After Mindhunter’s supersized fifth episode seemed to jettison us into the second half of the season, with members of the BSU crew now focusing their efforts on catching a mass murderer in Atlanta, it’s a bit of a letdown that this sixth episode feels like it’s ramping up all over again. It’s the worst episode of an otherwise great season — turgid, labored, and weirdly uneventful, at least by Mindhunter standards. And, crucially, it’s the first where all the various subplots didn’t feel connected to a larger whole; we merely follow along as the characters break off in different directions and involve themselves in dramas that don’t cohere or intersect in any particularly meaningful way. It’s still absorbing, but after such a purposeful first half, an ordinary TV episode feels like a letdown.
The downtick is especially disappointing because episode six is the first one directed by Carl Franklin, a veteran who’s spent the second half of his 30-year career behind the camera mostly working on TV shows, including episodes of The Affair, The Leftovers, and the David Fincher–produced House of Cards. But Franklin directed a pair of outstanding movies in the mid-’90s that would suggest him as the perfect choice to shepherd Mindhunter as it heads into the Deep South: 1992’s One False Move, a brilliant neo-noir about a small-town southern police chief (Bill Paxton) who gets involved in a murder case way above his purview, and the Walter Mosley adaptation Devil in a Blue Dress, an Easy Rawlins mystery that takes place in 1948 Los Angeles but concerns a city divided sharply along racial lines.
Franklin is a capable hand — and with the last four episodes of the season under his direction, he’s only just getting started here — but episode six doesn’t have a single standout scene. It mostly moves the pieces forward. What gets those pieces moving is the announcement that the Justice Department has decided to send the FBI to Atlanta, despite the city’s longstanding resistance to national attention. That takes Holden and Bill out of Quantico at a terrible time for Wendy, who doesn’t like this open-ended disruption to the BSU’s larger project, and for Bill, who’s desperately needed at home to support his family while they’re under intense scrutiny from the state. With Holden permanently stationed at the Omni Hotel in Atlanta and Bill bouncing there and back on weekends, it’s now up to Wendy and Gregg to continue doing the field work, despite their inexperience.
For the most part, Mindhunter has cast Wendy as the model of cool-headed competence and wisdom, neither erratic or socially maladjusted like Holden nor temperamental like Bill. But having her be the steady, guiding hand for the BSU threatens to make the character a little two-dimensional and boring, and the show seems to be in the process of introducing some much-needed flaws. For one, she doesn’t entirely know how to handle herself in a relationship, for the same reason Bill and Holden have disappointed the women in their lives — she’s married to her work. When Kay tries to get her to take a magazine personality quiz, Wendy barely glances up from her paperwork to indulge her.
She also makes subtle errors in the interview room. After showing a great capacity for improvisation in her first prison interview, she runs into trouble with Paul Bateson, a former radiographer who was jailed for the murder of film-industry journalist Addison Verrill and was implicated later (though never convicted) in a series of killings of gay men in Manhattan. (It’s never mentioned on the show, but Bateson has a role in a disturbing scene as a radiological technician in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, and his alleged involvement in serial murder inspired Friedkin’s 1980 thriller Cruising, which remains hugely controversial in the gay community.) Wendy proceeds with confidence in her interrogation of Bateson, but he proves to be a wilier subject than expected, never quite giving her full answers to important questions. It could be that Bateson was never going to be forthcoming no matter how well he’s provoked, but it does leave Wendy questioning her methods. And that sliver of self-doubt enriches the character.
Back in Atlanta, all by himself, Holden can’t help but fall into the same diplomatic trap of being the arrogant FBI guy who comes to town with all the answers. It’s fortunate for him that Chief Redding, the man running this now-bustling operation, is humble (and desperate) enough to give Holden’s ideas a shot. Working off an insight gleaned from his interviews, particularly with Ed Kemper and the Son of Sam, Holden notes the tendency of serial killers to return to the scene of their previous crimes. He also insists that Redding and his team should stop reacting to latest cases and anticipating where the killer might strike next. That leads all resources to the woods off Red Wine Road, where they discover the remains of three victims and perhaps the value of a new approach.
That doesn’t mean the BSU’s time in Atlanta isn’t without its bumps. When Bill, Holden, and Barney convince the district attorney to grant warrants on dubiously thin grounds, they have to assure him that the press won’t get wind of it. Of course, that’s exactly what happens, and now their only hope is that the man they picked up, Pickett Yarborough, is going to confess everything in the interrogation room. Given that he completely defies the profile Bill and Holden have tentatively developed for the killer — they’re looking for a young black suspect who can abduct his victims in broad daylight without getting noticed, and Yarborough is a white guy with no serious priors — it seems like a catastrophe is coming.
For Bill, such disasters are inevitable. He’s needed at work and he’s needed at home and he’s stretched too thin to satisfy either his boss or his wife. He can’t be there to clean up Holden’s messes, so he’ll be breaking his promise to Gunn to keep his partner in line. He can’t be at home to handle the situation with Brian, despite his wife’s pleas that he’s needed to keep their family together at an extremely perilous time. And while he’s away from home, he keeps getting reminders that parents like him can do nothing to stop the deviant violence he confronts every day. Brian’s frightening behavior may be beyond his ability to curb or control, and he’s left to imagine the terrible future that suggests for everyone.
• It’s hard for the Nancy character to transcend the stock role of the long-suffering and nagging wife, and Mindhunter hasn’t solved the puzzle, despite Stacey Roca’s capable performance. Lines like, “You say there’s nothing you can do, so the decision has been made” pack an understandable hostility about Bill’s work obligations, but they nonetheless have a passive-aggressive sting that reflects poorly on Nancy when they shouldn’t.
• Great line from the black mother of a missing boy who’s asked if she recognizes a hostile white voice on a recording: “You all sound the same to me — just meanness.”
• Brian’s mirthless stares and regression to bedwetting, thumb-sucking, and sleeping with baby toys are threatening to turn that subplot into another Omen sequel. The only difference is that the boy doesn’t mind going to church.