Mindhunter has been a strong show from the beginning, but it could be argued that it’s merely a serial-killer revue, running through a greatest hits of notorious murderers just to splash around in the psychology. In other words, David Fincher — the man behind Seven, Zodiac, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — being David Fincher. Though I wouldn’t make that argument, the second season has been a superb refutation of it because it’s done so much to develop its three main characters, deepen their individual relationships, and connect them to their work in the field. Bill, Holden, and Wendy are professionals who care about process and believe their studies will make a difference, but they’re also human beings who carry their own baggage into the arena. Even Wendy, the most disciplined and rigorously scientific of the three, couldn’t keep herself out of her interview with Elmer Wayne Henley in the last episode. And she got better information, too.
At a supersized 71 minutes, this outstanding midpoint episode pivots on those human moments, when our heroes can’t help bringing themselves into their work — which isn’t necessarily detrimental to the process! After learning of his adopted son Brian’s involvement in the strangulation of a 22-month-old and the staging of the body on a cross, Bill splits time between home and work, but the boundaries between the two get awfully blurry. At home, he and his wife, Nancy, have to submit themselves to a state-sponsored review of their son’s life, to determine whether he’s a danger to society or himself, and to see if there’s anything at home that’s affecting his behavior. The good news for the Tench family is that Brian gets to stay home during the process, but they’ll be under the microscope.
The situation puts Bill in an interesting spot. He’s not merely the father of a wayward boy. He’s also a man who works for the government and understands — and respects — the process. So while Nancy pushes back and protects their son with excuses, like believing Brian’s idea to crucify the toddler was a wish for resurrection, Bill is in the awkward position of doing the right thing by his family while knowing that his son needs to be scrutinized. He’s able to see, for example, that the decision to allow him and his wife to keep Brian at home is a mercy, and he’s able to appreciate the invasive walk-through conducted by the social worker, even as he recognizes its seriousness. “Don’t get too comfortable around her,” he tells Nancy, ominously. “She’s not our friend.”
In the office, Bill grapples with his and his son’s culpability through his analysis of the Henley interview and his contentious exchange with the one and only Charlie Manson. He and Holden are impressed by Wendy using that “dyke mentor” story to bring Henley out of his shell and get him talking about his tortured relationship with Dean Corll, the older man who raped, tortured, and killed more than two dozen teenage boys and young men. Bill seems to surprise the team by cutting Henley a little slack: “Can a teenager be held responsible for the actions of an adult?” The answer must be no because if it weren’t, then he couldn’t reassure himself with the thought that Brian was coerced into doing dreadful things by older boys. Henley was eager to classify himself as a nonparticipant, and Bill seems uncharacteristically willing to buy into the distinction between “procurement” and murder. To him, what Henley (and Brian) did was not on the same level as his mentor.
Bill’s angst boils over during their vaunted interview with Manson, a mentor figure who takes absolutely no responsibility for inspiring his followers to commit murder. Manson was supposed to be Holden’s big catch, centered on a strategy to understand how a sleazy, racist ex-con could persuade a “family” of middle-class, reasonably well-educated young people to execute horrific crimes on his behalf. That’s still the topic of conversation, but Manson’s hippie-dippie philosophizing, combined with a refusal to allow himself to be cast in that mentor role, drives Bill over the edge. To buy Manson’s account, Bill would have to believe that the Manson family members were willing and active participants in these murders — and, of course, that would mean Brian was willing and active in a strangulation, too, not just a bystander. After Holden interviews Tex Watson later, Wendy starts to come around to Manson’s thinking: “Manson found the right people,” says Wendy. “He simply helped them be who they were.”
Holt McCallany has given the standout performance of the season so far. He’s there to play the role of the no-nonsense veteran with the Johnny Unitas haircut, occasionally throwing cold water on his partner’s quirky brilliance. But from the beginning of season two, which finds him logging 65-hour weeks in Holden’s absence, Bill has been pressed to the limit. The new boss trusts Holden’s mission more than he does, yet he’s the one who’s responsible for babysitting him — an impossible task. His neglect as a husband and father was already a problem before this disturbing revelation about his son, which not only plays with his guilt, but triggers shameful feelings about his distant relationship to Brian, who’s never been the “normal,” pigskin-throwing buddy he might have imagined. McCallany is playing Bill as someone who can still be the good soldier, glad-handing and telling war stories to the FBI brass, but who’s secretly falling to pieces.
Last week’s Henley interview has also chipped away at Wendy’s armor a bit. She’s having to keep a big part of her life a secret, even though her sexuality is what got Henley to open up. There’s a big cut to her when someone marvels at his ability to “compartmentalize,” and that sets up a date night with Kay the bartender, who’s in every way her opposite. Kay’s refusal to compartmentalize meant losing her a life with a husband and son, and gaining a bartending job that affords her a shitty apartment with unopened boxes and milk crates for bookshelves. It’s also earned her a freedom that Wendy admires and covets. Scanning this miserable space, Wendy tells her new lover, “I’m happy that you’re leading an authentic life.” And she means it.
• “I’m just one of those people who need to see the whole thing. I like to get my popcorn and my seat. I like to watch the trailers. A lot of people feel this way.” A lot of people do indeed, Wendy. You are not alone.
• If “I interview the by-products of promiscuous mothers” wasn’t enough to get Wendy kicked out of Kay’s bed, then that relationship is on solid ground.
• Manson’s appearance in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Mindhunter has inspired this L.A. Times op-ed about the reticence of the culture to acknowledge Manson as a white supremacist. I don’t think the piece is fair to either of those specific works of art, which have a deliberately narrow purpose for dealing with Manson, but it’s probably true that his racism isn’t discussed enough when talking about his image.
• A fascinating detail in the Tex interview is how much he still speaks in Manson-isms: “There are no rights and wrongs, only is’s” or “No one ever dies, no one ever dies … everything’s love. There’s nothing that isn’t love.” Absolutely no one seems capable of taking responsibility for murder: not Brian or his parents, not Henley, not Tex, not Manson. Either they’re mentors who have no hand in the killing, or impressionable young people who were under the sway of an older and more powerful figure.
• The party scene is a skeevy masterpiece of casual harassment. Wendy gets buttonholed by an FBI liaison who professes to admire her work, but quickly, aggressively, and relentlessly moves to proposition her. Just as bad is Gunn unzipping her dress at her neckline, a gesture that’s supposed to get her to “loosen up,” but mostly reveals what he expects her role at the party to be. That the liaison is widely known to behave like he does says something about the culture at the time.