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Mindhunter Is a Surprisingly Good Commentary on Toxic Masculinity

Jonathan Groff as Holden Ford. Photo: Patrick Harbron/Netflix

Since childhood I have been acutely aware of the violence men blithely inflict upon women.

My earliest memories are cast in the shadow of my father’s violence. I remember him strangling my mother, berating her, and, once, ripping the phone out of the kitchen wall to use it as a weapon. My mother has never truly been open about this time in her life, often bristling when I ask too many questions. But recently, our conversation veered in the direction of my father when speaking of the shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in which 26 people were killed at the hands of a man with a rifle. Neither of us were surprised at his history of domestic abuse. History is littered with examples that bloom with such regularity; they’re unfortunately commonplace. My mother, in remarkably precise language, recounted that the most harrowing instance of her abuse happened when pregnant with my younger brother, and relayed her intimate understanding of how women often aren’t believed, even with physical evidence, for detailing the misogyny in the hearts of men they know.

It’s this history that spurred my adolescent obsession with true crime and noir — genres that, at their best, take the pain women experience seriously and, with chilling specificity, chart the interior machinations of the criminals responsible. Some nights, I still fall asleep to Forensic Files and Unsolved Mysteries or while scrolling through the Instagram account “stophatingwomen,” which documents a seemingly endless stream of missing and murdered women. In many ways, such rituals have become a strange survival mechanism — studying what I fear most in order to prevent these fears from cocooning me entirely in a perpetual state of anxiety.

But these genres can also reenact the very toxicity they seek to critique. Writers and directors are often obsessive about detailing grotesque tableaux of mutilated flesh, ignoring the victims’ interiority or the culture that makes such acts common: True Detective season two, Top of the Lake, Law and Order’s interest in the most arch representations of victimhood, and Hannibal spring to mind. When I first started watching Netflix’s moody new series, Mindhunter — which adapts the true-crime novel of the same name by John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker — I worried it would be undercut by such issues. I expected an intense, albeit emotionally detached, series that would leave little impact. But Mindhunter enthralled me. By episode three, I was hooked, finding its icy atmosphere and careful consideration of the minute details that come with such investigative work a fascinating way to deflate the mythology that film and TV often continues about serial killers. Most important, Mindhunter proves to be a deft and visceral excavation of the ways misogyny and toxic masculinity festers.

Set in 1977, the series — produced by David Fincher, who also directed four episodes — details the early years of criminal profiling at the FBI by two agents: the egotistical hotshot Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and guarded Bill Tench (Holt McCallany). The agents interview imprisoned serial killers in hopes of understanding them well enough to solve ongoing cases and, ideally, track warning signs to curb such behaviors. Psychology professor Wendy Carr (Anna Torv, with a glare so piercing it could cut through stone) joins the team, bringing credibility and a more careful understanding of how to make such a scientific endeavor work.

One of the more remarkable decisions by the filmmakers is the bloodless rendering of the violence committed by the serial killers who are studied over the course of the ten episodes. No women screaming in agony. No excruciating flashbacks. No crime scenes marked by spilled intestines, cut jugulars, and the glassy eyes of lifeless victims. The crimes are seen in perfunctory photos the characters mill over when they help local law enforcement or seek to discern the inner workings of a particular killer being interviewed. The camera never stays on them long enough for its gaze to feel exploitative or cruel. If anything, the series is pointedly clinical, using its crime drama trappings to instead uncover the horror of misogyny in conversations between the agents and the imprisoned killers they study. This allows the audience’s imagination to conjure how much or how little violence we need to reckon with the macabre actions these men eagerly extol. It blessedly means the series bypasses the lurid tradition of bloodied women being used to communicate just how twisted the serial killer in question is. The writers don’t veer in that direction, smartly understanding that the men can do that on their own in their revealing, stark conversations.

Each conversation with the four serial killers interviewed takes a different tenor. Richard Speck (played with brute force by Jack Erdie) — who was convicted of the 1966 rape, torture, and murder of eight nurses in the Chicago area — is a frightening display of unchecked machismo and aggression. He rattles off vulgarities with an acid tongue. He pushes boundaries with ease. His scenes, in episode nine, take place in the bowels of a dank, overcrowded prison. Richard is the most openly violent of the killers, punctuating the end of his conversation by throwing a bird into a fan, swiftly killing it. He’s a reminder of how violence can be unprovoked and unexpected. Jerry Brudos (Happy Anderson) is jovial with a hard edge as he discusses his foot fetish and crimes. Monte Rissell (Sam Strike) is antagonistic from the jump. He mocks the women he killed, putting on a high-pitched voice to communicate their pleas. “You know chicks,” he says to Holden with a conspiratorial edge, as if to say women deserve this for merely existing. The serial killers interviewed don’t need much of a reason to kill the women they do — a wayward glance, a curt reply, a flirtatious edge they feel is improper. Each of these men reveal different qualities of misogyny, but it’s Ed Kemper (a standout Cameron Britton) who crystallizes what unites them on a deeper level beyond their whiteness, gender, and desire to degrade women: their utter banality.

Ed is cold, intelligent, manipulative. The flatness of his voice makes the savage acts he speaks of (he killed ten women including his controlling mother before sexually assaulting her decapitated head) all the more frightening. “If there is one thing I know it’s this: A mother should not scorn her own son,” Ed says. Bill rightly notices that Ed is saying a lot of what he thinks they want to hear. More importantly, he’s self-mythologizing, tracing a straight line from his mother’s cruelty to his animosity toward women. It’s women — with their sexual revolution, autonomy, and desires that don’t include him — that are the problem. Each serial killer in his own way says women bring this upon themselves, this is what they deserve, a reasoning used since time immemorial in order to deflect the true ills of misogyny.

Holden and Bill navigate this work in strikingly different ways. Bill is openly disgusted. Holden rapaciously writes down Ed’s words before they move on to recording the interviews. Bill creates physical and emotional distance. Holden is all too eager to drown in the muck of these men, adopting their characteristics in order to elicit more open responses. Bill keeps his files and work life as a whole locked in his office, out of sight from his family. Holden often discusses the particulars of cases with his grad-student girlfriend, Debbie Mitford (Hannah Gross), who gives him advice. Bill is far more affected by the horrors they listen to, despite his stoic facade. This culminates in a moving scene later in the season in which his son discovers the crime scene photos and he edges near a breakdown, finally revealing his deepest vulnerabilities to his wife. To face such misogyny asks both Bill and Holden to examine themselves.

At first blush, it seems Holden will be a standard issue FBI agent: a young genius hotshot who breaks the rules because he sees the world for how it is, while his lesser colleagues need to catch up. When Bill originally introduces him to Wendy, Holden is emboldened by her compliments about the validity of their study, imagining how big this can be for his career. He disregards authority. He treats his hunches as law, culminating in an uneasy, fascinating subplot about Holden using what he’s learned to determine if a small-town principal has the capacity to harm the children he teaches. Detectives and criminals in such fiction are often mirrors for one another, so it only makes sense that Ford is actually as banal as the serial killers he scrutinizes. What gains he makes are a series of hunches and luck, masked by a blistering, unearned confidence. Even Wendy, who is first seen through Holden’s perspective as another vehicle to feed his ego, proves to be vital to the show’s understanding of how misogyny warps people’s lives. Her early scenes with Holden can be read as gently flirtatious, but in episode six it’s revealed that Wendy is a lesbian. She hides this aspect of her life as a means of survival. She’s all too aware of how precarious her position in the team and the world itself is as a gay woman. Wendy’s arc ends up revealing a crucial aspect of misogyny — the ways it silences.

As Scott Tobias notes in his review of the finale, “The first season of Mindhunter ends with Holden as lone wolf, hewing closer to the misogyny and ‘organized killer’ methodology of his serial-killer subjects than the collaborative effort of his peers.” The writing teases the idea that Holden’s ease with the serial killers and bold manipulations may reveal he’s a psychopath. There’s something also about how actor Jonathan Groff plays Holden. His charm seems practiced, inauthentic. His smile doesn’t reach his eyes. People are merely a means to an end as he bulldozes over their rightful concerns. Holden’s arc is a real-time exploration of the ways a man’s ego and disregard for others can turn into something dangerous. Mindhunter doesn’t just state that toxic masculinity is bad — that’s an easy argument to make. The series instead does more thematically to touch on its permutations and how it comes to pass, how it flourishes and corrupts, particularly when it comes to Holden’s arc: Holden isn’t a hero, he’s a warning.

Toxic masculinity has become an exceedingly flexible term, it’s potency undercut by the habitual need to use it to describe every uncomfortable, questionable behavior by a man. But it remains useful in framing the continuum of violence (emotional and physical) men commit in ways that warp the world to devastating degrees — gaslighting, coercion, high-profile examples of men like Harvey Weinstein using power to assault women, the recent Texas shooting adding to a long line of domestic terrorism by white men with histories of intimate-partner violence, and of course, men like Ed Kemper in Mindhunter. Crime dramas have long felt too intrigued by the degradation these serial killers carve into the world. But Mindhunter stands as the most intelligent crime drama I’ve witnessed this year for how it trades obvious brutality for a more careful consideration of psychology. Mindhunter becomes a window into the rot at the heart of the white American male. The series finds horror not by detailing the broken bodies of victims, but the banality of this misogyny and how easily it blooms.

Mindhunter’s Deft Commentary on Toxic Masculinity