Mindhunter, Alias Grace and the Gender of Violence

TV Features Mindhunter
Mindhunter, Alias Grace and the Gender of Violence

Late in the first season of Mindhunter, special agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) speaks to a classroom of elementary school students about the early warning signs of “disturbing”—by which he means “deviant”—behavior, of the sort he’s studying in “sequence killers” for the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. He might evince a dangerous fascination with fire, Ford says, referring to the hypothetical child; he might harm pets or other small animals. A girl catches on to Ford’s pronoun usage and raises her hand to ask a question:

“Are only boys disturbed?”

The answer, which Ford concedes is essentially “yes,” is at the crux of Netflix’s vexing new drama, from executive producer David Fincher and creator Joe Penhall. As Ford and his partner, Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), interview a series of monstrous figures in the late 1970s, and, in consultation with psychologist Dr. Wendy Carr (the superb Anna Torv), use the insights they glean to consult on a number of unsolved cases, Mindhunter circles the notion that violence itself is gendered, that the desire for dominance, power, control at the base of such heinous crimes reflects, through a darkened mirror, the pathologies of patriarchal culture writ large. (“How do you get to be president of the United States if you’re a sociopath?” Ford inquires of Nixon at one point. “The question is,” Carr replies, “how do you get to be president of the United States if you’re not?”) That Mindhunter carries the point only so far, becoming lost in a bramble of ill-considered subplots before turning, in the end, to the on-screen conventions of the criminal/profiler relationship, is perhaps its signal failure; its arc resembles that of a tough-minded investigator piecing together a complex case, only to fall short of securing a conviction. It’s as if the series fears its own implications, and so settles for prosecuting a more minor charge.

That fear is fair, I suppose, for the implications are terrifying. Mindhunter’s defining relationship is not between Ford and Tench, or Ford and Carr, or even Ford and his girlfriend, Debbie (Hannah Gross), but between Ford and his most memorable interlocutor, “the Co-ed Killer,” Edmund Kemper (the extraordinarily chilling, utterly captivating Cameron Britton). The season’s second episode, which is by far its strongest, focuses on their initial encounters, and the portrait it sketches of Kemper ties a knot in the stomach: During one exchange, the camera closes in on his gargantuan figure as he describes, with an unsettling blend of preternatural calm and primal hatred, his resentment of his mother, and of the “precious co-eds” she cared for as an administrative assistant on a college campus. The self-described “regular guy”—polite, educated, thoughtful, not to mention friendly with the local police—becomes, before our eyes, the remorseless murderer “living a vile, depraved, entirely parallel other life, filled with debased violence, mayhem and fear—and death”:

Women are born with this little hole between their legs, which every man on Earth just wants to stick something into. And they’re weaker than men, so they learn strategies. They deploy their minds, and their sex, and they intuitively learn to humiliate.

Here, Mindhunter draws a connection between Kemper’s modus operandi and the misogynistic language of “men’s rights” activists, of red-pillers and pick-up artists and domestic abusers, language that originated long before the dawn of the Internet or the reaction to second-wave feminism; as the sterling Canadian miniseries Alias Grace outlines, blaming women for their own mistreatment is as old as Scheherazade, or Genesis. Adapted by Sarah Polley from Margaret Atwood’s historical novel, and directed by Mary Harron with forthright shudders of psychological horror, the series’ structure is not so dissimilar from Mindhunter, though it’s far more tightly constructed. In Canada in 1859, “celebrated murderess” Grace Marks (the brilliant Sarah Gadon) submits to an interview with Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), and their ongoing conversation unearths a pattern of violence and trauma most “disturbing,” to use Mindhunter’s term, for the fact that it’s not considered “deviant” at all. Beaten and molested by her father, leered at and manhandled by strangers and intimates, witness to the botched abortion and subsequent death of her one friend, fellow maid Mary Whitney (Rebecca Liddiard), abused by an asylum’s doctors and a prison’s guards, the series refuses to frame Grace’s experience as exceptional; its margins are populated by images of women whipped, accosted, castigated, tossed over, by blood-soaked sheets, morning sickness, furious invective, the stench of death. At one point, asking if her new employer, Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross), has a reputation for harming the women in his employ, she receives a response from an aging housekeeper that says more about the gender of violence in a single line than Mindhunter does in 10 episodes—says more, in fact, than we should bear. “Nothing,” the woman remarks, “the world at large would call harm.”

Alias Grace Column Main.jpg

Nothing the world at large would call harm: In this acknowledgement that “violence” and “crime” are contingent descriptors, shaped by historical context and sociocultural norms, Alias Grace, weaving an intricate biographical quilt from its protagonist’s memories, strikes the ferocious note that Mindhunter ultimately retreats from, which is that patriarchy enables the “disturbing” behaviors we only deign to call “deviant” (if at all) after a woman turns up dead. Both series are hemmed in by menacing men, including “the good guys”; as Alias Grace progresses, Dr. Jordan nurses sexual fantasies about his patient, while in Mindhunter, Ford begins to mimic the language of his subjects—describing “ripe cunts” to mass murderer Richard Speck, for instance, which he justifies as an attempt at establishing trust. Both are built from the premise that profound psychological damage presents, in extremis, as actions, choices, that can be recorded, transcribed, analyzed, catalogued, understood, that what we so often call “senseless violence” follows a hideous logic of its own. But only Alias Grace—unsurprisingly, given Atwood, Polley and Harron’s respective bodies of work—manages to situate its case within the wider culture effectively: Mindhunter assents to the idea that boys and men are far more prone to “disturbing” behaviors, then turns away in disgust, or shame; Alias Grace, following its enigmatic heroine, looks its subject, and us, in the eye.

Lest this be considered “merely” ideological criticism, it’s worth noting that this distinction plays out in the series’ narratives, too; where the commitment to context animates the scintillating central mystery of Alias Grace—whether Grace is in fact culpable in the murders of Kinnear and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin)—Mindhunter detours, sputters and finally stalls. The former’s open-ended resolution hinges on Gadon’s remarkable performance, which finds its most unnerving expression in the series finale’s climactic sequence, a hypnotism that has more in common with Victorian horror than modern suspense. It’s too mesmerizing to spoil the details, but suffice it to say that Alias Grace—which frequently depicts women themselves shoring up patriarchal culture, channeling a modicum of its power or deflecting its insidious gaze—never loses sight of the fact that, in a world suffused with innumerable forms of violence against women, violence perpetrated by women is considered truly “deviant,” in part because it’s so surprising, so rare.

Alias Grace inhabits the mind of its “celebrated murderess,” placing women at the foreground of the stories we tell about gender and violence—an effect underscored by both its ambitious One Thousand and One Nights structure and Harron’s startling inserts of images from what Grace calls “the sufferings I’ve endured.” Mindhunter, though it dabbles in depicting Debbie and Dr. Carr as (mostly unheeded) voices of reason, prefers the more familiar trope of the profiler so obsessed with his criminal subjects that he risks absorbing their attitudes toward women and sex, or at least sacrifices his ethical code at the altar of scientific knowledge. This focus on men—agents and suspects, detectives and quarries—is a regular feature of Fincher’s oeuvre, and in and of itself it’s well-trod terrain for a TV series. But in transforming Ford into the one whose “sufferings” are at its center, or swerving, in the latter stages, into his interference in the firing of an elementary school principal, Mindhunter forgets the (largely anonymous) women whose gruesome deaths are ostensibly the raison d’être for the examination of their murderers’ psyches.

In the season finale, Ford and Carr travel to Georgia to ask the district attorney in a rape and murder case to seek a life sentence instead of the death penalty, and her response, repeating her advice to jurors in such cases, is telling. “Forget TV,” she says:

Because it’ll never show you the experience of the victim. You will never hear the cries of a woman being raped on The Rockford Files. You won’t smell burning flesh from the cigarettes being put to her body on Hawaii 5-0… When you go from the abstract idea of murder to the visceral reality, you can no longer be objective. Only when you feel the pain of those victims and their loved ones can you know the magnitude of the choice that killer made, and it’s that choice that seals his fate.

Mindhunter, as it happens, is far more sedate on this front than Alias Grace; its grisliness resides not in spurts of blood, stranglings or headless angels, but in the language of Edmund Kemper and Holden Ford, describing acts of violence in excruciatingly vivid terms. That this marks the series as a step up from those that use the rape, murder and mutilation of women as salacious proof of their “unflinching” perspective, as plot devices substituted for careful treatment of an ugly subject, may say more about the medium than it does Mindhunter, though. In the end, the series, rather strangely, spends more time on Ford’s “tortured genius” routine, or on the murderers’ harridan mothers and absent fathers, or on stirring up sympathy for that school principal— terminated for tickling his students’ feet—than it does on “the experience of the victim[s],” relegated as they are to the cut-up corpses of crime scene photographs, or indeed the title sequence. If this is what passes for “insight” into the gendered nature of violence, into the ways in which the mind of “disturbed” men is shaped by “the world at large,” then the district attorney may be right to warn us to “forget TV,” or at least to push harder on Mindhunter’s more frightful implications than the series does itself. Leaning into these, on the other hand, Alias Grace transforms the image of the quilt’s roseate patterns, a potent metaphor for women’s lives and work, into an arresting, challenging, endlessly complex treatment of an “experience”—not only victimhood, but also womanhood—that Mindhunter scarcely tries to touch.

“There are many dangerous things that may take place in a bed,” Grace tells Jordan in the series premiere, referring not to violent extremes but to perilous commonplaces, to childbirth, intercourse, dreams. As it happens, Kemper’s “parallel life,” causing untold violence, mayhem, fear—and death—contains another darkened reflection, of the sufferings endured in Grace’s actual one, and in that mirror image it’s possible to measure the distance between what the world at large deigns to call harm and the countless ways men cause it.

Mindhunter and Alias Grace are now streaming on Netflix.

Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.

Share Tweet Submit Pin