This season of Mindhunter picks up almost exactly where Season One left off—with FBI Agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) mid panic attack at the hospital where he was getting hugged by multiple murderer Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton).
When his partner, Agent Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), picks him up from the hospital, he tells Holden to keep it to himself because the FBI may not trust him to go speak with serial killers if they know he might break down in the middle of an interview.
But panic seems like the only appropriate response to what the behavioral science unit faces this season. The first three episodes of the season, directed by David Fincher, even feel like a panic attack, with darkness, fear, and paranoia coming in from every direction. Tench sees evil infect his home when a body is found at a house that his wife is the realtor for. Cops are knocking on Tench’s door now, instead of vice versa. When Tench goes to look at the crime scene, he follows the detective working on the case through the house, winding through doorways and down staircases, further and further into literal darkness until they reach the basement, where the body of a toddler was discovered. Tench’s home is no longer a haven, someone knocking on the door portends bad news, and that feeling of not having any safe space left infiltrates scenes throughout the season.
Interviewing the most notorious killers in the U.S. to come up with profiles of why they kill and how to spot them is not easy work, as demonstrated by Holden’s hospital stay. Not only is the team facing that kind of evil regularly, but they are also identifying with it in order to get the killers to talk—and that would wear anyone down. As would continually attempting to get others in law enforcement to take your dangerous and time-consuming work seriously, and to see it as a tool instead of a circus act. But the biggest toll on Tench, Holden and Wendy (Anna Torv) is existing and working at the whims of powerful men whose main concern is public perception.
The powerful man that has the biggest impact on the team is the new Assistant Director Ted Gunn (Michael Cerveris). He takes over at Quantico after the previous AD is forced to retire because of his part in a cover up with the behavioral science unit last season. Gunn is a big fan of the behavioral science unit—but a bigger fan of what the unit can do to advance the perceived importance of the FBI.
The only one who trusts him is Holden, who is flattered by his attention and who is somehow still completely naive to how institutional structures work to protect not the truth, but someone else’s career. Holden is oblivious to the fact that Gunn asked both Wendy and Tench to keep Holden from embarrassing the FBI. Later on, Gunn sends Tench and Holden to Atlanta to investigate a string of child murders there, interrupting their day-to-day work to see if their theories can be used in the field and—more importantly for Gunn—to see if the FBI can garner good publicity by solving the case and become the institution that the public and local law enforcement turn to.
While working the on the child murders, Holden claims that whether the suspect is black or white shouldn’t matter to law enforcement or politicians working on the case. “Well, it does,” says FBI Agent Jim Barney (Albert Jones), who is black. Over and over, Holden believes that logic is enough to move institutions. And over and over he is wrong.
The perception of having the “might” of the FBI behind him versus the reality of the investigation plays out in one particularly harrowing scene where bureaucracy is hindering the investigation at almost every step. Holden wants to set up a memorial for a few of the victims to try to create a place for the killer to come back to because the team learned in their interviews that serial killers will return to the scene of the crime. But when he asks the FBI to provide crosses to place at the memorials, the process is delayed as the bureau decides which vendor should supply them. Even with a call put in to Gunn to hurry the process along, the crosses don’t arrive until the day memorials are being announced—and when they do arrive, they need to be assembled. Holden assembles the crosses, and he and Tench race to the memorial sites to try to get them up before the families arrive. It’s edited and shot like a race against time, as thrilling as racing to catch a suspect. But the stakes are much smaller and much more affecting: Holden doesn’t want to disappoint the mothers of the victims. Holden had to get the families of some of the victims to agree to the memorials, and then, with the full power of the FBI supposedly supporting him, he couldn’t even get a cross to memorialize a dead child set up on time. It’s heartbreaking and humiliating to see how little the institution he has been flattered to trust can actually do, and how much the families of the victims have to endure from those in power who say they are helping.
This season of Mindhunter is not subtle. Repeatedly, it shows how the faces of institutions like judges, politicians, and police officers are more concerned with perception than action. The investigative team begs those in power for warrants, surveillance, and other resources. And they typically only get those resources when the public is paying attention and mayors and judges know that supplying the resources will look better than not. (After all, it is an election year.) At every step, their actions are controlled by men in charge who are using the investigation as a tool in their own plan to get or maintain power.
Meanwhile, the most vulnerable in society are getting hurt: children. In Atlanta, black children are disappearing, and their mothers and families are doing their best to get law enforcement to take their disappearances seriously. But the mayor doesn’t want it publicized that there may be a predator in Atlanta. And local police don’t like that the FBI is suggesting the deaths may all be connected. Powerful men open and then cut off the investigation at their own discretion, and wreck lives in the process.
Just about every storyline this season is infected by a powerful man’s whims leading to children getting hurt. Manipulation and coercion of children comes up repeatedly, and one interview particularly highlights this. Tench and Holden are finally able to interview Charles Manson (Damon Herriman)—the interview is secured because of Gunn, who is trying to show that he has the power to support and promote their work. During the interview, Manson becomes the infuriating face of what it means to control people, make decisions that ruin and end lives, and then not take any responsibility for it. His Family becomes a stand in for any other corrupt institution. When Charlie refers to society’s “children” in his interview, it emphasizes that it’s children who bear the fallout.
Tench’s own child also becomes an example of this. Brian is implicated in the death of the toddler whose body was found. At times, Brian’s storyline is a bit heavy-handed. The rest of the season makes it clear that evil can be found everywhere, so it seems like overkill to show that evil can even appear in the home of the FBI agent fighting it. But the storyline fits in with the themes of the season. Tench is away from home a lot because Gunn volunteers him for work, all to advance the FBI. Tench and the rest of the team become a pawn in the chess game that leaders of the FBI and other law enforcement groups are playing with each other. And the person in Tench’s family who is hurt the most is Brian, a child who may have some underlying issues and whose father has become largely absentee. Brian’s situation emphasizes that as the team is attempting to define evil, they don’t understand yet what it is. Is watching a murder evil, if you don’t participate in the killing? Do you become evil, or are you born that way? Does finding out any of those answers actually matter when people end up dead?
Tench, Wendy and Holden are fascinated by the extremes of serial killers, and Mindhunter asks who benefits from that fascination. The perception is that it’s safe for us to consider them in a removed or academic setting, and yet, the show presents these very real crimes in gruesome detail to remind us of the humanity at stake. Holden had to relearn this lesson himself, when he tried to study Kemper on his own. He thought he could keep an intellectual distance from Kemper’s horrors, but he ended up in the arms of a man who has taken lives, viscerally reminding him of the flesh and blood that Kemper has damaged. Like Holden, the show is intentionally trying to shake viewers up instead of letting us be casual voyeurs.
Many times throughout the season, Tench is called on to share stories of what it’s like talking to these killers. The audience he’s speaking to are stand ins for the actual viewers of Mindhunter. They sit, begging Tench for more details of what it was like to speak with people like Kemper or Manson, just like audiences of true crime stories sit and wait to hear more. Tench obliges, knowing that sharing these stories is a kind of currency and that part of his job is to help the FBI get favors or a higher social standing. But the act of sharing these stories becomes perverse when Tench knows how little these stories do to actually help those in need.
When a man in Atlanta has been arrested, the FBI leaves town, even though all of the children’s cases have not yet been closed. The arrest signals the perception that the ordeal might be over, and that the FBI has succeeded. To show his appreciation for their work, the director of the FBI sends a private jet to collect Holden and Tench and bring them back home.
But the jets, celebrations and stories to bring out at a party are all empty gestures when the mothers of dead children still suffer. Even today, no one has been tried for killing the children despite the infamy and publicity surrounding the crimes, and reopening the case multiple times. Seeing those contradictions first hand—and not being able to do anything to change it—would be enough to make anyone panic.
Rae Nudson is Chicago-based writer and critic whose writing has appeared in Esquire, The Cut, and Hazlitt, among other publications. You can follow her on Twitter @rclnudson.