This review contains spoilers about Mindhunter season two, so proceed with caution.
The absorbing second season of Mindhunter arrived on Netflix last Friday after a 22-month absence from the television landscape. Despite that nearly two-year gap, David Fincher’s drama about FBI agents probing the psychology of serial killers immediately and skillfully manages to worm its way back into our heads, practically commanding us to binge all nine episodes in a sitting or two. When it comes to shows about criminal behavior, human beings always like to watch, and Mindhunter knows this.
To an even greater extent than in season one, Mindhunter, based on the nonfiction book by actual FBI “mindhunter” John E. Douglas, openly acknowledges humankind’s obsession with criminal behavior and its hypocritical relationship with that obsession. It also wrestles with the racial blinders that affect the ability of FBI Agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), recovering from a major panic attack as the season begins, to understand the optics surrounding the hunt for a suspect in the Atlanta child murders, a real string of killings that unfolded in the Georgia capital from 1979 to 1981. While Ford starts out as the member of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit who warrants the most concern — Ted Gunn, the new director of that unit who’s played by a deliberately elusive Michael Cerveris, asks Ford’s colleagues to keep a close eye on him — the season also places much of its focus on those co-workers, G-man Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) and psychologist Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), who begin to have their own problems separating the personal from the professional.
What makes Mindhunter most fascinating isn’t its scripted depictions of some of the most notorious criminals in American history, although, for the record, it is fascinating to watch Bill and Holden interview David Berkowitz (Oliver Cooper) and, especially, Charles Manson (played with chilling, stream-of-consciousness arrogance by Damon Herriman, who also slipped into Manson’s helter-skelter-y skin in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood). Glimpses of the BTK killer, Dennis Rader, are again peppered throughout the season, reminding us that while the FBI’s serial-killer team is busy with their work, unapprehended evildoers are still out there, doing theirs.
What’s most compelling about Mindhunter is the way that, like its protagonists, it investigates the human response to violent crime and, in particular, the way that close proximity to such crime can burnish one’s image. In the first episode, while Bill and his wife Nancy (Stacey Roca) are hosting a backyard barbecue, Bill gets inundated with questions from his neighbors once they realize he has spent time with infamous murderers.
“Why’d he do it? What did he say?” asks one neighbor when he learns that Bill interviewed serial killer Richard Speck.
“Trust me, you don’t want to know,” Bill says, attempting to change the subject.
“Sure we do!” chimes in another. Suddenly Bill is much more intriguing, a local celebrity because of his connection with people who have become national celebrities for the worst possible reasons.
As the season progresses, Bill becomes even more inclined to regale others with tales from his adventures with serial killers, whether it’s his co-workers from other departments at the FBI or the social worker keeping tabs on his family situation after Bill’s son Brian (Zachary Scott Ross) witnesses the accidental killing of a toddler. (Pro tip: Maybe don’t tell a social worker that you investigate serial killers if she’s wondering whether you might be raising an actual serial killer.) Without fail, whenever anyone learns what Bill does, they lean forward and start asking questions, curious to know more. Then Bill, who’s given an appropriately hard shell and soft center by McCallany’s excellent performance, sits up a little straighter and starts winding up more anecdotes, clearly getting off on the attention. The murderers may be the ones who garner sick pleasure from the fame that comes from ending lives, but Mindhunter shows us that, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, an entire celebrity complex is beginning to build around serial killing.
It also shows us how hard it is for the investigators to investigate their own lives. Bill knows how to question difficult subjects about sensitive matters and get the truth out of them. In a standout scene in the second episode, when Bill does a follow-up interview with Kevin Bright (Andrew Yackel), the brother of a BTK victim, he also shows he can be fatherly and gentle when he needs to be. Yet he can’t do any of that with his own son. When Bill finally has an opportunity to engage with an increasingly shut-off Brian and ask him what happened the day that toddler died, all he does is frame the conversation from his own point of view. “I need to know that you’re okay, or whatever it is — I just need to know,” he tells the boy. “Because this scares the shit out of me, Brian, and I don’t want to be afraid.” Bill never even poses a question, terrified that he won’t like the answer he gets back.
Wendy, who brings a blast of smart but chilly air into every room she enters, is also afraid, but she fears being marginalized at work, in society as a closeted lesbian, and in a romantic relationship she enters with Kay (Lauren Glazier), a bartender who divorced her husband after coming out. Given how often women have been shoved out of the frame in traditional TV crime dramas, it’s almost meta for Mindhunter to frame her character in this way. When Wendy gets sidelined toward the end of the season, barely making an appearance in the finale, it’s unclear whether that qualifies as an even more meta-commentary on the genre, an act of necessity so the Atlanta plot can be wrapped up, or a colossal error on the writers’ part. Maybe it’s a combination of all three.
Bill, Wendy, and Holden all end the season feeling empty. Mindhunter makes the case that that’s largely because they can’t get out of the way of their own egos and engage in the kind of self-examination they expect of the imprisoned men they study. Also, watch closely and you’ll notice that all three of them have gotten played: Ted Gunn, the boss who’s supposedly so committed to the future and mission of the Behavioral Science Unit, is doing to them what they regularly do to get what they need from murderers like David Berkowitz or Ed Kemper.
Gunn strokes their egos. He says the things they want to hear. And when they claim a pseudo-victory in the Atlanta case, he gets to bask in the reflected light that comes from overseeing the team gaining insight into some of the darkest things that have been done in modern history. He also gets to fly with Bill and Holden on a private plane, a gift from the Bureau to thank them for “solving” the most high-profile case in the country.
“It’s nice being recognized,” says Holden when he sees the aircraft, though he doesn’t look too sure.
A couple of minutes later, Mindhunter gives us one last glimpse of the man who has yet to be identified as the BTK killer as he prepares to engage in an act of autoerotic asphyxiation. He’s got photos of his victims spread out on a hotel bed. Next to the photos are newspaper clippings that report on each of their deaths, because nothing excites him more than remembering what he did and knowing that he’s been recognized for it.