Netflix's Mindhunter season 2 examines the costs of trying to understand humanity's heart of darkness.
The following contains spoilers for Mindhunter season 2.
There are a handful of moments scattered throughout Netflix’s excellent Mindhunter season 2, in which lead characters Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), and Dr. Wendy Carr are asked the most common question in the American lexicon: what do you do for a living?
The question comes at a cookout, in a bar, and in a social worker’s office. Each time the question is asked, Holden, Bill, or Wendy begin with the technical jargon. They work for at the Bureau, in the psychology department, working on “special projects.” The questioner always invariably takes in the word salad, sifts through it to find the relevant bit of salacious information they’re looking for, and presses on.
“What kind of criminals?” Bill and Nancy’ Tench’s banker friend Rod demands to know and then sinks into a lawn chair at the cookout like he’s ready for his matinee to start.
Bill tells him what he wants to hear, that he talks to serial killers for a living.
“Who do you talk to? Give us one example!” Rod’s contractor friend Dale demands.
“Do they tell you why they do it?” Rod asks.
For half a minute, Bill has these two strangers enthralled. His job is to plumb the darkest depths of the human soul. He eats pizza and shoots the shit with monsters and comes back to the real world to share his findings. He’s a celebrity…a true crime celebrity.
We’ve always been fascinated with violent crime. Remember that in the Biblical tradition, the third ever human being murdered the fourth ever human being. It’s just that sometimes we decide to notice our own fascination more than others. Now is one of those violent crime boom times, in which we are all painfully aware of how closely these stories hold us in their thrall.
Mindhunter first premiered right in the middle of the latest imagined true crime renaissance … “true crime” being the latest euphemism we’ve adopted to keep our morbid fascination with killers and their dead at an arm’s length away. It premiered in October of 2017, just two years after Netflix’s true crime streaming classic Making a Murderer and three years after the podcast sensation Serial season 1.
Now with the long-awaited premiere of Mindhunter season 2 here, the public’s fascination with true crime and the stories of the victimized and victimizers is in full swing. Netflix has kept up its wave of true crime series and documentaries. HBO’s documentaries are slowly making their way through every crime ever committed. Even normally docu-phobic FX recently threw in the towel and decided to begin developing a handful of true crime documentaries. Ted Bundy has been dead for 20 years and there were no fewer than three TV shows about him in 2019 alone, not to mention the Zac Efron-starring film thrown in there for good measure.
Mindhunter season 2 is in many ways about our own inescapable fascination with serial killers and their like. More importantly, it’s about the cost of those fascinations.
Just like in Mindhunter season 1, pretty much everyone comes out of Mindhunter season 2 worse for wear. Poor Holden ended season 1 by suffering a massive panic attack triggered by being hugged by 6’9 “Co-ed Killer” Edmund Kemper. Holden begins the season in the hospital bed; recovering what he is sure was a heart attack. Nope! Just a classic “being hugged a serial killer response.”
The specter of another panic attack at an inopportune time lingers over the entirety of the season. But in reality, Holden only experiences one more at the first episode’s conclusion. Interestingly, Holden’s attack comes, not from an encounter with another one of season 2’s many new serial killers like Charles Manson, David Berkowitz, or William Henry Hance, but at the end of a swanky retirement party for outgoing FBI chief Shepard. Holden discovers that this wasn’t a retirement party after all, but more of a “sorry you’re fired party.” Shepard dared to go up against the Bureau’s serial killer whisperer in Holden and paid dearly for his lack of appreciation for the public’s appetite for this brand of darkness
In Shepard’s place steps in a true serial killer fanboy in new FBI assistant director Ted Gunn. Holden is Ted Gunn’s golden child. Gunn overlooks the stated purpose of the Behavioral Science Unit, which is to use carefully calibrated scientific methods to understand killers, and instead sees Holden as a preternatural talent with impeccable gut instincts. He charges Bill and Wendy with keeping a close eye on the FBI’s precious prize horse. Naturally, Bill and Wendy end up dealing with their own problems all season and unleash Holden onto the world to follow his gut, for better or worse.
At first, it may not seem as though Holden’s story has a sad end. His multi-long episode effort to find the perpetrator of the Atlanta child murders does lead to the arrest of Wayne Bertram Williams. But his victory is a hollow one. The black community in Atlanta is as fractured and devastated as ever. Their belief that the FBI will abandon them as soon as possible is almost immediately confirmed when the FBI does exactly that and neglects to find the evidence to charge Williams for 26 of the 28 murders committed. Holden returns to his dingy, lonely home and receives the news just like everyone else: on a TV screen.
Meanwhile, Wendy’s personal life crumbles due to the nature of her job as well. As the academic of the main trio, Wendy is best at compartmentalizing what they do and sees the killers they interview as a scholastic project. Still, even with that level of compartmentalization, existing at Quantico and in the high stakes, testosterone-saturated world of the Bureau’s behavioral science team means sacrificing part of her identity.
When Wendy’s bartender crush, Kay, asks her if she’s looking for a tour guide or a date she takes a moment before smiling and responding “a date.” Their affair is brief but passionate from nights out bowling, to nights in answering questions from a trashy magazine quiz. But in the end, when it comes time to commit, Wendy isn’t able to fully pull the trigger.
Wendy and Kay’s relationship ends in tatters after Wendy sees that Kay behaves differently in front of her ex husband and kids, something apparently that a behavioral science experts who talks to secretive serial killers wasn’t able to anticipate.
“You want honesty? You’re not who you think you are. You’re not free. You’re not someone who lives their life to a higher standard. You’re a bartender, who takes relationship advice from magazines. I hope things work out for you,” Wendy says, as though she could be talking to a mirror.
No one, however, comes out of Mindhunter season 2 worse than the Tench family. The nightmare begins when a local police officer stops by to let Nancy know that a dead body was found at one of her rental properties.
“I didn’t think that happened around here,” Nancy says.
“It happens everywhere, Nancy.” Bill says.
Things only get worse when police discover that the Tench’s son, Brian, actually let the murderers inside the rental property. They were a group of older boys who had killed an infant. Brian placed the child’s body on a cross on the ground, hoping it would revive him. The judge presiding over the case opts against any criminal proceedings for Brian but does require him to see a social worker and for the Tench family to meet weekly with the state.
Brian becomes increasingly withdrawn from the experience, barely talking and routinely wetting his bed. Bill has to fly back and forth to Atlanta to deal with the child murders case while his life falls down all around him back at home. When he returns to that home in the final episode, Nancy and Brian have left, leaving Bill with nothing but a bed.
It’s unfair to draw the conclusion that Brian acted the way he did because of what his father does for a living. At one point, the state-assigned caseworker appears the broach the subject before merely giving in to his own desire to hear about all the serial killers Bill has met. Brian appears to have been the victim of some bad luck more than an unusual upbringing or predilection towards violence. Still, his situation is a cosmic reminder from the universe to Bill that there are human beings behind every tragedy.
There’s a fascinating dichotomy at play in Mindhunter, that first presented in season 1 and is more evident in season 2. This is a show with its heart in the right place and a proper respect for the human wreckage necessary to bring us all the true crime stories we love so much. Still, the art direction of the show as led by David Fincher and continued by new directors Andrew Dominik and Carl Franklin is so well crafted and appealing that it’s hard to take a moment to take in the humanity of it all.
This remains a thoroughly Fincher production. The lights are perpetually dimmed but the action is still legible. Characters talk fast and confidently as the camera ping pongs between them. Every scene is lovingly crafted under the care of filmmakers with eyes for perpetual kinetic motion, even when little is happening. The final effect makes nearly every moment of Mindhunter season 2 fascinating, even when it should be horrifying.
There’s an old hacky joke about airplane crashes that goes: “if the black box is the only thing that survives a plane crash, why don’t they just make the whole plane out of the black box.” Mindhunter season 1 was like a remixed version of the joke. If ten minutes of Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter screentime get Anthony Hopkins an Oscar, why don’t they just make a whole show out of only those interactions? Mindhunter season 2 does well to break itself away from that formula a bit. This is a year about putting theory into practice and as such there are fewer serial killer interviews and more work in the field.
Still, the damage from delving into all those dark minds has already been done for these characters, and likely for the audience as well. Mindhunter season 2 knows that we all want to get to know the monsters, think what they think, and come back out the other side enlightened, but fundamentally unchanged. Mindhunter season 2 also knows that it doesn’t work like that. Going into the heart of darkness costs us something. Just as all knowledge does.
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