NB: Spoilers inside
You’d have thought that after the likes of Se7en and Zodiac that Hollywood director David Fincher would’ve exhausted all he needed to say about serial killers, but not so. Mindhunter, a 10-part series available on Netflix and based on the memoirs of ex-FBI agent John Douglas (called Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit), sees Fincher team with writer and playwright Joe Penhall to go back to the mid-1970s when serial killers were all the rage in America and the FBI’s understanding of them was just beginning to form. As ever with Netflix series, you’re never sure what form these series will take – was Mindhunter to be a procedural? If not, was it going to be simply a study of psychopathy and explore the nurture versus nature argument? It was both of these things and more, and certainly one of the best and most accomplished crime dramas of the year.
It’s a long time since I’ve binged a Netflix series from start to finish in one day, but recovering from the flu I decided to check Mindhunter out. Twelve hours later I was finished with it, which speaks volumes for its compelling nature, its intensity and curious addictiveness. I say curious because Mindhunter – certainly for the first seven episodes – presented me with a crime drama that was quite unusual in its construction but no less engaging and interesting. And, like all the best Netflix shows, before you know a whole day has been spent in front of the laptop. It wasn’t a procedural per se (although it provided plenty of procedural elements) and neither was it a whodunit. It was a careful, considered and cerebral journey undertaken by two men – with the later addition of one woman – who were trying to understand the minds of serial killers (hence the Mindhunter title) by interviewing some (in)famous ones and trying to figure out how they could roll out the results of their nascent study throughout the law enforcement community.
America, of course, was in the grip of serial killer fever in 1977, although that’s not what they were called back then (they were called ‘thrill killers’). They killed with alarming regularity, terrorised communities and became the ultimate bogie men – they were almost creatures of mythical natures, and their often sexually-motivated crimes chewed up newspaper column inches and instilled in the public that odd mixture of grim curiosity and pure fear. When they were caught and they were quickly branded as evil and subhuman, while the wider public rejoiced when they were thrown in jail or fried in the electric chair. No effort was made to understand them, or to chart or analyse their behaviour.
Taking us on our journey into the mind of psychopathy was idealistic, straight-laced FBI instructor, Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), who had already made a name for himself during a tense hostage situation in the opening scene of the series. The outcome encapsulated the FBI’s approach to such cases – even though the perpetrator blew his head off, this was counted as a win: no one was harmed and the hostage taker got the justice he deserved. Ford, on the other hand, was frustrated that he wasn’t able to find out why the hostage taker did what he did, and wanted to know how his personal life influenced his actions.
Initially, his pleas fell on deaf ears until fellow instructor Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) approached him in the canteen at Quantico and expressed admiration for his work. He invited Ford to come with him on his road courses – sessions with local law enforcement officers all over the country that tried to school coppers into a more reasoned approach when it came to understanding criminals.
As they crisscrossed the country, their differing styles and personalities sometimes clashed – Ford was a crisp, suit-wearing throwback to an old-school FBI man from back in the days of Hoover. He was also a man who burned with ambition, idealism and an absolute and unshakeable conviction that a new way to investigate murderers was untapped and he was the man to blow the lid off. Tench, however, was gruff, smoked non-stop and someone you got a sense had been around the block a bit. He was content to stick to his remit, live a relatively quiet life and play golf when he could.
Up until this point, Mindhunter was a slow-moving, considered drama, often feeling like a docu-drama. But it was during one of their teaching sessions that things began to shape the rest of the series – a veteran policeman from a teaching session (who worked LA when the Manson murders hit) approached them with a case that was perplexing him. A murderer had struck gruesomely, and he asked Ford and Tench for their thoughts on the case. Their minds whirred with possibilities and Ford, in particular, began to spout all kinds of theories that were wildly extrapolated from the details in crime-scene photographs and from victim’s life herself. He realised that they were just hypothesis, and stopped himself. He was thrown out by the old-school cop.
In episode two, Ford saw an opportunity to further he and Tench’s research by gaining entrance to a California prison to interview mass murderer Ed Kemper – the ‘Co-Ed Killer’. Even though it was outside of their remit, Ford could not resist. Tench, on the other hand, did not want to accompany him. The interview sessions with Kemper (Cameron Britton) were brilliantly staged, and Penhall’s background in theatre was evident during these scenes – they were long scenes (not quite Line Of Duty length) but they felt intimate, play-like and ebbed and flowed slowly, fascinatingly and naturally. And menacingly. Unlike say, a Silence Of The Lambs, where the serial killer was presented as a lip-sucking psycho, almost cartoonishly so, Kemper was friendly, intelligent and chillingly matter-of-fact about his heinous crimes. In many ways, Kemper’s calmness made him scarier, more grotesque and when he initiated unsolicited physical contact with Ford, we felt his terror, too – even the most mundane physical touch felt loaded with meaning and intent. As Ford tried to get under his skin a strange kind of friendship developed, perhaps even a respect between the two men.
Once Unit Chief Shepard (Cotter Smith) found out about Ford and Tench’s extracurricular activities he went nuts, but heard their pleas and explanations and eventually allowed them to continue their work in the basement on weekends only. Suddenly this area of behavioural science began to matter and their project had the backing and a place from which to work from. Ford and Tench began to interview more killers while on the road. Their work was beginning to take shape and blossom as they realised that all the killers had complicated, often difficult upbringings thanks to aggressive, spiteful parents. Their encounter with Jerry Brudos – a hulking, great man with a foot fetish who masturbated in the corner of their interview cell when Ford and Tench presented him with a new pair of ladies’ shoes as a carrot for him to talk – was grimly fascinating and scary (Brudos was a guffawing beast, liable to switch moods at the drop of a hat) and utterly compelling. Brudos was in no mood to talk, so his words were laden with subterfuge and obfuscation, often baiting Ford and Tench. In order to extract the required information from him, Ford used his own deception techniques, some coercion and played as many psychological games as the person he was interviewing.
Also on their travels, local law enforcement approached them with more cases that they needed help with; most notably in Pennsylvania (and later Georgia), where Ford and Tench became directly involved in murder cases. These side stories provided a welcome procedural element to proceedings, which gave the series drive and edge. They were short stories – staged over an episode or two – but they served a purpose: with each case solved, Ford’s ego began to inflate. These procedural elements to the overall story served to develop character, as well.
Thrown into the mix from episode three was behavioural scientist Dr Wendy Carr (Anna Torv, who starred in Fringe, another series about a secret branch of the FBI) who expressed admiration for Ford and Tench’s work and was soon brought on board to provide an analytical, academic structure to their case studies. Carr was adamant that Ford and Tench had to amass evidence using structured, scientific means so that she could cross reference and find patterns in each killer’s responses. Ford and Tench soon realised that this hyper-objective, scientific approach did not work when confronted with a killer not intent on spilling his guts to straight, emotionless questioning. This caused conflict between the three.
Episode seven, in particular, was a masterpiece of drama. We had been introduced to Ford and Tench’s personal lives in previous episodes. Ford had met Debbie (Hanna Gross), a sociology student, in a bar, hitting it off while discussing French sociologist David Emile Durkheim. She was a free-spirited, hyper-intelligent student who shared his love of analysis; he was a straight-laced, suit-wearing FBI man. They shouldn’t have worked, but they did. We saw a bit of their sex life, too, and Ford seemed to have a predilection for administering oral sex (I’ll tell you why I mention this in a second). Tench, meanwhile, was in a tricky marriage – he and his wife Nancy (Stacey Roca) had adopted a young boy, who had remained silent during the years he had been with them. Perhaps he had Asperger’s or autism, but in 1977 these diagnoses were few and far between. They were frustrated parents, taking out their exasperations on each other. What was interesting was that the tell-tale signs of psychopathy – fetishes, a lack of empathy, parent issues – were being displayed by both Ford and Tench. Which, I think, was what Mindhunter was ultimately trying to get to grips with: at what point does a harmless sexual predilection in a relationship or a distant relationship with a silent child either develop into psychopathy or aid psychopathy? What makes one person exhibit some of the key traits of psychopathy and not act on them, and another act on these impulses and become a serial killer?
There were interesting scenes with Dr Carr in episode seven, as well. She had moved away from her stuffy, judgemental world of academia in Boston to Quantico to work full time on the project, and she was becoming increasingly exasperated at Ford’s reckless arrogance and egotistical approach to his work. And yet… one night she went down to her apartment block’s basement to wash some clothes. From an open window she heard the faint meow of a cat, so she went upstairs and put an almost-empty can of tuna on the sill to tempt the kitty in from the dark. She repeated this the next two nights. Wasn’t this the kind of thing Ford was doing with his interviewees? The kind of thing she so objected to?
Each of our main characters was mirroring, to some extent, the traits and actions they so despised and feared in their subjects.
So Mindhunter was clever, engaging and incredibly thought-provoking. It was also quietly brave and fearless in confronting subjects (especially masculinity) so many dramas fail to address adequately. It sought to ask questions rather than provide answers.
Ford fell apart (almost literally) at the end – his relationship with Debbie had ended, in no small part to his now rampant, flaming ego, and a final confrontation with Kemper in hospital ended disastrously. And because of his breakdown, the whole project was in danger of collapsing, which set things up nicely for the already commissioned second series.
This first series of Mindhunter, however, provided that rare thing on television – an almost cinematic experience, and an intelligent, adult debate on intense, difficult subjects. It also showed a group of multi-faceted, flawed characters having to deal with staring into the abyss and coming face to face with the darkest elements of human nature, often recognising them in themselves.