Mindhunter Is a Great Crime Drama Arriving at the Right Cultural Moment

By
Jonathan Groff (left) and Happy Anderson (right). Photo: Patrick Harbron/Netflix

Under any circumstances, it can be jarring to consume a TV show that delves deeply into the gruesome murders of multiple women. But it may be especially jarring to binge-watch Mindhunter, which landed on Netflix over the weekend, against the backdrop of the last couple of days, when a flood of posts on social media have confirmed how frequently women are the victims of harassment and assault.

But because Mindhunter is a different, more cerebral serial killer–focused series — one that raises questions both subtle and not-so-subtle about how masculinity and misogyny become intertwined — it also feels perfectly appropriate to be viewing it at a time when we’re talking more openly about the cultural conditions that foster the abuse of women. If there is such a thing as the perfect crime procedural for this #metoo moment, Mindhunter, as improbable as that sounds, is it.

Initially, this drama — created by Joe Penhall, based on a book by John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker, and executive-produced by David Fincher, who directed four of the ten episodes — seems like it’s going to be another gratuitous deep dive into sordid, ripped-from-the-headlines homicides. But within the first three episodes, it establishes that it has deeper concerns and a refreshing sense of restraint. To be clear: What happens to the always-female victims of the real-life-inspired murderers who appear onscreen — including Edmund Kemper (an intimidatingly matter-of-fact Cameron Britton), the so-called co-ed killer who murdered eight women in the early 1970s, including his own mother, whose corpse he later had sex with — is disgusting and depicted as such. But save for a few flashes of nasty crime-scene photos and an opening sequence that ends in blunt, gruesome fashion, all of the details are presented in verbal form, as the convicted and the suspected tell their stories to the protagonists, FBI agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany). Mindhunter could easily have staged reenactments of the heinous acts Ford and Tench investigate, but it is far more interested in demonstrating that words and thoughts can wield as much power as actions do.

Holden and Bill initially team up in 1977 as instructors in the FBI’s road school, a job that takes them to police departments across the country to share a then-novel approach to solving crimes, one that places as much weight on the psychology of the perpetrators as on the black-and-white evidence. Skeptical cops have a tendency to approach them on the sly and ask for their help with problematic investigations, often drawing them into playing chief detectives in the small-town murder cases that provide much of the plot’s structure. At the same time, Holden and Bill, with eventual help from sociology scholar Dr. Wendy Dunn (former Fringe FBI agent Anna Torv, giving a performance with deeply Carrie Coon–ish overtones), are engaging in their own research, meeting with previously convicted killers like Kemper and the ladies-shoe-fixated Jerry Brudos (Happy Anderson) to determine whether there are connections between the mind-sets of the murderous.

But Mindhunter is as much about the psyches of Holden and Bill as it is about the internal circuitry of its serial killers. Aided by Groff’s handsome, trustworthy features, Holden initially comes across as an overly fastidious, buttoned-up G-man, a less quirky Agent Cooper type who has no idea how to function unless he’s dressed in a suit and tie. But the more he applies his obsessive nature to understanding and even empathizing with marginalized men who channel their resentment toward women into cold-blooded killing, the more his own sense of morality loosens. In other words, the show tells us, there’s a potential BOB in this Agent Cooper, and perhaps in every man.

An agent who starts out as a mere thorn in the sides of his FBI superiors slowly turns into someone who quite literally knows how to speak a serial killer’s language and has no qualms about eliminating any audio-recorded evidence of himself doing just that. Via Groff’s supremely controlled performance and superb writing by Penhall and playwright/former Hemlock Grove scribe Jennifer Haley, among others, Mindhunter illustrates that the seeds for what Holden becomes by episodes nine and ten are planted there from the beginning. In the very first episode, when he meets Debbie (Hannah Gross), a contemporary sociology student who eventually becomes his girlfriend, they get into a conversational volley that prompts her to wryly comment, “You don’t like women who disagree with you? How unusual for a guy in law enforcement.” She’s not wrong about that. By episode seven, when Debbie attempts to spice things up sexually by dressing in lingerie and stilettos, Holden finds himself looking at those seductive heels and clearly wondering what, if anything, separates him from a man like Jerry Brudos.

Bill, on the other hand, tries to distance himself from the disturbed individuals his work forces him to confront. Unlike Holden, he’s loathe to share any personal information with their interview subjects and becomes deeply uncomfortable every time his partner ingratiates himself toward these men, even if it is as a means to get them to confess. Broad-shouldered and in possession of a thick shell that covers his abundant compassion for others, Bill looks like the kind of guy who appears behind a desk in every precinct on every cop show you’ve ever seen. But in the highly capable hands of McCallany, formerly of Heroes and Blue Bloods, among other things, he transcends cliché. He instantly comes across as a fully formed human being with his own quiet struggles, most notably his issues with the non-communicative son he and his wife adopted.

That relationship provides the most important, unspoken reason that Bill is so determined to draw a line between himself and the various inmates on Mindhunter.

“It’s always the mother, isn’t it?” Bill remarks to Holden, noting how many of the killers they have interviewed blame their negligent moms for their fates.

“Or an absent father,” Holden says, speaking out loud what Bill cannot bear to consider about himself, or what it might mean for his own already seemingly troubled child.

In more everyday scenarios, Mindhunter shines a light on societal sexism, including conversations in which men wonder whether a woman who goes to a bar alone may be asking for trouble, or male cops dismiss women who raise concerns about inappropriate behavior because they’re the type who “are always looking for a pot to stir.” (In a scene that echoes current conversation almost verbatim, the sanctimonious assistant who joins Holden, Bill, and Wendy on their team says he grew interested in joining their study because, as a father of two daughters, he wants “to make the world a safer place for them.” There’s another scene that echoes a different but no less relevant current conversation: one in which Wendy explains to Bill and Holden that psychopaths who commit crimes have a lot of the “same personality traits as men in business.”)

But instead of characterizing the casual misogyny — and also occasional racism and homophobia — as, to borrow from Harvey Weinstein’s horribly phrased apology, something that was simply “part of the culture then,” Mindhunter presents it as something that clearly sits on the lower end of a spectrum that, at its most extreme, includes violent behavior toward women and other marginalized groups. Sometimes the series even calls out such comments for exactly what they are. “You were persecuting him for something that threatens your masculinity,” Wendy tells Bill when he expresses his contempt for Brudos’s affection for cross-dressing.

Ultimately, Mindhunter raises the same questions we all ask every time we learn that a man has gotten away with harassing and abusing women for decades without consequence, or that another guy with a gun has shot and killed masses of innocents. It asks what makes people — men, especially — do these things, and how they can be stopped. But most importantly, and semi-groundbreakingly for a show like this, it acknowledges the degree to which our society has created conditions that keep allowing this type of brutality to bloom and prosper.

In an interview last week in the wake of the Weinstein allegations, Emma Thompson said that we need to start having a more serious conversation about the “crisis in masculinity” that leads to the kind of abhorrent behavior in which the disgraced producer and, as Thompson noted, our own president have engaged. Mindhunter is compelling purely as a well-executed, smart, and suspenseful work of crime drama, but it is necessary viewing because it so deftly provokes a conversation about that very same crisis.

Mindhunter Is a Great Crime Drama at the Right Moment