BOXSET REVIEW: Mindhunter (S2)

The BSU boys are back in town.


What’s the story?

Joe Penhall’s Mindhunter debuted on Netflix way back in 2017 and was widely regarded as the crime drama of the year, acclaimed by critics and viewers alike – including ourselves.

The show loosely followed the true-life conception of the FBI’s Behavioural Science Unit in the late 1970s, during a dark time in America when the proliferation of “blitz” killers – serial killers to give them their modern parlance – seemed to be on the rise. A fledgling group of three misfits – naive but gifted Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), tough brick agent Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) and aloof but perceptive Dr Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) – came together to better understand the psychology of why people kill, in a bid to then predict when or where others might kill in the future.

The initial series utilised Penhall’s previous experience as a playwright to mesmerising effect, setting scenes in a theatrical way – often with just two people engaged in a deep dialogue for prolonged periods of time. It was out of these dialogues that some of the show’s most incredible moments occurred, not least in the macabre exchanges between Ford and the ‘Co-Ed Killer’ Ed Kemper (a star turn by Cameron Britton). Directed with a definite nod back to his work on Zodiac, executive producer David Fincher rendered the show in a sickly glaze of dull colours and menacing mundanity, the minutiae of the decade reanimated with a big dollop of dread on top.

But the show wasn’t just about killers and their practices; it also shone a light on the central characters’ ability to stem the tide of darkness in their day jobs away from their personal lives – not with much success. At the end of the debut season, the unit was under threat of being shut down pending an internal investigation, Tench and Carr were at loggerheads over a leaked tape and Ford was institutionalized after an ill-advised personal meeting with his ‘friend’ Kemper – all while somewhere in Kansas we witnessed a man stalk a family, later to become notorious as the BTK Killer.

What’s good about it?

Any doubts that the show would not be able to match the intensity of its inaugural season are swiftly answered when the initial scene plays out like a horror movie set to the narcotic haze of Roxy Music’s In Every Dream Home a Heartache. If anything, this season feels like its doubling down on the sheer animal terror these killers invoke in us – and Fincher absolutely goes for it, enriching every environment with some invisible oppression weighing it down, making the viewer feel tense at times when there is no real right to be. It’s a show full of bold stylistic choices and only serves to make Mindhunter stand apart from its contemporaries.

The show is also bigger this time. Not in terms of episodes – although the running time for each clock in normally above an hour – but it feels more expansive in its narrative scope second time around. This is partly down to the arrival of new character Ted Gunn (Michael Cerveris), Shepard’s successor as overseer of the Behavioral Science Unit. Gunn is an unrepentant careerist and sees the BSU as his ticket to re-moulding the FBI in his image, and it’s within this fervour for new methodology that he looks to this unlikely trio to use their techniques to actually start catching criminals rather than just interviewing them.

Suddenly, the unit is engaged on active cases for the first time, and thus the season sort of splits into two halves – one in which Ford and Tench pursue a prolific child killer in Atlanta, and the other where the daily work of interviewing convicts continues. Beyond this, the personal issues of primarily Tench and Carr play out in parallel with their daily work, as they both become embroiled in individual dramas. Now the golden boy of the bureau, Ford has less to do in terms of convincing others of his theories this season  – other than to repeatedly put his foot in it with local politicians and families as he navigates cases with his usual myopic candour.

What’s bad about it?

Part of the magic of Mindhunter in its debut season was that most of the killers interviewed were either widely unknown or creative composites, so our expectations weren’t set in stone. Between the initial airing and its second season, however, there has been an explosion of content around serial killers – podcasts, documentaries, films – and as such there is a little less mystery to be had when witnessing these new interviews.

This is especially apparent in the season’s dual “stunt cast” appearances of Son of Sam killer David Berkowitz (Oliver Cooper under what looks like a ton of make-up) and Charles Manson (played for the second time this year by Damon Herriman). Neither interview really has much to add to the plot other than to allow each actor to showboat, offering a caricature of what we have already consumed through popular culture about both killers. It’s telling that while these two names might grab the headlines for the show, the really terrifying performances come from a very slight scene with Ed Kemper (Britton is again flawless here) and the real Manson Murderer, Tex Watson (impressively played by Christopher Backus).

There has also been a clear shift to populate the backstories of our lead characters more this season, with mixed results. Tench’s dilemma over the level of involvement his adopted son has in the murder of a local child feels a little forced, despite the storyline being sympathetically handled. Likewise, Carr exploring her sexuality whilst also trying to keep her work and personal life compartmentalised is initially intriguing – and Anna Torv continues to be the best actor in the show by a mile – before fizzling out as the Atlanta case takes centre stage and she becomes largely absent for the closing run. There’s a feeling of the show trying to reach for too many narrative strands at once here and not landing them all, a fine line to walk when a majority of your key players are real people or analogues therein.

Why it’s worth a binge…

Small gripes aside, Mindhunter continues to be light years ahead of most other crime drama shows. There’s a unique aesthetic to it that draws you in and while its arguable not much actually happens in the show – all of it is absolutely enthralling.

We’re well over halfway through 2019 now and this is looking like a number one contender once again.

Andy D

Mindhunter is on Netflix now


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