Mindhunter Recap: The Altoona Case

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Photo: Patrick Harbron/Netflix
Mindhunter

Mindhunter

Episode 5 Season 1 Episode 5
Editor's Rating 4 stars

“Does the case merit our involvement?”

Deep into the fifth and perhaps best episode of Mindhunter, Bill poses this question to Holden as they’re sifting through crime-scene photos in a hotel room in Altoona, Pennsylvania. One of their road-school side cases, the murder and sexual mutilation of a young woman named Beverly Jean, is consuming more time than they might have to spare, given the importance of their larger mission of studying the behavior of serial killers. Professor Carr warned them about taking such cases — to her, the road school program itself is a huge distraction — and now they’re looking at what might be little more than a particularly gruesome crime of passion. “The mutilation of the body alone justifies our involvement,” answers Holden, by way of reassurance.

It feels like a meta-question, too. Does the case merit Mindhunter’s involvement? Here’s a show about new frontiers in criminal profiling, but beyond the continued drip-drip-drip of the BTK Killer story before the credits, the fifth episode doesn’t appear to have any serial killers in it, at least not in an advisory capacity. Aside from a quick basement session, it also doesn’t have any scenes at Quantico, where Bill and Holden have been working to upend entrenched ideas and practices at the FBI. It doesn’t appear to move the show’s overall narrative an inch, since the case seemed largely contained within its tight, 45-minute framework. At best, we emerge with an insight or two into our main characters, but that’s it.

Yet as a stand-alone piece, “Episode 5” is hugely satisfying, a conventional case-of-the-week procedural in some respects, but brought to life through textured visuals and the complex interplay between federal agents and the denizens of a small community. In my recap of the last episode, when Bill and Holden first visited Altoona, I mentioned One False Move, the great neo-noir starring Bill Paxton as a small-town Arkansas sheriff who often embarrasses himself in the face of FBI agents trying to track down three killers with local connections. There’s some of that naivety to Mark Ocasek (Alex Morf), the Altoona detective who accompanies Bill and Holden as they work the case. There’s also a little bit of Twin Peaks, too, in how the death of Beverly Jean is processed by people who aren’t accustomed to violent tragedy and whose first instinct is to deny the dark forces that brought it about.

The push-and-pull between Bill, Holden, and Ocasek as the case develops is fascinating to watch, because all three men have their humbling moments. Holden has been rolling his eyes over Ocasek since the last episode, when Bill had to step in and advise him to ease off on his condescension. Ocasek makes another mistake here by tipping off Beverly Jean’s boyfriend, Benji Barnwright (Joseph Cross), that the feds are coming to interview him. So instead of catching Benji off guard, the agents are greeted with half-glazed and half-cake doughnuts and an ocean of tears that may or may not be rehearsed. “Psychopaths are good at imitating human emotions,” says Bill, who doesn’t buy it from a second.

Yet Ocasek is an unexpectedly dynamic character — and a much shrewder detective than he first appeared to be. He and Holden initially believe that Beverly Jean’s killer must be a drifter from out of town, but Bill makes a persuasive argument against that theory and Ocasek keeps an open mind. He’s keenly attentive during Bill and Holden’s interrogation of Benji and his family members. He quietly starts to question his own assumptions about what an Altoona resident is capable of doing and ultimately proves instrumental in getting them close to the truth. For all of Bill and Holden’s superior training and technique, it’s Ocasek who knows where to apply pressure. Once these out-of-towners give him a sense of the dark possibilities, he becomes their most important asset.

As a suspect, Benji ticks a lot of the serial-killer boxes: absent father, domineering mother. Inexperience with women, laced with low-level hostility. Emotions that seems imitative rather than natural. But here’s an example of how thin the line can be between a crime of passion and the aberrant murders Bill and Holden have committed to study: Benji is consumed with sexual jealousy over Beverly Jean’s past (and perhaps present). He feels humiliated by her lack of commitment and suspects she’s taking advantage of him. This all falls within the realm of garden-variety murder, where there’s a clear motive for violent action. It’s the “presentation” of Beverly’s body at the dump that suggests a deeper psychosis at play, but he’s not a wholly inexplicable beast.

The most unexpected aspect of “Episode 5” is that it’s a stand-alone episode without a tidy conclusion. We know that Benji and his brother-in-law, Frank, were involved in Beverly’s murder and cover-up, and that Benji’s sister, Rose, was called to mop up the crime scene. Yet the last lines of the episode are “Who killed her?” and “I don’t know,” leaving the door open for more questions at the point where most shows would have all the answers. To be continued …

Dillingers

• “Episode 5” was directed by Tobias Lindholm, a Danish filmmaker whose work includes The Hunt, A Hijacking, and A War. Of those three, I’d highly recommend A Hijacking, which is basically the same scenario as Captain Phillips — Somali pirates seize a ship and hold its passengers for ransom — but done cheaply and with more emphasis on the negotiation. It’s also a stinging critique of corporate thinking when measuring human costs against the bottom line.

• Virgin + doughnuts = killer.

• Holden’s domestic behavior continues to be mildly disturbing. First, he echoes Carr’s words about psychopaths imitating human emotion as if it were conventional wisdom or he thought of it himself. Then he starts questioning Debbie’s sexual promiscuity, which makes him as uncomfortable as Beverly Jean made Benji.

• The cutting between Rose’s confession to the coverup and shots of investigators arresting Benji and surveying the crime scene is superbly orchestrated. These spaces that once seemed like the sad nesting of a grocery-bagger and his bride-to-be now take on a more sinister color.

• So many people think Carrie Coon, the brilliant star of The Leftovers and the last season of Fargo, is playing Dr. Carr that she’s issued a funny correction on her Twitter bio. Anna Torv is the actress in question.

Mindhunter Recap: The Altoona Case