Now we’re talking.
With all the heavy lifting of its premiere episode out of the way, the second hour of Mindhunter gets down to what the show will likely be from this point forward and the results are hugely encouraging. Creator Joe Penhall and director David Fincher had a busy agenda that first episode because they not only had to lay out the major characters and relationships, but an era in the FBI and in the culture at large when the old rules on assessing a killer’s motive didn’t always apply. We take it for granted now — in the age of, well, David Fincher movies — that serial killers operate under their own obscure, depraved internal logic, so it was necessary (and remains necessary) to imagine a time when agents had to adjust to a new reality. So the gears moved slowly in the pilot.
“Episode 2” pays off on that premise, starting with an opening scene that’s ingenious partly because we never visit this place or see these characters again, at least for now. At an ADT security warehouse in Wichita, Kansas, two men engage in what sounds like a perfectly mundane example of office bureaucracy: One requests a new roll of electrical tape, the other tells him that he needs to turn in the cardboard core to the old roll first. One looks mystified by such a persnickety request, the other is dead serious about it. Roll credits.
In the context of the show — and the context of Fincher’s career — we can recognize the bureaucrat’s behavior as unusual in its cold fastidiousness. A normal human being makes an exception to the rule and lobs over a roll of electrical tape, perhaps with the proviso that his co-worker remember to keep the core around next time. Here, it’s an OCD violation of the highest order, triggering a look of inexplicable and unfathomable hostility. A quick Google search (“Wichita” and “serial killer”) reveals that our bureaucrat is Dennis Rader, a.k.a. the BTK Strangler, so called because he would “bind, torture, and kill” his victims, which amassed to ten between 1974 and 1991 before he was finally arrested in 2005. His presence here casts a chill over the remainder of the episode, even though he’s not identified and likely won’t factor into the series. There’s just something in the air, the show implies, and it’s up to Holden and Bill to start puzzling it out.
To that end, Holden raises the idea of adding prison visits to their instructional tour, so they can understand more about the peculiar derangement of the serial murderer’s mind. As Bill pitches it to Shepard later in the episode, “How can we get ahead of crazy if we don’t know how crazy thinks?” but even he’s skeptical about what they can learn at the beginning. Holden wants to dive right in and interview Charles Manson, but beyond the practical difficulties of gaining access to him and the certainty of agency higher-ups flipping out about it, he doesn’t fully grasp the perils of talking to someone like Manson. He could be manipulated. He could get bad information. He could allow himself to be the mouse that a big cat knocks around for sport.
Thus a productive tension between Holden, the naïve idealist, and Bill, the seasoned veteran is introduced. When Holden decides to visit Ed Kemper, a.k.a. “the co-ed killer,” while the partners pass through Santa Cruz, California, Bill opts to spend his downtime golfing instead. A behemoth six-foot-nine, Kemper had murdered his grandparents at 15. He would later kill six teenage girls and have sex with their corpses, including fellatio from a severed head. On top of these grisly details, Kemper’s reputation as a talker piques Holden’s interest, but even when he comes back from the first visit raving about the interview, Bill looks askance at him. Kemper is smart and has spent enough time in mental institutions to echo psych-speak back to him. He could be telling Holden what he wants to hear.
As Kemper, actor Cameron Britton has the gait of a lumpy Midwesterner — and some of the accommodating good nature, too — but between his enormous size and his casual recounting of horrific atrocities, he’s an imposing figure to say the least. Among the things Holden learns from Kemper: “Butchering people” is hard work, like a true vocation; a lobotomy or death by torture would probably be a better solution for him than psychiatry; he strangled and killed dogs and cats as a way to vent; the muscles and sinew in the neck resist penetration. And, perhaps most pertinent, his hatred of women stems from a toxic relationship with Kemper’s mother. “They intuitively learn to humiliate,” he says.
Bill finally joins Holden on his third visit with Kemper, after the two have been asked to look into a case in Sacramento where a woman was beaten nearly to death and her Scottish terrier’s throat was slashed, seemingly for no reason. The crime doesn’t arise anywhere near Kemper’s level, but the absent motive presents a question that Kemper might be able to answer. Having all three men in a room together creates a thrilling dynamic: Bill and Holden with their contrasting temperaments and depths of experience, Kemper holding court while hiding his cards, insights flying that may or may not have value. Bill and Holden want to apply this hard-earned knowledge to cases like the one in Sacramento, but alliances with killers like Kemper are built on quicksand. They could score a breakthrough in criminal psychology. Or they could sink.
• Hard to resist setting a show in 1977 without including a cut from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, but credit Fincher for skipping the Bee Gees in favor of Walter Murphy’s delectably tacky “A Fifth of Beethoven.”
• Plenty of darkly funny one-liners in this episode, but none top Bill advising Holden against taking his revolver to his meeting with Kemper: “He’s going to take that fucking thing away from you. He’s going to kill you with it. Then he’s going to have sex with your face.”
• The succession of (giant) location titles recalls the omnipresent datelines in Fincher’s Zodiac, which are his way of filing information carefully as much as situating the audience. Fincher likes to call attention to his own meticulousness.
• “His oeuvre? Who is he, Stanley Kubrick?”
• Holden is becoming a quicker study on the job, following his nervous first visit with Kemper by confidently posing as a college stud in the second. Meanwhile, in the bedroom, he haplessly seeks direction on cunnilingus. (“Do you want me to throw in something? Play with your nipples?”)
• If it must be included, it was probably best to get Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” out of the way early, but Fincher does better with less obvious music cues like Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like an Eagle,” which plays over a montage of hotel rooms, diners, airplanes, and rental cars as Holden and Bill zigzag around the country. How better to mark the passage of time than with the lyric, “Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’”?