One of my ongoing concerns about Mindhunter — and one that the series consistently allays — is that the story of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, and these three main characters at the heart of it, will turn the world of serial killers into an ahistorical smorgasbord for our weekly delectation. Ed Kemper, Richard Speck, the Son of Sam, Charles freakin’ Manson — there’s no end to the menu of encounters our heroes can have with the country’s most notorious deviants, or how they can use the insights gleaned from those encounters in the field. It’s always risked the danger of turning into Forrest Gump or Zelig, a show where this same set of faces pop up everywhere, whether there’s any basis in fact or not. And the worst version of that would undoubtedly veer into exploitation.
The Atlanta murders have been a compelling stress test in that regard. Here’s a case that dragged on through two years and 28 bodies, exhausting the resources of local, state, and federal authorities and holding the city’s black community in the grip of fear and anger over the loss of their children. It’s difficult for a show like Mindhunter to approach a real-life event like this without overemphasizing the contributions made by men like Bill and Holden, who might be expected to swoop in and play a much larger role than would be plausible or appropriate. But as the BSU has dipped its toes in this fetid water, it’s notable how much resistance its members have gotten to their hoped-for status as conquering heroes: They’re late to the scene, they’re denied access by city officials reticent to make national headlines, and they make mistakes like everyone else. As Camille Bell warned Holden at their first meeting, “Don’t make any promises.” She’s certain he’ll break them if he does.
And so the seventh episode opens with an embarrassing red herring. The white plumber whose fingerprints were found on porno mags in the forest off Red Wine Road was not responsible for the strangulation deaths of black children. He was only responsible for choking the proverbial chicken, admitting with no small degree of shame that he has a pregnant wife at home and was servicing himself in the woods. This confession happens after Bill, Holden, and Barney cajole search warrants for the suspect’s truck and property from a reluctant DA, fail to keep the press in the dark, and hold an innocent man for over five hours before questioning him like they would a mass murderer. One can’t help but think of this poor guy as a precursor to Richard Jewell, the security guard who was publicly accused of planting a bomb at the Atlanta Olympics but was later exonerated and successfully sued various outlets for libel.
The whole affair infuriates Holden, who rages at Bill for refusing to act on their own profile, which speculates that the killer is an African-American male who has been able to abduct boys in broad daylight without anyone getting suspicious. But Holden is up against a partner who still believes in following all leads, if only to eliminate them, and a black community that’s eyeing the KKK, an organization that’s been preying on them for years — and may feel extra emboldened now that the city has a black mayor and commissioner. Holden doesn’t want politics or bad leads to draw them away from their purpose in Atlanta, which is to apply what they’ve learned to an active case, but Bill remains a stickler for procedure. After all, he tells Holden, “generations of violence and systemic racism” are worth a follow-up.
Meanwhile, Bill and Nancy are both, separately, feeling misgivings about their son, though surely neither would have the will to admit it to the other. Wendy has become Bill’s sole confidante about his crisis with Brian — Holden gets the I’m-dealing-with-stuff-at-home brushback like everyone else — and he laments about the boy’s regression and his frustrated expectations of what being a father would be like. (“Brian should be throwing a baseball, playing hide and seek, and telling me about his stupid day.”) But then he lands on a crucial insight: “This might just be who he is.” Bill and Nancy do not know what Brian’s life was like before they adopted him at age 3, but the question of nature-versus-nurture haunts every parent, whether their children merely have divergent interests and personalities or they’re little sociopaths. That’s why the “What about the parents?” question is so sticky when it comes to young people who commit heinous acts. As we saw as recently as the mass shooting in El Paso, sometimes there’s nothing a parent can do.
The most surprising scene in the episode finds Nancy at home alone, getting a visit from the mother of the toddler who was crucified under Brian’s watch. The mother wants a chance to meet Brian and offer her forgiveness. She’s persuaded by the argument that Nancy herself had been voicing all this time — that Brian wanted to help the child and the suggestion to put him on the cross was a wish for resurrection. But Nancy won’t allow her to see Brian. It could be that Brian currently isn’t making a good impression on anyone with his creepy, sullen behavior. It could also be that Nancy is starting to believe that Brian was an active participant in the child’s death and that he isn’t deserving of forgiveness. She says virtually nothing in that scene, because the things she’s thinking can never be said out loud.
• The first non-BTK cold open. Picking up right where the bad lead left off in the previous episode seems like the right choice, though, especially in the age of streaming binges, when viewers are anxious to know what happened next and don’t have to wait a week to find out.
• The introduction of film grain to add authenticity to the S.T.O.P. march is sloppily handled on a technical level and is the one moment in this show where Forrest Gump/Zelig comparisons apply. There might have been a way to stage the sequence to keep Holden’s running with the cross from looking so weirdly incongruent with the march itself, but the filmmakers haven’t found it.
• The Tenches’ time with the social worker doesn’t appear to be going well. Bill does the thing where he impresses strangers with his “war stories” and she reacts with great interest, but there’s the sense that his job — and his absence from home — is getting a negative appraisal in her notes. Plus Nancy keeps calling her “Mrs. Leland.” She definitely hates that.
• Wendy’s relationship with Kay is revealing of her problems with intimacy — which she desires, but only on her own terms. She offers Kay the opportunity to leave her hovel behind and move into the extra room in her apartment, thinking that she’s being generous, but Kay sees through it. What is being asked here? Would she be a roommate or a lover? It seems that Wendy wants to put Kay in whatever box is convenient to her.