The skeleton key for unlocking the seventh episode of Mindhunter arrives in the second conversation Bill and Holden have with their latest subject, Jerry Brudos (Happy Anderson), who’s serving out a life sentence for killing and mutilating at least four women between 1968 and 1969. Among Brudos’s notable possessions are his collective of high-heeled shoes, over 100 pairs in all, which he would use for his own sexual gratification. But Brudos also had a family, and had to keep them from knowing his prurient interests. “It’s tricky when you’re married,” he says. “You have to deny yourself or keep a private space.”
“Episode 7” divides neatly along those lines. It is about public faces and private spaces, the secrets people share with each other, share only with those they love, or keep cordoned off altogether — sometimes even from themselves. After two straight episodes devoted heavily to the murder in Altoona, this hour is more diffuse, spending half its time in the field and the other half peeking in on Bill, Holden, and Carr when they’re off the clock. It’s a busy episode, dense with information and suggestion about all three characters, but also purposeful in showing how much the stresses (or “stressors,” to use Carr’s term) of their jobs is bleeding into the personal lives. As Bill tells Holden after a particularly brutal session with Brudos, “If what we’re doing doesn’t get under your skin, you’re either more screwed up than I thought or you’re kidding yourself.”
Holden is probably more screwed up than Bill thought, but we’ll get to that later. The big reason they’re all feeling so unmoored is Brudos, who the opposite of the personable oversharer that they have in Ed Kemper. Episode director Andrew Douglas lays on the menace before they reach the prison in Salem, Oregon, filling the soundtrack with the clank of metal and the equally assaultive boom of Brudos’s voice as he launches on a nasty diatribe about Muhammad Ali. Brudos relishes Ali’s defeat at the hands of Ken Norton, who broke his jaw in the final round of their 1973 San Diego bout. He’s particularly delighted by the confusion of Ali’s trainer over the mouthpiece coming out bloody while noting, from personal experience, how difficult a human being’s jaw is to break.
So it turns out that some serial killers are jerks. But Brudos is a special kind of jerk, because he stridently denies even the most basic facts about himself, like the women whom he previously confessed to killing. He’s there to tease and belittle the agents for sport, to call them “fucking morons” and throw sand on the sessions they’ve had with Kemper, whom he claims to have chatted up. Bill and Holden are barely past their introductory boilerplate before Brudos knocks them off their prepared questions and leads them through a chaotic session of improvised inquiry and dishonest answers. But certain cold facts do emerge about their subject: His fetish for high heels, his tortured relationship with his mother, the grisly photographs he took of his crimes. (The funniest part about their first encounter is Holden’s bruised reaction afterwards. “Do you really think Kemper called us idiots? That doesn’t sound like Ed to me.”)
Bill and Holden get more out of Brudos when they see him again and treat his evasions more aggressively, but that may not be the right approach. Carr prefers the first session to the second, because Brudos’s denials are still giving them information, whereas the masculine tactics used to get him to talk are reckless and unscientific. The rift between the men and Carr does get ironed out eventually, but these are early signs of how fraught their collaboration stands to be, worsened by the corrosive force of talking to deranged psychopaths all the time.
The pressure is particularly hard on Bill, who can’t look to home as a refuge. As his son’s behavior worsens in school, his instinct is to continue to deny the problem, hope in vain things improve over time, and escape to the golf course whenever possible. He rejects the hippie-dippy music therapy advocated by his wife Nancy, but doesn’t seem interested in discussion alternative solutions, either. Soon enough, his son’s discovery of a crime-scene photo in his desk rattles their long-time babysitter and symbolizes two serious problems creeping into his marriage: one, that Bill is literally and figuratively bringing his work home with him, and two, that his son wants to know him better and will enter the forbidden space of his office to learn more.
“Episode 7” is the best showcase yet for Holt McCallany, whose immense physical frame has won him supporting parts as soldiers and tough guys in films like Casualties of War, Alien 3, Fight Club, and the HBO movie Tyson, where he played Mike Tyson’s one-time trainer, Teddy Atlas. But it’s McCallany’s role in the short-lived, much loved FX series Lights Out, as an aging boxer with encroaching dementia, that really brought out the sensitive brute who’s on display in Mindhunter. Bill’s behavior toward Nancy is deplorably hostile, but McCallany plays it with such naked vulnerability that she (and the viewer) can recognize it as a fit of self-loathing. He’s a tough guy who’s cracking under the pressure.
Holden and Carr, for their part, are handling their downtime in quieter, if no less peculiar, fashion. Carr breaks her sad bachelorette routine of watching All in the Family and eating tuna from a can by trying to befriend a stray kitty. Her methods mirror her M.O. on the job: She wants to coax the creature patiently from the darkness, rather than risk grabbing for it. As for Holden, the association between the high heels he picks up for Brudos and the same heels that Debbie breaks out for his benefit is too much for him to handle. If he’s turned on, does that mean he shares the same fetishistic headspace as a mass murderer? What in the world is he learning about himself?
• The BTK Killer is seen laying out his jacket, gloves, tape, and pistol. He is eerily methodical. To quote Bill Murray in Ghostbusters, “No human being would stack books like this.”
• Another highlight in an episode that benefits from comic relief: Bill punishing the guy who wants to claim the middle seat between him and Holden on the plane. Holden is the type of by-the-book guy who’d insist on sitting in his assigned seat, so razzing this stranger is a similar pleasure for Bill.
• In Fincher-land, the lighting is so artfully dreary that it suggests dangers that aren’t present. When Carr slips down to the basement in a T-shirt and nothing else, it braces you for an assault that never materializes. It’s effective, but I’m not convinced that it’s done in the best taste.
• Good of Carr to note that crossdressing is not an antecedent to homicidal behavior, especially during a period when attitudes about it might not be so enlightened.