The first season of Mindhunter was all about Holden, in that it was his vision and initiative that made the founding of the BSU possible, and his volatility that sparked much of the drama. Bill and Wendy have been unofficially appointed his handlers this season, but they’ve always pivoted in response to him, whether motivated by his genius or aggravated by his arrogance and impolitic behavior. Last season ended with Holden having a panic attack and this season started with him being diagnosed with panic disorder, setting up the likelihood that he might be triggered into having another one at any time. Yet his only incident so far was limited to the end of the first episode, when his retiring boss hit him with a flurry of parting shots. Otherwise he’s generally been left alone to do his job, while the show has thrown more focus on Bill and Wendy’s personal and professional lives.
For the most part, Mindhunter has thrived as a more democratic show in its second season. Bill’s troubles at home have made his life a high-wire act over a frayed safety net, and Wendy has become more integral to the show, stepping up as both an active participant in the interview process and as a closeted lesbian who’s trying to find romantic fulfillment at a time when her sexuality is still labeled “deviant.” Without a girlfriend anymore, Holden hasn’t had to satisfy anything but his own curiosity and ambition in the field, and he’s been doing it with his preternatural confidence intact, as if the panic attack never happened at all. He may be a ticking time bomb, ready to explode in his colleagues’ faces at any time, but he’s ostensibly liberated to do what he does best.
Emphasis on “ostensibly.” For Holden, this entire sojourn to Atlanta has been a source of constant frustration. City officials, wary of national attention, have been hostile to any help from the federal government. And now that the Justice Department has stepped in and ordered the FBI to participate, Holden has been thwarted time and again by unpromising leads, bureaucratic red tape, and a misdirection of resources. On top of that, Bill’s crisis back in Virginia has made him an inconsistent partner, which hasn’t helped him make any headway with the decision makers on the Atlanta murder case. As much as we might be wary of Holden’s myopic insistence on a specific profile — a black man killing black children in a city where white people have historically done the job — the BSU was brought in to apply its understanding of serial-killer behavior to the scene. If they can’t do that, Holden wonders, why are they present at all?
In this penultimate episode of the season, the powers that be are so desperate that they’re finally taking Holden’s advice. There’s still great resistance to his profile — so great, in fact, that Bill and a GBI agent fruitlessly stake out a well-known Klan family — but the killer appears to change body-disposal tactics after it becomes public that fiber evidence has been found on several victims. With the killer now dumping bodies in the many rivers surrounding the city, Holden and the gang have the idea of dusk-till-dawn stakeouts of the city’s bridges, hoping for that fateful ker-sploosh that will finally lead them to get their man. It’s an expensive endeavor — and it has nothing to with profiling, which is a political plus — but it pays off after five weeks of sleepless, mosquito-filled Georgia nights. They get their man.
But as I wrote on the last episode, proportionality is key. The show isn’t inclined to credit its heroes with cracking the Atlanta murders case, which is wise, and it reinforces the point by drawing the dramatic focus to places that have nothing to do with Atlanta at all. Back in Virginia, for example, the Tenches are reaching a point with Brian where they’re losing faith and perhaps seeking a change in setting altogether. Bill comes home from one of his trips to discover a pile of dishes in the sink and his wife smoking on the back porch, more or less admitting that she’s thrown in the towel on their son. She talks about looking into the mirror at herself and Brian after his bath and feeling “relieved that he wasn’t really mine, that his body didn’t come from my body.” She asks him to take over the rest of the day, to pick up the boy from school and take care of dinner and the routine. She also talks about them moving to a new home within six weeks. Whatever domestic dream they might have once shared is officially dead.
For her part, Wendy has an even greater distance from the goings-on in Atlanta, and Gunn wants to make her marginalization permanent — he wants her full concentration in organizing and managing BSU’s serial killer project, despite her tentative successes in the field. It’s hard to glean how much Gunn’s wishes are rooted in sexism and how much in a genuine interest in maximizing Wendy’s talents, but it’s an isolating decision for her at a time when she wants to open up her life a little more. Dating Kay was her ticket to liberating herself — if Kay was wiling to sacrifice a husband, a child, and domestic stability for a more authentic life, then she could show the same courage — but when she discovers that Kay is still pinned down by her former life and willing to lie to her about it, Wendy closes the door with a decisive bang. “You’re not who you think you are,” she tells Kay. “You’re not free. You’re not some enlightened being who’s living her life to a higher standard. You’re a bartender who takes relationship advice from bus-stop magazines.”
Wendy is standing up for herself and her principles in this moment, just as Holden has been doing in Atlanta for months. It hasn’t helped. Sometimes integrity comes at a steep price.
• We’re back to the drip-drip-drip of BTK cold opens, as Kansas’s favorite copy-making creep stakes out a couple’s house from across the street. It’s a minor thing, but the scene rhymes nicely with scenes of the authorities staking out the bridges of Atlanta. One stakeout to perpetrate more violence, the other to stop it.
• Holden’s efforts to do simple things to lure the killer keep running into red tape. After the cross fiasco, it would seem easy enough to make up flyers for the benefit concert security job and post them in known hunting grounds, but the need for jurisdictional approval alone kills the project.
• “Braves are shit. They oughta fire Bobby Cox.” As a longtime Atlanta Braves fan, that line got a chuckle from me. The Braves were absolutely futile during the 1980s, when Dale Murphy was their lone bright spot, but a decade later, they’d become baseball’s most consistent franchise under Cox’s direction.
• “Did the fish die?” Those are the first words we’ve heard from Brian in a long time — all season? — which is a good window into where his head is at. That’s his only response to Bill’s story about catching his first fish. (Bonus points for “Arthur’s Theme” playing incongruously in the background.)
• A revealing character moment: When Barney says the profile won’t matter if they see someone dump a body off a bridge, Holden retorts, “It matters to me.” Being right is more important to Holden than the larger pursuit of justice. He cares about the case, but he cares more about having his instincts validated.