Mindhunter, created by the great and powerful David Fincher, is a Netflix produced crime series set in the late 1970s. Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) is a young and ambitious instructor at the FBI in Quantico seeking to better understand the behavior of serial murderers and rapists so that their actions could be predicted beforehand. He links up with Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) – a seasoned agent at the behavioral science unit of the bureau, and Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) – a professor of psychology. The trio launch a study, which involves interviewing serial killers and developing standardized profiles on their behavior that can be distributed to help to local law enforcement.
Currently this show has produced 19 episodes (2 seasons) with a third season supposedly on the way. Each episode is between 45 – 60 minutes long and has content fitted to the R rating. Mindhunter is raw and unapologetic. It treats its viewers to gruesome crime scenes and disturbing dialogue from serial killers describing how they tortured and killed their victims. Warning – this show is definitely not for the faint hearted.
In terms of its production value, Mindhunter looks and feels like its set in the 70s. From the vintage automobiles, to the packs of Marlboro cigarettes being smoked by literally every character, to the use of typewriters to transcribe tapes, every set piece felt authentic to the time period. A faint yellow-creamish filter was also applied to every scene, which I felt added to the rustic feel of the show. The score, composed by Jason Hill, was muted and subterranean. It never overwhelmed a scene, rather it was complementary to the characters and storyline.
The characters in this show (with the exclusion of the serial killers) all seemed pretty normal, largely because of the fact that they were based off of real people. I wasn’t particularly impressed with any of the performances because they seemed scripted with almost no improvisation. This doesn’t mean that none of the characters were interesting. I was intrigued and conflicted with the character of Holden Ford (played by Jonathan Groff). On one hand, I found this character to be mildly irritating because he was perceived as the main “protagonist” yet he was such a pasty and reckless egomaniac whose hubris often got the better of him. On the other hand, I could see this being a deliberate character choice to make him an imperfect hero.
The other two leads (Bill Tench & Dr. Wendy Carr) were more grounded in nature but this did not deviate from the fact that they had interesting personal arks. Tench for example, was facing troubles at home connecting with his adopted son. There was a nice balance between what these characters did and how they behaved when they were on the job to when they were at home. These two lifestyles often clashed with and consumed one other.
By far the best aspect of this show was this team interviewing serial killers and using their intuition and newly acclaimed knowledge from these interviews to solve open murder and rape cases. All the interview sequences were brilliantly shot and written. I felt like a fly on a wall during these sequences. The interchanges between the agents and serial killers were like psychological warfare. Words were being used as ammunition by the agents in an attempt to get into the head of the killer and make him admit something he hasn’t before. The dialogue was heavy, unfiltered and gritty.
I enjoyed the second season of Mindhunter more than the first, and this was for two main reasons. The second season featured more of these interviews, with serial killers such as Charles Manson being interrogated. The stakes in the second season were also more significant because the agents had to prove that their interviews with serial killers could be used practically. Holden and Tench made their way to Atlanta to put a face to the Atlanta Child Murderer. We got to see how factors such as red tape and race relations could affect the direction and scope of such a significant investigation.
Even though I have a lot of praise for this show, it is not without its flaws. First and foremost, I did not like the show’s repeated use of big, bold and white letters that literally covered the entire screen just to show what city we were in (see example below). This stylistic choice felt completely out of place and contradicted the subtle aspects of the show. The editing was also choppy. Certain scenes seemed like they were deliberately cut short – they felt incomplete, which occasionally affected the pacing of the episode. Perhaps this could have been done in an effort to moderate the run-time?
The aspect of Mindhunter that bothered me the most was its mild obsession and fascination towards the actions of serial killers. I’m not saying that this show condoned any sort of crime or violence, but there were certain moments where characters representing law enforcement were lured towards making friendships with serial killers and even developed an odd admiration towards the methodical and meticulous nature of certain serial killers. In my opinion, showing such moments on screen are a recipe for a public controversy (refer to the controversy surrounding Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile as an example) and should’ve been omitted from the final cut.
In summary, Mindhunter is not a show for everybody – especially children and the faint-hearted. Based off the book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, this series is an unapologetic and brutally honest take on the psychology of serial killers and how their behavior could be examined and manipulated in order to solve crimes. The show gets off to a slow start; I had to endure 5 episodes before I was hooked. But once I was hooked, I admired its excellent production value, plot and writing. Mindhunter does have its flaws (as I’ve mentioned above). But once you look past these, it is certainly a respectable and intriguing crime series.