Deviant. Pyromania. Torture of small animals. Mutilation.
Welcome to Career Day at Shady Lane Elementary School, where FBI Agent Holden Ford has arrived to tell fourth graders that the next Ed Kemper or Jerry Brudos might be sitting next to them. And is almost certainly a boy. And maybe throws medium-sized rocks at the family dog.
Holden doesn’t realize going into the presentation that such words are not appropriate to children. As the principal, Roger Wade, reminds him, “We need to prepare them for the world, yes, but we also need to protect them from it.” He tries to operate under these guidelines, too, but the message he’s sending out is confusing to them at best and at worst, might instill unhelpful feelings of fear and paranoia. Can the next deviant really be curtailed or stopped? Do these kids really know the next serial killer? What actions can they take now that could catch the next Kemper and Brudos while he’s still in the dog-pelting phase?
It’s become a troubling consequence of Holden’s job that he now sees deviant behavior wherever he looks. His instincts are often excellent, as “Episode 8” bears out more than once, but he hasn’t put limits on himself in following them. He wants his research in behavioral science to have real-world applications, but he’s overeager about taking up cases that might temporarily scratch a perpetual itch. More than once on Mindhunter, when he and Bill have been doing their road school, Holden has tabled the larger mission of the BSU in order to follow through on whatever strange, hard-to-crack mystery fits their purview. Although it’s paid off for him in the past, like the bookings in Sacramento and Altoona, he risks losing the forest for the trees.
To that end, The Case of the Foot-Tickling Principal is played to perfection. Because Principal Wade’s habit of forcing ill-behaved children to take off their shoes and socks, tickling their feet, and sending them off with a nickel for their troubles is creepy as hell. Maybe not having-sex-with-a-decapitated-head creepy, but nothing any parent should tolerate from a teacher or administrator. (The period of the show is key here, because there’s no chance a guy like that keeps his job in 2017.) But as a matter for the FBI, rather than the PTA, it’s a bit of stretch. The fact that Holden doesn’t resolve the case easily — at least not until he quietly twists the knife in the final scene — underlines how misdirected his priorities have become. He wants to look out for the children, but Principal Wade has a clean record and the line into something truly abhorrent hasn’t been crossed (yet). In the meantime, the stacks of applications for a fourth person in the BSU are piling up and the overall mission is affected by his freelancing. Even for a day.
As an enjoyer of quality procedurals, however, I’m grateful for these side missions, especially when they lead into unexpected corners. It also helps to have an actor as compelling as Marc Kudisch as Wade. On last season’s Billions, Kudisch filled in as a performance coach to a bunch of hedge-fund piranhas, pushing motivational techniques that juiced brokers with hyper-masculinity like a Tour de France cyclist getting an HGH injection. His intensity and instability recalls Michael Shannon, but his physical size plays a role, too, as Wade bullies anyone who might question his tactics. For as tiny as this case is, Holden is still made to feel small in Wade’s presence, an FBI agent getting rebuffed by an elementary school principal.
Yet “Episode 8” makes it clear that his instincts are still sharp, however much they lead him down inappropriate paths. After many frustration sessions with Brudos, whom a skeeved-out Bill declines to revisit, Holden tries a new gambit that gets him to talk about his crimes as if another person committed them. Brudos brushes off as a crazy coincidence that the second of his victims was found anchored to a car transmission the authorities traced back to him, but when questioned about it in the abstract, he shares quite a lot of insight. Maybe the first victim fell into his lap and he got a taste for it. Maybe the murders were a realization of long-held fantasies. And maybe killing was his way of getting back the control that he didn’t have in his everyday life. In a sense, Holden didn’t really need Bill there, because Brudos steps up and trades theories with him.
Brudos’ ability to compartmentalize between the killer in the garage and the family man in the rest of the house informs Holden’s thinking in his personal life, too, where he makes a discovery about Debbie. Her current reading material, a book called The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, makes the argument that we tailor ourselves to fit the part we’re playing, that “we wear these masks to make everyone else comfortable.” The notion of Debbie masking a second life is not necessarily something Holden would have considered, but he’s getting a keener sense of how people harbor secrets. Debbie’s life on campus is separate — she does that “hippie thing” to help her assimilate — and he opts to breach that world and suffers the consequences. The truth hurts.
• Anyone else think of American Vandal during the interviews with Shady Lane parents and staffs? Lots of teacher’s lounge backbiting happening here, too, over who’s aligned with Principal Wade and who’s acting like a busybody.
• Looks like we have another agent on board in Gregg Smith, who embodies exactly the sort of square thinking that Holden, Bill, and Carr are trying to upend at the agency. On the other hand, if they can get him to discard his Christian notions of good and evil to see criminality in a more nuanced way, perhaps there’s hope for the rest of the FBI.
• “Nickels for tickles” is a bone-chilling phrase if there ever was one.
• Exchange of the hour: “He’s black.” “Nothing gets past you.” On another note, it’s fascinating to see Carr make the argument against hiring a black person for the job, because their subjects are “80 to 90 percent white and probably racist,” which would presumably make them less willing to talk. A novel twist on institutional barriers to hiring more persons of color.
• Carr’s courting of the stray cat is getting doled out nearly as slowly as the BTK Killer. Her generous pours of white wine are also an intriguing sub-subplot.