“That’s known as a victory lap. It’s supposed to be taken at the end of a race.”
These words from Camille Bell cut through Holden, and this entire season of Mindhunter, like a hot knife through butter. Holden has stopped by their favorite restaurant haunt to say goodbye and head back to Quantico after the police have arrested Wayne Williams and charged him for 2 of the 29 victims. Holden tries to persuade Camille that the investigation into her child’s death will continue and that surely more convictions will come as Williams is linked to other cases. But Bell sees the future in the present: The mayor, the commissioner, the District Attorney, and other public officials are already out there making assurances that they got their man. Finding justice for the actual children who have been killed — the two charges are for adult victims, 27-year-old Nathaniel Cater and 21-year-old Jimmy Ray Payne — is less important than the city putting all this ugliness and terror behind it.
As a title reveals near the end of the episode, none of the other 27 cases have been officially tied to Williams, who remains in prison and continues to maintain his innocence after all these years. That’s not to say that suggestions of Williams’s guilt haven’t been available, then or now — DNA tests from a decade ago strengthened the case against him — but it didn’t take much for the authorities to close the book on it. For all of the DA’s bluster about search warrants, and wiretapping and surveillance permissions, all it took was some fiber evidence and some pressure from the Justice Department to tip him over, especially in an election year. The politics of keeping the investigation open — not to mention the expense — are not appealing to any of the powerful people who make these decisions.
And so Holden especially is left to swallow the bitterest of ironies: The FBI is getting credit for using his techniques to help close the Atlanta murders, but justice may not have been done. The sight of Gunn smiling and gesticulating in front of a private jet, ecstatic that his faith in the BSU has paid off so spectacularly, has a soul-sickening vulgarity to it. At this moment, Gunn makes clear that his true interest is in political power, and the BSU’s work has been a vehicle for it, something to impress the boss he was glad-handing at the FBI retreat. Keep in mind, we were told that Gunn passed up another job to put himself in this position, which now seems less a commitment to innovative techniques than a gamble on a better path for his advancement. Holden may have butt heads with Shepard, but Shepard would not have done this.
Mindhunter ends its time with the Atlanta murders on just the right humbling note — and for a series that celebrates the ingenuity and smarts of the figures responsible for studying serial killers, that’s not easy. For Holden, it’s a tough lesson in humility to be so absolutely certain of a particular profile and then have the results throw his presumptions into question. In fact, Holden’s profile winds up feeding into a narrative that’s appealing to the powers that be: If it turns out that the perpetrator is white, then that revelation would be more racially explosive. As it stands, Williams’s conviction allows the city to go back to business as usual, without calling attention to the white violence regularly directed at its black population. A sick status quo settles in before Holden even hops on a plane out of town.
Most of “Episode 9,” however, is devoted to the tick-tock of collecting evidence on Williams and bringing him to justice. Holden and Barney do get an early crack at him at his home, and Bill and Holden get caught trying to trail him too conspicuously, but Mindhunter doesn’t insert its characters into this true-life narrative any more than necessary, which again underlines the series’ wise proportionality. The BSU wasn’t (and needn’t be) at the center of every serial-killer story, which makes it all the more powerful in those moments when Bill and Holden realize they don’t have full command of the situation. When Williams is finally carted away by the Atlanta Police Department, they’re no more aware of what’s happening than his neighbors.
As the more experienced agent of the two, Bill seems to have anticipated a result like this all along. “We did our jobs,” he tells Holden. “We have no control over everything else.” But it will be interesting to see how this entire misadventure reshapes Holden’s thinking in future seasons. Will he be the cocky know-it-all who completely trusts his instincts? Or will a little humility and self-doubt aid in his growth as an agent and a human being? For Gunn, the Atlanta murders were an unqualified success and all the more reason to continue investing resources into the BSU. For Bill, it’s the end of a job that was inevitably imperfect and, on balance, as satisfying as he could make it. For Holden, however, it’s a failure that’s been packaged as a success and it gnaws at him. He fully intended to swoop in and solve this case to the satisfaction of the victims’ families and himself, but Bell had warned him not to make promises and she was right. She’s not as naïve about how the system works as he is, even though he’s part of the system.
The season ends with cold-open material as a cold-closer, as the BTK killer dresses himself in women’s undergarments and a mask again, and perhaps an autoasphyxiation ritual involving a rope and various souvenirs from the people he’s killed. This is more or less how the season started, so we’re back on the timeline that’s going to stretch out nearly 25 more years until he’s finally arrested in 2005. It’s a haunting reminder that the innovative work to capture these boogeymen doesn’t always lead to justice. And Holden will have to learn to live with it.
• A new choral version of the theme over the opening credits. Next time, the show should add lyrics, perhaps along the lines of Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger.”
• Bill’s inadequacy in his family’s time of need finally leads to the inevitable break-up of his marriage. The last straw is Bill splitting town in the middle of teaching Brian how to flip burgers, only the latest of many short-circuited bonding moments. The boy won’t understand why he’s leaving home. And for Nancy, it doesn’t even matter anymore.
• “What is ‘Model T’?” “It’s a code name for Ford.”
• Another thesis statement of a line from Tanya, who says of Holden’s profile, “That’s what every cop in Atlanta looks for, for every crime.”
• Perhaps there’s some thematic justification for Wendy having no part in this episode at all, but her brief appearance at the end suggests more simply that there wasn’t a need for her. By and large, I agree with The Ringer’s Alison Herman about the value of Wendy’s enhanced role in season two, which is especially crucial on a show that often confronts violence against women, but there’s still more room for growth.