Mindhunter is full of interesting people, many of whom are fascinating, or off-putting, or extremely creepy, or notably charismatic, or some combination thereof. There are not so many characters you’d describe as “lovable,” though. Cameron Britton’s work as Ed Kemper is quite compelling, but he’s hardly endearing. Anna Torv is marvelous as Dr Wendy Carr, but her role is a little too quiet and self-contained to qualify as charming. And lord knows it’s not Holden — he begins as something like a wet-behind-the-ears Boy Scout, and by the end is so utterly lost to the serial-killer mind that he starts losing the plot. You worry about him, but you don’t precisely love him. You know who you do love? Bill Tench.
Let’s start with the man himself — he is big, with broad shoulders and an arrestingly square jaw. He has a flat-top haircut, of the type that says “this is the haircut they gave me in the Navy a decade ago, and I absolutely do not care that the kids these days think it is painfully uncool.” He wears short-sleeved button-down shirts, which are no doubt just on the acceptable casual/comfortable side of FBI regulation. He is barrel-chested, and although we don’t ever see him in a “Kiss the Chef” apron standing in front of a grill holding a spatula, once you’re aware of that possibility, you know it’s 100 percent his weekend persona.
Much of what makes Bill so appealing is just who he is, unto himself. He’s blunt and straightforward, and although he’s dedicated to the systems and strategies he’s been practicing for a long time, he’s curious about learning new things. Mindhunter has a particularly strong sense of this particular breed of institutional mid-level man: Bill and his boss, Shepard, both have these delightful, unexpected moments where you expect them to be stubbornly entrenched in their familiar ways of thinking, and then they suddenly swerve toward curiosity and flexibility. Bill finds the entire serial-killer mentality to be completely disgusting in a way Holden obviously does not, but he’s persuadable. He’s open to new things, and he admires Holden’s intensity and dedication. He’s a stand-in father for Holden, something that becomes especially clear after Mindhunter introduces Tench’s flabbergasted sadness about his own inexplicably silent son. (Tench’s son was adopted into their family, which strengthens the “son you choose” parallels.) Part of that is loving and supporting Holden as he chases after increasingly unpleasant, unorthodox criminal-profiling practices. Part of it is trying to protect him from institutional pressures. And part of it is cutting in when Holden’s about to do something completely inappropriate — it’s possible that Peak Bill is the moment Holden starts to launch into a speech in front of local law enforcement that sounds like the beginning of a ninth-grade five-paragraph essay on crime (“From the dawn of time, mankind has committed crimes …” etc.). Rather than let Holden completely undo all the work he’s done endearing himself to these people, Bill adroitly cuts him off. Oh sure, Bill is exasperated by Holden. But he doesn’t want Holden to embarrass himself unnecessarily.
We love Bill Tench because he’s so fully realized by actor Holt McCallany, and because of his flat-top, and because his willingness to change and learn new things feels like an unexpected layer for a character like him.
But our love for Bill is also the result of a weird, deliberate unevenness in how the Holden character is built. In a story like this, where a protagonist is doing a deep dive into some unknown, novel territory, we expect that main character to be our guide to this new world. The protagonist in this kind of narrative is usually the audience stand-in; we’re supposed to feel aligned with the hero’s discoveries, and we’re supposed to find thrills in his achievements. For Mindhunter, you’d expect that as Holden gets more and more into the depths of serial-killer psychology, as he uncovers more surprises about what drives these crimes, we’d get more and more invested in him.
Except the deeper Holden gets, the more alien he becomes. His interviews with the criminals look less like investigative anthropology and more like he’s being converted. The whole premise is that the serial-killer mind is a fascinating and unfamiliar place to explore. But as Mindhunter progresses, spending time with Holden starts to feel nearly as unnerving as spending time with Kemper. Plus, even before he starts skipping down the murderous garden path, Holden is such a goober. (Goober or psychopath, one of the two.) Sure, you’d like to root for him, but it’s hard to feel much more than exasperation as he stares wonderingly at a slaughtered dog.
Holden makes a terrible audience stand-in. Bill, though. We feel exasperation and concern for Holden as he stares at Debbie’s shoes in alarming distraction. So, too, does Bill. Holden has some new brilliant insight about how to get close to the killers, and we’re part proud of him and part fearful. And Bill is right there with us, curious and worried and disgusted and excited. Bill feels like the Mindhunter safety valve, the reminder of the human median. While Holden goes off exploring the deep ends of the criminal mind and Dr. Carr studies the results with coolheaded detachment, Bill’s our humanity barometer.
Mindhunter has been renewed for a second season, and although we already have some sense of where it might be going on the serial-killer side, my suspicion is that we also have a good idea of how things might start to really slip for Holden. Or maybe we don’t know how they’ll slip, but we definitely know how we’ll know when Holden’s crossed a line. As long as Bill’s on Holden’s side, so are we. But the moment Bill taps out of Holden’s project will be the moment we know Holden’s gone too far. Holden may know how to talk to serial killers, but Mindhunter works because Bill Tench knows how to talk to Holden, and to us.