Something seems off about Holden Ford from the minute we meet him. The protagonist of Mindhunter, played perfectly by Jonathan Groff, has an undeniable fascination with men who kill, but is there more to it than pure professional advancement? Is he learning as much about himself as he’s learning about those whom he profiles? As Nietzsche famously said, “And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” It appears Holden Ford may be finding his own personal abyss during the first season of Mindhunter.
Of course, the idea that anyone who spends a great deal of time with sociopaths would become emotionally cold and hardened to the world around them isn’t new. It’s inherent in almost all crime fiction, and how the quest for information and knowledge can destroy someone is arguably the theme of Mindhunter creator David Fincher’s Zodiac. But Ford’s investigation of his own deviant behavior and clinically cold approach to the world around him feels like something greater is at play than your standard investigator narrative. And it begs the most extreme question: Could Ford himself become a serial killer in the future of Mindhunter? Yes, we know that John Douglas, the author of the book on which Mindhunter (and Groff’s character) is loosely based, didn’t follow that path, but that doesn’t restrain the show from taking creative license.
So, what are the biggest red flags in Ford’s behavior? We can look directly at “The Hare Psychopathy Checklist,” a screening test used professionally (and applied in the linked article to our current president, of course). As the article points out, psychopathy is not uncommon and is downright prevalent among politicians and CEOs. But what about Ford? We won’t go through all 20 questions, but a few of them definitely apply:
Do you have “excess glibness” or superficial charm?
Ford’s confidence in early episodes feels like it veers into glibness as the show progresses, characterized most by his seeming lack of emotional response to the crimes being recounted by people like Jerry Brudos and Richard Speck. Now, whether he has an “excess” of it is debatable.
Do you have a grandiose sense of self-worth?
Don’t you get the sense that Ford thinks what he and Bill Tench are doing is the most important work in the world?
Are you conning or manipulative?
Manipulation becomes Ford’s M.O., and not just with his subjects. Think about the shoe he uses to bring Brudos out of his shell, and then the transcript he essentially tries to bury to manipulate his superiors. One could argue that this is merely part of the process, but it’s still one that relies on manipulation.
Do you display a lack of remorse or guilt?
The subplot involving “The Tickling Principal” is one of the most interesting of season one because it leaves just enough gray area to suggest that Ford isn’t in the right, that he’s overreacting in a way that’s designed to display his power and righteous disobedience (he defies his superiors with gusto) as much as to protect children. Ford may be correct in his assessment of the principal’s behavior, but there’s a remarkable lack of emotion involved, especially in that fantastic scene when the principal’s wife comes to castigate him and he doesn’t seem to respond much at all. It’s not clear he should feel guilt, but the lack of any sort of doubt is just one example of how Ford typically responds to conflict: with confidence and callousness rather than remorse or guilt.
Do you have “shallow affect?”
What that means is, do you essentially not respond emotionally when most people would? Ford displays this trait all the time. Consider the breakup in the finale. When Holden and Debbie split, as much as we all saw it coming, he barely responds, analyzing it like it’s a story being told him by a subject instead of something that’s happening to him.
Are you callous or do you lack empathy?
When Ford goes beyond conventional methods with people like Richard Speck, is he pushing the boundaries of callousness and displaying a lack of empathy for the victims? Some people would certainly argue he is. Again, this may be essential for the profiling technique he’s developing — but where is the line?
The checklist goes on and on, and Holden Ford ticks a lot of the boxes on this particular test. And then there’s the end of season one, in which Ford appears to have a nervous breakdown. Perhaps Ford needs to get as close as possible to those he profiles before returning to normal human behavior. But when it comes to the future of this show, what’s interesting to consider is how far he’s going to go into that abyss before he turns back.