Based on Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Crime Unit by John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker, Netflix’s Mindhunter offers a fictionalized portrait of the birth of criminal psychology and profiling. The year is 1977, the term “serial killer” hasn’t been coined yet, and the word “stressor” must be explained to a district attorney. Serial killer and self-help mythology are so prevalent in contemporary pop culture that it’s shocking to ponder the relative newness of America’s discourse on deviancy and criminal behavior, which illustrates the malleability of what we take for granted as reality. The F.B.I. of Mindhunter still lives in the shadow of J. Edgar Hoover’s puritanism, investigating murders while dressing like accountants and evincing squeamishness over uttering profanity. In one of the season’s funniest and most telling scenes, the dirtiness of the word “fellatio” is debated. One wonders how these schoolboys could possibly stand a chance against Charles Manson and Ted Bundy.
Co-executive producer David Fincher directed the first and last two episodes of the season, and Mindhunter offers prolonged riffs on the filmmaker’s aesthetic. Domestic chambers are often cavernous, lit in aquatic greens and ambers that are rife with shadows, suggesting that danger looms even within the sanctity of the home. Offices are bright and disheveled, lit in sterile shades of gray, connoting the numbing banality of bureaucracy, which is navigated by obsessive crusaders who attempt to unify countless signifiers into a passing semblance of truth. The dialogue is often functional, less important than the musical cadences of its delivery. The flatness of everyone’s speech, which subtly grows more varied in emotional tempo across the season, complements the set design to suggest an unmooring confusion of professional and personal life. Characters specify their sexual preferences in the same self-defensively detached, intellectually combative manner that they might utilize for discussing, say, Émile Durkheim’s labeling theory.
Fincher’s intoxicating formalism, which Asif Kapadia, Tobias Lindholm, and Andrew Douglas imitate across the spectrum of the show with proficient if impersonal finesse, is more than style for its own sake. The flatness of certain vocal utterances inform words with totemic power, illustrating that words are reality. Words, or a fear of them, is partially how Hoover erected and enforced his regime. Words are how we construct an understanding of criminals—and how we color such understanding with our own biases. And words are ultimately an extension of the role play that defines our lives. For most of the season, the F.B.I.’s blossoming Behavioral Science Unit refers to serial killers as “sequence killers”—a sci-fi-esque term that the protagonists discard for its failure to convey the epic undertaking of ritualized murder.
Familiar role play also informs the personalities of Mindhunter’s heroes, who initially suggest a stereotypical odd couple of law enforcement, only to mutate into distinctive and ambiguous portraitures of professionals who become lost in a chasm existing between law and order and id and longing. Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) is a veteran at the F.B.I., an old-school man’s man who loves golf, steak, and a stiff drink, and who hates discussing his feelings with his wife, Nancy (Stacey Rocca), particularly when their adopted mute son, Brian (Zachary Scott Ross), is the topic. We’re primed to assume that Tench is a dinosaur, a relic of the Greatest Generation who will be usurped by his partner, Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff). Ford’s a naïve and open-minded teacher and hostage negotiator who initiates criminal profiling on a whim when he insists on interviewing a real-life serial killer, Edmund Kimper (Cameron Britton), under the nose of his and Tench’s unit superior, Shepard (Cotter Smith). But Tench and Ford, like the heroes of Fincher’s Zodiac, are shown to handle atrocity in fashions that hauntingly refute cliché.
Tench and Ford’s interviews with iconic killers, among them Jerry Brudos (Happy Anderson) and Richard Speck (Jack Erdie), are rendered as theatrical duets in which Ford pushes Tench out of the spotlight. In their obsession with the reverberating results of each spoken word, particularly in terms of gleaning information, these scenes recall the finest moments of Zodiac, involving that film’s potentially unmasked villain, Arthur Leigh Allen. In its dramatization of the emotional effects these duets have on the heroes, Mindhunter recalls Fincher’s The Social Network, as each production tracks the birth of an organization that would come to profoundly influence global discourse, each with aftereffects that have yet to be tabulated.
Mindhunter’s fealty to a Fincher house style can be distracting. Ford’s girlfriend, Debbie (Hannah Gross), a grad psych student at U.V.A., mostly exists to elucidate society’s contrivances and their exacerbation of the dysfunctions of those who can’t play by the rules of the game. Debbie’s reminiscent of Rooney Mara’s character in The Social Network, and she also comes to serve the purpose of highlighting the hero’s callousness. Ford’s escalating egotism, a state that offers a disturbing contrast from his initially eager and empathetic curiosity, is illustrated by his increasingly self-absorbed duets with Debbie. Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), a psychologist from Boston University who regiments protocol for criminal profiling, is used as a similar kind of foil for Ford, and she’s a dead ringer for Carrie Coon, who appeared in Gone Girl.
Yet Mindhunter is addictive and resonant for its mining of two evocative forms of social contrast. The terrific cast informs Fincher and creator Joe Penhall’s sociological schematic with a human element that’s unusual for a crime procedural, and the series has a piercing sense of how macro influences micro culture. Tench grows to be the show’s conscience, which allows Mindhunter to critique the racism and classism of the F.B.I. without glibly ridiculing the organization (the castes of the intellectual elite are also shown, via Boston University, to have their own hypocrisies). McCallany dramatizes the pain of sensing that one’s understanding of a way of life is possibly on its way out, revealing Tench to be the true empath of the partnership, a wounded soul hiding underneath the exterior of a straight-arrow badass.
Sequences explore the loneliness of peering behind the curtain of culture, such as Debbie’s failed sexual role play with Ford, which pivots on high heels that remind him of Brudos’s fetish for women’s shoes. Obsessed with reality, Ford can’t engage with Debbie because he’s growing aware of the contrivances necessary to maintaining a relationship, seeing where the behavioral dots connect. It’s this realization that unites Ford with the killers he seeks to understand, whom he grows to appreciate as he assumes their resentments, finding these qualities to fit him like a good pair of, well, shoes.
In one of Mindhunter’s most powerful scenes, Ford visits Kimper at a hospital, regarding the killer as something like a friend, their unity forged from a mutual estrangement from the soothing banalities of mainstream life. Underneath Ford’s eager beaver is a brilliant and very troubled shark. Ford reaches a point where nothing’s real and everyone’s suspect, and his pursuits for justice eventually suggest an alternate form of Hoover’s fascism. Knowledge is transcendent, but it’s also a siren song for our neuroses.