Mindhunter on Netflix: Why you must binge-watch this clever, gritty, murderous offering

Sneha Khale

Oct,20 2017 10:55 45 IST

I was about 10-11 years old when I first read an excerpt from John E Douglas’ book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit, in one of the magazines that either my parents or some relatives subscribed to. I was perhaps way too young to be reading bits from a book so dark, but I’m glad I did nevertheless, because it was one of the foremost factors that contributed to my love for human psychology. As a teenager, I devoured books and movies on the subject of crime (with a healthy obsession for anything by Thomas Harris), and I don’t think it was surprising to anyone who knew me, when I decided to major in psychology (abnormal and cognitive psychology were my favourite subjects; reading the thick textbooks and reference books on the subjects felt like the most joyous kind of reading to me, back then). When I had to write my statement of purpose for my application for a postgraduate degree in criminology, I remember that I had heavily referenced Harris (and especially The Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon) in it.

Mindhunter is now streaming on Netflix

Mindhunter is now streaming on Netflix

That was over a decade ago. In the meantime, a criminal profiling show such as Criminal Minds has continued to march forward (it’s currently in its 13th season), and whether you like the everything-is-resolved-at-the-end-of-the-hour cop action shows, or the everything-is-resolved-at-the-end-of-the-hour behavioral psychology crime shows, or long drawn-out procedurals like The Killing, there’s something available for everyone. And in the past few years, with Netflix (Making a Murderer, The Keepers), HBO (The Jinx), and several podcasts mining the deep trenches of (true) crime, our cultural fascination with this genre has reached new heights.

Obviously I, like countless others, have lapped these shows up. Which is why, when I found out last year that Netflix was turning Douglas’ book into a series, I had mixed emotions. Of course I was excited and giddy with the possibility of what such a show might look like, but I was nervous too — this couldn’t afford to be Netflix’s take on Criminal Minds (which, let’s face it, is just about an average show). This couldn’t be a Nordic noir kind of procedural, nor could it be a true crime account (which, as interesting and addictive as it is, is usually the kind of thing that turns everyone into an armchair detective). This was something that was far bigger than anything else: these gruesome crimes were committed decades ago, the killers were caught, they were “profiled” when profiling wasn’t a thing, the FBI’s Behavioural Sciences Unit (BSU) was formed, and the term “serial killer” was coined. This is history, and despite the sheer sickening-ness of these crimes (or maybe because of it), it’s also the stuff of legend. For a student of psychology and criminology, Douglas’ book is like the holy grail. Netflix couldn’t afford to screw up Mindhunter. And thank god it didn’t!

Mindhunter is a Charlize Theron and David Fincher produced show set in an era which, in hindsight, we look at as the “heyday” (for lack of a better word) for serial killers, ie. the ’70s. Specifically, 1977. This is a few years after Charles Manson and Edmund Kemper were convicted and imprisoned, but before John Wayne Gacy (another of Douglas’ interviewees) was apprehended. Around this time in the FBI, and elsewhere, an examination of a crime (and especially a murder) automatically meant referring to the criminals as “evil.” “Some people are just born bad”, is a common refrain in the first episode, and the higher management within the FBI doesn’t seem to have any particular interest in studying the psychology of the criminal or their upbringing to solve their cases (psychology was thought as too “soft” by J Edgar Hoover, although he was all pro-technology and pro-forensics). Jonathan Groff plays Special Agent Holden Ford, who’s modeled on John Douglas. He’s young, sorta bright-eyed and eager, but more importantly, he firmly believes that looking into the perpetrators’ roots, the origins of a criminal, their past and psychology would be an important form of inquiry while solving crimes. Ford spends most of his time teaching new recruits the way to respond in hostage situations; his words to a class of rookies: “if we’re looking for a motive, we suddenly find there is none. It’s a void. It’s a black hole.” Ford is of the belief that agents can’t stop crimes from being committed when they don’t even understand “why” they’re happening. He pitches the behavioural psychology idea to his boss Shepard (the unit chief of the FBI National Training Academy).

Some viewers might feel that the first episode of Mindhunter is slow and patchy; for me this episode, directed by David Fincher, felt right at home. There were no big reveals or chases or shootouts (FYI, there are no shootouts or chases throughout the 10 episodes), but that’s what felt intriguing about this episode, and Mindhunter overall. There was a slow burn to the first episode, and it helped distinguish the show from other buddy cop or police procedurals we’ve seen. There is a buddy cop element to Mindhunter — by the end of the first episode, Ford teams up with Special Agent Bill Tench (played by Holt McCallany, Tench is modeled after Robert K. Ressler who was Douglas’ partner at the FBI); they travel around the country giving lectures at different police headquarters, about the importance of studying the psychology of the crime and the criminal. A lot of the first episode is centered around conversations between people — between Ford and Tench (about finding common ground regarding behavioural psychology), between Ford and Shepard (convincing Shepard to let him continue doing this), between Ford and Debbie, a woman he meets at a bar who becomes his girlfriend, Debbie is a postgraduate sociology student at The University of Virginia (their conversations are a lot about the academic theories about crime and deviance; when Ford tells Debbie he’s an FBI agent, she brings up Durkheim, assuming he must know the classical theories of social pathology and crime. Ford hasn’t heard of Durkheim). While Ford and Tench, on their tours, manage upskill a few law enforcement officials on behavioural psychology (thereby sowing the first seeds of the BSU), nobody is quite prepared for what they take on next — meeting and interviewing the most violent known offenders in custody!

It would be an understatement to say that our society, media, and popular culture are obsessed with serial killers. I have personally spent hours reading about Kemper, Ted Bundy, Gacy, Ed Gein, Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer and others, and I know plenty of people (IRL and online) who’re equally, if not more, fascinated by it all. There’s something that it taps into — something visceral, psychological, intellectual. Understanding serial killers, and why they felt the need to do what they did, sometimes feels like a prerequisite to knowing anything about them or their crimes. Mindhunter explores this fascination from the scientific point of view. While touring and lecturing in California, Ford believes they should go meet Ed Kemper, who was and still is being held at the California Medical Facility. His idea is to interview Kemper in order to know more about this sort of offender (violent, sexual offenders who’ve committed multiple murders) and include it in their report on criminal profiling. It’s in an unofficial capacity of course (the FBI would never grant permission for this!) and Tench is hesitant, wanting to go play golf instead. Ford proceeds with his plan, and the next forty minutes were some of the most intriguing moments on television in this decade! Ed Kemper (played uncannily well and chillingly by Cameron Britton), as anyone who’s read about the serial killer who murdered 10 people including his abusive mother and paternal grandparents will know, is 6 feet 9 inches of bulk, with an IQ of 145. He’s led into the meeting area with a prison guard, whom Ford asks to uncuff Kemper while he’s seated. Kemper offers to get Ford an egg sandwich (despite his crimes, Kemper is well behaved in prison, and is on friendly terms with the prison staff, so he says he can just ask one of them to get the sandwich for him. You know, just your normal friendly serial killer host!).

And then, as Ford proceeds to interview Kemper, asking him about his crimes, Kemper (who was nicknamed the “co-ed killer” because of the nature of his victims) describes, in bone chilling detail, how he lured and murdered multiple women, decapitated them, dismembered their bodies, had sex with their corpses, and performed irrumatio on their severed heads. Kemper’s articulateness is creepy and mind numbing, and his politely dispassionate tone is unnerving as hell, but you can’t look away from it. Neither can Ford. He’s intrigued by Kemper the polite, well-behaved and friendly guy, who’s incarcerated because of what he did as Kemper the violent killer. That someone who can seem so normal is capable of such gruesomeness, is difficult to wrap your head around. But it’s also one of the key tenets of behavioural psychology — Ford realises that the “some people are just born bad” myth is on its way to being debunked!

In hindsight, this seems like the most obvious thing to us. Of course family, upbringing and the environment all play a huge part in how people turn out. Mindhunter released two weeks after the Las Vegas shooting, while investigators were still trying to find clues as to why Stephen Paddock did what he did. In the absence of clear political or religious affiliations, it wasn’t surprising that they were looking into his father’s history as a criminal (he was on the FBI’s Most Wanted list) to offer some insight into his own mind and motives. In 2017, this is the normal way for an investigation to proceed.  In 1977, it wasn’t. And so, even though Ford convinces Tench to forego his golf session to accompany him to visit Kemper, back at Quantico, Shepard isn’t too thrilled about this little detour. It doesn’t help their cause (at least in the short run) that they help out smaller cases in the places they tour, which their unit chief doesn’t want them doing. Every time Shepard (who’s quite a sensible unit chief, to be honest) would talk about how the FBI and its agents are the “last responders”, and how behavioural psychology was all fine when it helped them solve an especially tough case that the FBI is specifically called in for, but how it can’t help them “predict” crimes, I wanted to yell at my TV screen: “but that’s what psychology is! It understands and predicts human behaviour!” I’ll be honest, I probably did scream that out loud a couple of times at least, but thankfully, very soon I had an ally on the show in the form of Dr Wendy Carr, a psychologist modeled after Dr Ann Wolbert Burgess (a professor of psychiatric nursing at Boston College who worked extensively with the FBI’s BSU, training special agents, and helping develop criminal profiles). Finally!

By the time Dr Wendy Carr joins Ford and Tench at the BSU, they’ve already convinced Shepard of the merits of continuing with their serial killer interviews.

Only thing, they’re not calling them “serial killers”; the term hadn’t been coined yet. There’s a scene in which Ford and Tench fumble through a moniker for the violent offenders they interview, and one of them refers to the killers as “sequence killers” (obviously, because they usually have a sequence in which they kill). With Carr (a perfectly cast Anna Torv) on board, their interviews and research start to take on a more scientific tone and rigour. There’s a proper procedure that they follow for their subsequent interviews (the show also covers their interviews with Jerry Brudos and Richard Speck) — there’s a set questionnaire that Carr creates for them, the interviews are recorded, then transcribed, and her insight brings the much valued scientific point of view to their data, which Ford and Tench then start using to help local police departments solve crimes.

The setting up of the BSU is as exciting to watch as the actual crime solving. Certain moments — Shepard announcing that the BSU has received funding of over $3,00,000; Ford, Tench, and Carr taking the elevator down to the basement at Quantico to officially set up shop for the BSU; the moment Tench actually coins the term “serial killer” — these are “hell yeah!” moments. As I mentioned earlier in this article, Mindhunter is entirely devoid of the typical cop action and car chases; it’s what makes the show unique and compelling. There’s a certain cerebral quality to it (which isn’t surprising since Fincher’s a producer for the show), but it manages to be so without seeming pretentious. In fact, there’s no pretension at all: Ford, who has the habit of rambling into monologues quoting Shakespeare and Freud, is treated as slightly annoying by everyone. The show also maintains a certain levity, which is hard to do when the subject matter is so dark; during Ford’s first interview with Kemper, the co-ed killer, while referring to his gruesome murders and other acts, refers to it all as his “oeuvre.” When Ford narrates this to his partner, Tench is appalled by Kemper’s audacity. Smirking, he says, “His oeuvre? What the f**k, he’s Stanley Kubrick?” Despite everything, you smile at that.

These normal interactions between Ford and Tench are even more important as the show progresses. With each interview, they’re sucked into the macabre and depraved world of killers; the fact that many of them seem normal (even ordinary) at first glance or even at first chat, is something that plays on their minds, especially Ford’s. When you have a normal conversation with a killer, and at some level feel sorry for them, what’s stopping you from turning into one yourself? Ford’s dilemma is not as self-threatening as Will Graham’s was in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal. On that show, the way they understood each other made Will and Hannibal Lecter seem almost like soul brothers, and that really messed with Will’s head.

You can see the relief Ford feels when he realises that, unlike Kemper or Brudos, both Tench and him love their mothers (so there’s no psychological scarring there!). In a way, this self-doubt in such a situation may be a variation of the medical student syndrome, but it’s a subtle nod to “normalcy” on Mindhunter.

During the first episode, I thought that Ford (or rather, Groff’s portrayal of Ford) was a tad uncomfortable and slightly off-center. Maybe it was the delivery of his lines or the dialogues themselves, which are a bit stiff, but I remember feeling like this would be a character I wouldn’t have trusted if he was on a show where I didn’t know he was based on a famous real life FBI agent. But as the series went on, I got accustomed to it — because the character building, writing, and the performances by the leads are all top notch! It became part of Holden Ford’s personality. McCallany (who also starred in Fincher’s Fight Club) is excellent as Tench — slightly grumpy, slightly world-weary, but sharp as hell. Anna Torv could not be better cast for this role — she brings an intelligence and sensitivity to Carr that is absolutely on point. I wouldn’t have expected anything else from her after kicking ass on Fringe for multiple seasons! The acting star though, is Cameron Britton as Ed Kemper; as a sidenote — I really hope the actor already has a girlfriend/boyfriend because people may not want to befriend him after seeing his eerily uncanny portrayal of Kemper!

It’s honestly difficult to find any fault with the calibre of a director like David Fincher; as a producer and essentially the showrunner, his aesthetic from Zodiac (which was more or less similar, even in terms of the time period it was set in), The Social Network, and maybe even Gone Girl. Asif Kapadia (Senna, Amy) directs a couple of episodes, and they’re swell too!

From episode two onward, every episode (except one) has a cold open which shows a man going about some very suspicious looking activities; for those who know their true crime, this is clearly a setup for season two’s story arc (Mindhunter was renewed for a second season months before the first season premiered). For the uninitiated (this isn’t really a spoiler because everyone online knows who he is), that man is supposed to be Dennis Rader or the BTK killer, who murdered ten people between 1974 and 1991 but was only apprehended in 2005. The season ended with a rather ominous interaction between Ford and Kemper, and a FBI bureaucratic hellhole that opened from Ford going off-script during his interview with Richard Speck. The team needs to stay together, now more than ever. With BTK already at work and John Wayne Gacy starting his killings in 1978, when time Mindhunter returns for season 2, there’s plenty more to explore. I can’t wait!

Mindhunter (season 1): ★★★★✩  

Best episode: Episode 2 (Agent Holden Ford’s first interview with Edmund Kemper).

Standout performance: Cameron Britton as Edmund Kemper aka the “co-ed killer.”

Best moment: The FBI’s Behavioural Science Unit receiving funding, and becoming an official unit!

Best line: How can we get ahead of crazy if we don’t know how crazy thinks? — Bill Tench.

Most interesting quote: You get onto a crowded elevator, and you face the opposite direction, the back of the elevator, and everybody freaks out. They’re uncomfortable for reasons they can’t even articulate. But if you turn around and face the front, everybody relaxes. — Holden Ford.