On one of the most special of very special TV episodes, Robin Williams appeared on Homicide: Life on the Street as a tourist from Iowa who watches his wife get shot to death in front of him and their two young children. In a particularly memorable scene, Williams’s character overhears a detective in the Baltimore homicide unit cracking jokes and bragging about how much overtime he’s going to get from the case. To a grieving widower, the detective’s behavior is callous in the extreme, a mockery of the worst day of his life. To the detective, it’s just another day on the job, one more red name on “the Board” that he endeavors to turn black. Tragedy is his vocation.
So when Holden learns that an older woman and her dog were butchered in Sacramento and he acts like the recipient of a Cabbage Patch Kid on Christmas morning, it falls within the realm of “normal.” We could be generous and say that the deaths, in confirming Holden and Bill’s theories about a specific pattern of behavior, could help with early detection, which would save countless lives in the future. But that’s looking too far ahead. Holden is excited because he’s right. He’s excited because this vindication could convince Shepard, his stick-in-the-mud unit chief, to invest more faith and resources in their criminal psychology experiments. He gives an “amen” because his prayers have been answered. Tragedy is his vocation, too.
But Holden shouldn’t be let off the hook so easily. It’s one thing to get excited about nailing the profile on a murder case, but it’s another to iron your shirt in the middle of the night. In moments like those, Holden looks like a crazy person, rather than merely a guy clocking in and clocking out, like the detectives on Homicide. His work has consumed his life and there’s no clearer manifestation of this fact than when he’s not working and can’t settle into anything resembling a normal domestic routine. His enthusiasm is often infectious — like writing “BOOK” in all caps or offering a woefully pretentious speech to revelers at the Sacramento Police Department — but he lacks the capacity to build boundaries between his life and his work. There’s nothing dangerous yet about how one bleeds into the other, but as a sign of aberrant behavior, late-night ironing sessions are a red flag.
On the other hand, Holden has reason to savor the sweet taste of vindication. The third episode introduces a major character in Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), a Boston academic who not only validates his and Bill’s findings, but also encourages them to conduct a full and rigorous study. Carr has spent a decade on a book about white-collar criminals whose profiles are similar to Ed Kemper’s, despite their respected positions as “captains of industry” at major companies like Ford, IBM, and MGM. She calls them all psychopaths, citing their “total lack of remorse, a lack of inner emotional structure, [and] no ability to reflect on the experience of others.” Carr makes the sound case that Holden and Bill would be studying “sequence killers” in near-perfect laboratory conditions and may glean insight about their motives and feelings that a police report could never express.
For the time being, Holden and Bill only have 10 hours of a 50-hour work week to devote to the project — and even then, their interviews are limited to those extracurricular hours when they’re touring their “road school” around the country. As we soon learn, those interviews are no guarantee, subject to the whims of serial murderers who have the freedom to opt out of talking to the FBI without giving notice. But a sequence of events in this episode takes their theories out of the realm of academic study and into the field, where they directly apply their knowledge to catch a killer. In the Sacramento murder case, they know from Kemper’s profile to look beyond the usual roundup of local teenagers and into older men who meet a different set of criteria. When they’re told that a possible suspect is “one of those guys who talks to cops,” Holden gets that little twinkle of recognition in his eyes. They’ve got their man.
The interrogation of the suspect — an angry, beer-swilling young man who, like Kemper, hates his mother and takes it out on other women — is a terrifically exciting verbal pummeling, with Holden and Bill applying pressure as much with the pace of their questions as with the substance of them. My only minor quibble is that they haven’t been partners for long, which would suggest that it might take longer to develop such a polished tactical rapport. But it’s exciting nonetheless to see them needle the suspect in his most vulnerable areas before getting down to the details of the murder itself. As Kemper says about his mother later on, “She knew all of my buttons because she put them there” — a line that validates all the button-mashing necessary to get their man. Their win will allow them “to venture into the blackest night and shine a light on the darkness,” as Holden says, and brings them that much closer to earning the commitment to do it full time.
Whether Holden can manage the stress is an open question, but one thing’s for certain: His suits will be crisply pressed.
• The BTK killer, Dennis Rader, appears again in the pre-credits sequence, this time eyeing a neighborhood in Park City, Kansas, before stepping inside his ADT van. According to Wikipedia, Rader moved to Park City after his discharge from the Air Force in 1970, and it was the location of his eighth victim, Marine Hedge, who was found dead in May of 1985.
• This episode was directed by Asif Kapadia, who’s best known for making two superb biographical documentaries — Senna (about Formula One racer Ayrton Senna) and Amy (about British musician Amy Winehouse) — that eschew talking heads in favor of a rich, mesmerizing assemblage of archival footage. Kapadia has made some fiction films, too, and he works well within the Fincher template here.
• “You know, they have to shoot the birds in the yard because they might be smuggling drugs from the outside.” As a matter of policy, Holden probably isn’t correct, but last month, the BBC reported that a “narco-pigeon” was shot while delivering a tiny backpack full of drugs to a jail in Argentina.
• Cameron Britton has been so good as Ed Kemper, with a casual, banal menace that recalls Brian Cox’s interpretation of Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter. Kemper following up a graphic description of why he put his mother’s vocal chords in a garbage disposal with exaltation over a pizza order is the definition of cognitive dissonance.
• “How do you get to be president of the United States if you’re a sociopath?” No comment.