Let’s Talk About the Mindhunter Season-Two Finale

Photo: Netflix

Spoilers below for Mindhunter season two. You’ve been warned!

Mindhunter’s second season has two endings. The first is the conclusion to Holden Ford and Bill Tench’s investigation of the Atlanta child murders, and the other is a clip of Dennis Rader, the BTK killer, fantasizing in a hotel room about his victims. The scenes are completely disconnected, and their position next to one another as the closing moments of the season feels deliberately disjointed. But the two endings are circling the same idea, underlining the same uneasiness Mindhunter tries to mine in its own premise. They are both waving red flags of uncertainty, creating purposely frustrating, unsatisfying conclusions to undercut the show’s crime-solving genre, a type of story that often relies on satisfying endings and easy answers. The problem is that while one of these endings achieves the sense of dread and apprehension it’s trying to create, the second ending falls flat.

The first ending is blunt and direct about its message. In it, Holden stands on a tarmac, staring at a private plane the FBI has sent to bring him and Bill back home. The plane is their reward for capturing Wayne Williams, the alleged perpetrator of a string of murders in Atlanta, and it’s an outwardly happy resolution to a horrifying crime. But Holden maintains doubts that Williams committed all of the 29 murders associated with the case, and he’s hopeful that investigators will continue to pursue the other perpetrators. As Holden stares at the plane, this huge sign of his success, he learns that all of the murders in the cast are being closed, even the ones he suspected were committed by others. Williams’ arrest is celebrated as a victory, but Holden’s methods — his theory of criminal profiles, and his focus on working the profile rather than other avenues of investigation — have contributed to overlooking other possible killers. By catching Williams, he’s unintentionally made it easier for the Atlanta police department to ignore everyone else.

The point here is obvious, but it also works. The soaring imagery of this luxurious private plane turns sour as we watch Holden’s falling expression, his sudden, brow-furrowing concern. We’re left with unanswered questions, and Holden’s myopia is in large part what’s keeping them from being answered. His work is good except when it’s not. His single-minded focus on serial predators may well harm as much as it helps. Mindhunter belongs to a crime genre that tends to land on solid ground by the end, with competent investigations leading to impressive detective work, and logical answers that fit together like puzzle pieces. On TV and in films, serial killers usually exist to be caught. Mindhunter’s choice of focusing on the Atlanta child murders — a real-life case that’s been closed and reopened without yet leading to other convictions — lets it complicate the simplicity of that straightforward, catch-the-bad-guy ending.

The BTK killer scene may be meant to work the same way. Although Holden and Bill now know about the BTK case, and they’re ostensibly gathering information to help catch a suspect, they’re not investigating it intensely and they’re nowhere close to finding Rader. The forward momentum of the Atlanta case stalls whenever Mindhunter turns to BTK. Like all the unanswered questions from the Atlanta case — pivotally, the more than two dozen uncharged murders that remain unresolved after Williams’ capture — the BTK killer is just out there. Holden’s particular genius is not enough to crack the case. It’s another flaw, another failure, another way of undermining both Holden’s work and the usual serial killer story.

But if the little glimpses of the BTK killer are designed to emphasize Holden’s insufficient methodology, if they’re meant to show the limits of criminal profiling because this horrific serial killer is still out there, then they backfire spectacularly in this ending. Each window into Rader’s life is begging for attention, reinforcing the sense that only an unusual, single-minded visionary can solve the case. More than once, Holden tells Bill that serial killers want to be caught, that they want to claim their acts, that they want someone to see and appreciate how clever and brutal they’ve been. Mindhunter dangles the BTK case in front of us in the same way a serial killer might deliberately leave a clue behind at the scene: It’s taunting us, making us long for the day when Holden and Rader find one another. The show aims to undermine the simplicity of the cop-finds-the-killer story, but the structure of the BTK scenes has the opposite effect. They turn Mindhunter into the opening act of a twisted romance: Holden and Rader are destined for one another, and we long for them to come together. It’s a longing reinforced by Mindhunter’s editing, which often uses the BTK scenes to begin or end episodes in a way that makes them seem like part of a “to be continued”-type story. They feel like a frame narrative: something the rest of the story will have to work toward, a part of the puzzle that doesn’t connect with the strong implication that it just doesn’t connect yet.

Whether that will actually come to pass is another question. Netflix is no longer a place where shows run for seasons and seasons without fear of cancellation. (David Fincher has suggested that Mindhunter might run for five seasons, but that’s no guarantee.) What’s even more uncertain is how Holden and Rader ever could find each other. John Douglas, the real-life FBI profiler who provides the rough basis for Ford’s character, was interested in the BTK case for years and eventually wrote a book about Rader, his psychology, and the process of catching him. But Rader wasn’t apprehended until 2005, which means Mindhunter would need to run for a long, long time or, more likely, leap forward several decades to reach that point. Perhaps, if Mindhunter gets a few more seasons, the end of the series will jump to 2005 and Jonathan Groff in old age makeup will sit across from Rader in an interview room.

But that possibility is a long time coming (perhaps never, if Mindhunter doesn’t get five seasons). Even if it were to happen, a series ending where Holden actually did catch Rader would only undo all of the show’s previous attempts to cast doubt on the efficacy of criminal profiling. The BTK ending in season two is meant to be another way to puncture our need for easy resolutions, but the larger arc it implies — where Holden does catch him eventually, whether the show depicts that capture or not — achieves the opposite effect.

In the end, in spite of its best efforts, Mindhunter seems to be fighting against the simplest, most suspect tropes of its genre, and yet it can’t help but reinforce them. Even when it lands on not one, but two endings in which a terrible crime remains unsolved, the season still recreates the old desire for the same, familiar, uncomplicated conclusion. What’s more, because the BTK case has been woven so tightly into the show’s structure, it’s hard to see how Mindhunter could ever extricate itself from the simplicity of these two men as destined for each other.  Mindhunter may be trying to tell us a story about complexity and failure, but in the season’s final moments, it’s still a story about hoping the hero will catch the bad guy.

Let’s Talk About the Mindhunter Season-Two Finale