“You have no idea what I’m trying to say, do you?”
“Not really. But I want to.”
This exchange between Bill and Holden happens in a bar after a car crash abruptly ends their commute from a prison in Richmond, Virginia (or, to approximate the show’s font, RICHMOND, VIRGINIA), back to their homes closer to Quantico. In an unusually raw and vulnerable state, Bill opens up about the responsibility he feels for his partner (“You could have been killed, and I didn’t see it coming”), and the problems he’s having at home, which he’d never before been in a mood to disclose. He and his wife adopted a boy three years earlier, but parenthood has been a challenge: The boy is 6 years old and not talking, almost certainly because he’s autistic, but that diagnosis doesn’t come up. He tells Holden that he feels like he’s failing the boy, and he’s associating that failure with the car spinning out of his control.
It’s a natural by-product of dramas like Mindhunter that the testimony they collect from serial murderers will cloud their conscience, but “Episode 4” incorporates it more subtly than the typical investigator-on-the-edge material, where there’s some sort of mind-meld between killer and detective. In their conversations with Ed Kemper, the Sacramento killer, and now Monte Rissell, who raped and killed five women, Bill and Holden try to sort out broad patterns of behavior from more specific psychoses — and the one common denominator has been “harsh mothers and absent fathers.” When Rissell talks about his childhood, he goes on and on about his mother removing him and his siblings from their home in Kansas and dragging them around the country, where he found trouble in every spot. But when he talks about his father, Rissell fantasizes about the life he was denied, with little thought to whether his father would have wanted him or would have been any better as a parent.
Bill could not be accused of being an absent father, either to his adopted son or the less-seasoned partner he’s taken under his wing. Yet his feeling of responsibility after the accident looms large, especially coming so soon after their session with Rissell. Although you could never say that Bill is abandoning his son, he’s haunted by the question of whether he’s doing enough for him or whether he can be said to have an impact on his life at all. And if he can’t reach his son, what kind of man will he turn out to be?
Holden doesn’t get the association, but this conversation is a sign of how quickly these partners have grown attached to each other, and how much experience and wisdom Bill brings to the table. Holden has blinkered, babe-in-the-woods tendencies that Bill has taken it upon himself to curb, from cutting off his poetic speech to the rank and file at the Sacramento Police Department to counseling him through his first significant romantic relationship. Holden is irritated that Debbie won’t drop everything and drive out to pick them up that night; Bill tells him it’s unreasonable to think that his time is more valuable than hers. Part of being in a relationship is realizing you’re not the only one in it.
“Episode 4” also brings Dr. Wendy Carr onto the team permanently and she’s a terrific addition, persistently questioning the standards and conclusions of the project. She insists on an academic rigor that Holden and Bill’s ten-hours-a-week sideline isn’t currently providing. She also has the perspective of someone who’s not in the room and can get a sense of the bigger picture. While the men are wrapped up in these tense individual encounters, Carr criticizes the process and makes broader associations about what might tie all of these subjects together. It’s good to have her break up the buddy-picture dynamic so familiar to procedurals like these.
Carr casts some doubt over the utility of the side missions Bill and Holden have been taking during their educational tours, when they try to apply the knowledge they’ve gleaned to local murder investigations. It’s a credit to the show that they don’t solve the case presented to them in Altoona, Pennsylvania — not yet, anyway — but get in deep enough to reveal something about the characters. Holden is frustrated by the lapses of the local police, who let a major suspect go and failed to log at least one key piece of evidence. Bill advises him to ease off. Cops in small towns like Altoona have never encountered anything like this — their point of contact is more used to dealing with shoplifters and underage kids buying beer — so Holden should be sympathetic and not so quick to condescend.
Similar scenarios played out in great 1992 neo-noir One False Move, about a small-town sheriff (the late Bill Paxton, in one of his best roles) who inserts himself into an LAPD murder investigation, and Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder, about the hunt for South Korea’s first serial killer. There’s a gap between Holden and Bill, who are venturing to talk to mass murderers around the country, and the denizens of a town where this kind of thing never happens. Holden doesn’t have the common touch and wants to castigate the Altoona police for multiple breaches of protocol. But Bill, the good father, talks him down.
• The BTK Killer is on the move again in the pre-credits sequence, this time creeping around a Wichita home, ostensibly in his capacity as the ADT security rep. Given how angry a missing electrical-tape core made him last episode, the woman of the house asking him about selling ADT stickers and signs without installing the actual sensors is a five-alarm fire. “A stressor,” as Carr would put it.
• Not all of the wisdom in this partnership is coming from Bill. It frustrates him that they seem to be offering sickos like Rissell “a shoulder to cry on,” and he’s particularly annoyed to hear therapy-speak from mental institutions echoed back at him. But Holden makes the point that they’re better off keeping these men talking. They can sort out the insight from the bullshit later.
• Carr meeting Holden and Debbie for drinks has the feel of a romantic triangle in the making, but it would be nice for Debbie’s specialized knowledge to play a factor, too. She’s too much of an afterthought so far.
• $385,000 in research grants would seem to be enough to take Bill and Holden out of the basement, but a clean, well-lighted place wouldn’t make it a David Fincher project anymore, would it?