-Ed Killer, a man that decapitated 16 teenage girls and had sex with the corpses. He’s a dream interview – he loves to talk about himself. Fincher films Ford walking through the prison, down the halls among the inmates with the sounds of them leering and yelling at him. The look on his face is one of palpable unease.
The meeting with Kemper is a brilliant sequence that begins on a comical note as the killer insists Ford has an egg salad sandwich as if he were entertaining him in his living room. The serial killer initially comes off as an affable man. He’s eloquent and honest (“People who hunt other people for a vocation all we want to talk about is what it’s like.”) and is able to become unsettlingly threatening on a dime. Kemper recounts his normal childhood and how it ran parallel to another, more depraved life. He fascinates Ford, while Tench is convinced that he’s manipulating his partner, telling him what he wants to hear. On the second visit, Ford is a little too chummy with Kemper in an amusing bit where they actually banter back and forth. They delve into the man’s past and what motivated him, which he tells in a chilling monologue. Cameron Britton does an excellent job playing Kemper. He moves little, letting his eyes convey his feelings. Kemper is someone that plays things close to the vest, reading Ford and then telling a story of how he killed his mother in a creepy, matter-of-fact monotone.
Not surprisingly, the most compelling parts of Mindhunter are the interviews with the killers. As Fincher has said, these scenes are like little one act plays as these guys tell their stories. The show wisely doesn’t resort to flashbacks, which would be the obvious thing to do, and instead lets the actors playing these killers flex their acting chops, holding our attention with their ability to tell their characters’ depraved stories and make it compelling.
Meeting Kemper convinces Tench that there is value in talking to serial killers in order to understand what motivates them and he decides to stick up for Ford when their boss chews them out for interviewing the murderer without telling him. They’re threatened with suspension and it is this confrontation that bonds Ford and Tench. By the end of the second episode they’ve finally gelled as a team. They are finally on the same page.
As Mindhunter continues, Ford and Tench begin to diverge on how the work they do affects them. The latter is increasingly repulsed by the repellent nature of the killers they talk to, while the former finds himself getting deeper into the mindset of these men, running the risk of becoming like them, treading the same line that Will Graham does in Manhunter (1986). Mindhunter shows how these cases take their toll on the men that investigate them, most significantly, Tench who doesn’t tell his wife anything about his work and this causes noticeable tension between them. This is explored in a scene where she confronts him about it. As their work continues, Ford becomes more analytical and detached while Tench is more empathetic, especially when they interact with the killers and the local cops.
Are serial killers born or are they formed? This is a question that Ford and Tench wrestle with over the course of the ten episodes. It is why they are interviewing these men in the first place. Mindhunter does a superb job balancing the procedural aspects of Ford and Tench’s work with the impact it has on their personal lives in a way that gradually makes them rich and compelling characters over time. This is thoughtful, absorbing procedural that takes the time to delve not just into the work that these men do but their personal lives as well in a deeper way that Fincher was trying to do in Zodiac but was constrained by the limitations of feature filmmaking. The medium of television has allowed him to go as deep as he wants and this results in some of his best work.