How Mindhunter Makes Serial Killers Feel Quaint

L-R: Holt McCallany and Jonathan Groff. Photo: Patrick Harbron/Netflix

Mindhunter has a lot going for it. The series is dreary in a way that’s still visually compelling. It has some strong performances, especially by Jonathan Groff and Cameron Britton. The show also has an effectively uneasy pacing to it. Some streaming shows let their episodes get too relaxed, and the result is like a sloshing pea soup of story and theme, with everything thrown into it rendered unremarkable and homogenous. Mindhunter joggles its episodic logic in a way that feels more purposeful — like a deliberately uneven, unsettlingly arrhythmic gait.

Maybe the strongest thing working in the show’s favor, though, is its weirdly nostalgic sensibility for an era (the 1970s) when serial killers were unfamiliar and exotic. Holden Ford and his partner, Bill Tench, set out to explore the psychology of human monsters, people (let’s be honest, men) who feel a compulsion to murder other people (women) in sadistic, frightening, often powerfully bizarre ways. Tench’s initial impulse is to label all of these criminals as “deviants” and leave it at that, but the primary drive of the show is a process one, a research one. It’s Holden’s drive. Let’s not just dismiss them as opaque monsters, Holden argues. Let’s try to study them. Let’s try to understand them.

It is a disturbing premise about a disturbing topic. Mindhunter capitalizes on all the skin-crawling discomfort of it, largely eschewing bloody tableaux in favor of long, descriptive paragraphs of dialogue about exactly what, and when, and how. And why. Holden’s fascination with the criminal mindset becomes ours. Why shoes? Why is it always about mothers? What made him snap?

It is also weirdly, freakishly pleasant. Particularly as the series develops, it becomes clear that this process puts a burden on our protagonists, and Mindhunter is certainly not espousing a deep dive into serial-killer mentality as a way to relax. It wants to wind us up; it wants us to feel uneasy. But its central premise is to look at criminality and to decipher it. In Holden’s mind, there are puzzles and there are solutions to those puzzles, and his confidence is only underscored by the inevitable institutional blindness about the importance of his work. The forward-moving story is about identifying and capturing criminals and divining new insights into “deviancy” from men already behind bars — it’s a search for knowledge.

And it’s a successful one. Holden goes looking for answers, and they tend to arrive pretty readily. We are media consumers of the 21st century, so we already know all about shoe fetishists and mothers who twist their sons and sociopathy and murderers who take trophies. We’ve all seen Silence of the Lambs. But Holden hasn’t, and the crux of the series is a fundamentally nostalgic one. It’s about harkening back to a time when the most disturbing, most aberrant, most troubling thing about society was a thing we, the audience, already know well. Mindhunter does the serial-killer psyche well, and it has a valuable, wide-eyed guide to that dark place in the shape of Holden Ford. Still, watching Holden explore the mind of the Co-Ed Killer feels like watching someone play through a level of a video game you’ve already played a dozen times yourself. Ah yes, you think, as Holden suddenly catches the rhythm of his interviewee’s thinking. He finally figured out the trick of this one. It’s that door.

One critical bit of the nostalgic process is watching characters interact with things we already know as though they are new — we get the hit of their sense of novelty; we get the smug comfort of our own familiarity. The other piece of it is our sense of distance, and our fondness for something that’s lost. It’s odd to think of a serial killer as something we might find quaint and pleasantly old-fashioned, but we now live in a world where mass shootings happen with mind-numbing frequency, and hundreds of people shot all at once at a concert earlier this month is an awful event that’s already mostly out of the news. So we could think about that, or we could think about Mindhunter. How horrible a serial killing is, with its perverse logic and its sexual torture and freakish peculiarity. How strange. How intentional, how riddle-like, with the associated implication of a solution. How individual. How … personal. How old-fashioned.

Early in the pilot, Holden talks with a professor who lays out the idea of serial killing as a uniquely modern type of crime. “Used to be you find a victim with 50 stab wounds, you look for the jilted lover … now, could be a random run-in with a disgruntled mailman.” “It’s a different era,” Holden nods in agreement. In the bar, Holden and the professor go on to lay out an idea of serial killing as a response to a newly tumultuous world. Vietnam, Watergate, Kent State — the government used to be a “parental institution,” the professor suggests. Now? The country is full of orphaned children, running amok.

It’s hard to imagine that theory actually holds much water when presented against historical data. Jack the Ripper, after all, was a man of the 19th century. Their idea is less about historical reality, though, and more about its distinctly nostalgic resonances. A parentless society, casting about in desperation and fear. Unprecedented upheaval in government. Crimes that feel new in their cruelty, their inexplicable horror, their motiveless drive. What could that remind us of?

Except this is not 2017, it’s 1977, and Holden and his team are looking at crimes that terrify them. Holden is astonished and overwhelmed (and a little titillated) by the new, but we know there will soon be, if not answers, then at least a system. We’ll all learn about profilers. We’ll all get a sense of the patterns, of the escalations. And we’ll learn something that Holden does not: The crimes he finds so terrifying are, in fact, vanishingly rare. We watch Mindhunter and think fondly of a time when Son of Sam was a national terror, knowing that to be targeted by a serial killer is about as likely as getting hit by a falling piano. Knowing that in our time, it is far likelier that you’ll get killed by a random bullet, as an anonymous face in a crowd.

I don’t want to put too much pressure on a “Mindhunter is Mad Men but for serial killers” parallel, because it implies all sorts of things about Holden Ford that don’t bear out, and all sorts of other things about Mindhunter that it doesn’t always live up to. But the analogy is really useful in one particular respect: They are both shows about a moment when someone looks at his professional field and says, essentially, “What if I applied some more complicated theory of mind to this process? What if I took [my job] and attempted to turn it into storytelling?” And they’re also both shows where we look back on a moment before ours and feel a complicated, queasy mixture of nostalgia and knowing distance, wistfulness and contemporary resonance. But Mad Men was always probing the desire to feel nostalgia for a simpler past, pointing back at the contemporary viewer with an unavoidable, accusatory finger. Mindhunter, conversely, is peculiarly pleased to live inside a wistfulness that longs for the novelty of a serial killer. How nice it was, to live in a time when men killed women to symbolically obliterate their own mean moms. How satisfying, to root out the monsters that prowled around largely white, working-class towns and make those towns feel safe again. Let’s make America scared of serial killers again. They’re monsters we know how to fear.

Mindhunter: How It Makes Serial Killers Feel Quaint