SIDE-NOTE: This is a spoiler-free review of the first season of Netflix’s Mindhunter
Throughout the history of cinema and television, audiences have had an obsession with serial killers and true crime dramas with films like Silence of The Lambs (1991) and Criminal Minds (2005-present). Thankfully, Netflix’s Mindhunter provides us with both. The series is based on the book of the same name by John E. Douglas, a former special agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation who is regarded as the first true criminal profiler and modernized the method of profiling in law enforcement. Douglas traveled the country interviewing infamous serial killers like Dennis Rader, Ted Bundy, and John Wayne Gacy to get an insight into how these people thought and do the heinous things that they were known for.
Set in the 1970’s, it follows Douglas’ personal accounts of traveling through the country interviewing serial killers through the usage of fictional Special Agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and his mentor, Special Agent Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) who is also fictional. The FBI is struggling in the aftermath of the passing of J. Edgar Hoover who kept the organization operating like a well-oiled machine since it’s inception, they’re still largely hiring lawyers and accounts, and there’s an escalating phenomenon of random murders being perpetrated across the country on men, women, and children. They are looking to crack the code and coin the term, serial killer.
The show itself is directed and produced by award-winning director David Fincher (The Social Network, Netflix’s House of Cards) and award-winning actress Charlize Theron (Atomic Blonde, Mad Max: Fury Road) shows that Holden, despite being a reserved character, wants to take a dive into the bigger picture, in his professional and personal life where he begins a relationship with youthful sociology student Debbie (Hannah Gross). This makes him an eager force as well but it doesn’t necessarily sit well with the stiffer “G-Men” types that he has for colleagues and it’s how he finds himself aligned with Special Agent Bill Tench of the recently established Behavior Science Unit. With Debbie, Holden finds himself attracted to criticizing the status quo and buck the system as much as he can, while with Bill, Holden is treading lightly into an unfamiliar territory of the FBI which is in dire need of expertise and insight. We begin to see that there are two different sides to Holden and he’s not just a simple character, reserved or otherwise. There’s depth to him.
One of the things that was clearly acknowledged during the production of this series was that you have to reasonably take Douglas’ book as something beyond the norm and adapt it into an ongoing series. That can make for a really uneasy road and to an extent, it shows in the first few episodes. It’s a series in which the showrunners are doing more than just providing the audience with potential entertainment. They are having a deep, thought-provoking, and enthralling conversation into sociology and criminology with us. However, if that is not something that compels or interests the viewer then it will pose to be a rather arduous chore to get through. Now if it is your cup of tea, it’s absolutely enjoyable and interesting. Mindhunter is the one series that actually takes it’s time and goes into greater detail with the language used in law enforcement that is referred to as serial killer profiling. It handles the laborious process behind transforming the gore and chaos of a crime scene into something more tangible and digestible with teachable terms and language. It is all rooted in real life and does it in it’s own way to a much greater affect than we’ve ever seen in Criminal Minds or any of the CSI shows. This isn’t a show with a lot of noise surrounding it but it still gives you that eerie feeling just in time for Halloween.
Holden Ford and Bill Tench alongside psychologist Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), are most likely interpretations of real life people, with diverse and complex background stories that add to the necessary and expected TV drama but the killers that are featured throughout the series are opposite from that. Cameron Britton provides a chilling performance as co-ed killer, Ed Kemper, the first of Ford’s interviews. This whole interview began in Episode 2, after Ford and Tench come to the realization that they are ill-equipped and ill-prepared to help local authorities solve cases involving acts of random murders. With this, the young and eager agent has the epiphany to tap into a resource that nobody else has considered. He decides to start tapping into the psyche of incarcerated lunatics. Sifting through the minds of psychopaths in jail, in non-death penalty states, and making productive use of their lunacy seems like a productive solution. It’s a radical notion that provides plenty of ramifications for everyone involved that sets the ball rolling.
Jonathan Groff’s portrayal of Holden throughout his first story arc is an intriguing one but it’s not quite the best. It’s not until the later half of the season that his strengths are realized and he starts to shine on his own. We begin to see him as this young, reserved yet eager rookie trying to get out and provide help where it’s in dire need who later develops into someone who is arrogant and isolates himself when he becomes overly-eager to devise new techniques to solve crimes. You start to see this clear-cut, dark and, twisted parallel between Holden and the serial killers he’s been interviewing throughout the season. He feels this thrill in manipulating and holding power over a suspect just as much as a killer would have that thrilling sensation when they assume control over their victims. There’s a macabre and morose aspect to this kind of work that Ford is exceedingly comfortable with while Tench, the man with a family, does require some understandable psychological protections.
Certain elements featured within these formative years (season one presumably is set from 1977 to 1979) can provide for a solid television production. Each killer that we are introduced to from Richard Speck (Jack Erdie) to Jerry Brudos (Happy Anderson) provide different conflicts and catalysts for our protagonists as the plot thickens. To add to the intrigue of the series, the show isn’t just based around these pivotal interviews. There are separate crimes and cases that lead Tench and Ford towards helping towns find all kinds of lunatics and deviants and some of these stories span into multiple episodes. Serving in the background, this show provides the audience with clear hints to the stories and years that this series wants the tackle going forward. One of the largest indicators is the occasional scenes featuring Dennis “BTK” Rader (Sonny Valicenti). If you have any knowledge on your serial killers, then you’ll be able to spot him pretty fast. If you are completely out of the loop on these kind of things, then just be aware that those brief moments throughout the first season are clearly alluding to a darker storm on the horizon.
FINAL RATING: 9/10