The Complicated Appeal of Mindhunter

How much of this show is just playing with us?

TV Features Mindhunter
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The Complicated Appeal of <i>Mindhunter</i>

After sitting through a host of barely-lit scenes and whispered dialogue, where the tedium of procedural red tape had really begun to permeate the fabric of the season, I had to finally ask myself “why do I even like this show?” But as frustrated, disgusted, or depressed as Mindhunter Season Two occasionally made me, I was never bored. Which is a noteworthy thing given that it is made, really, to showcase the least titillating aspects of serial killers that have so enthralled the general pop culture consciousness.

Mindhunter is slow, spooky, and quiet. It dangles access to real-life killers before us in the same way they are dangled in front of members of the FBI’s behavioral science unit. The show is based on real crimes, their victims and perpetrators, as well as members of law enforcement. But it’s also highly fictionalized, leaving just enough of a connection to allow us to look up more details on figures like Ed Kemper or BTK on Wikipedia, while also keeping us guessing when it comes to how Agent Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) will continuing juggling the horrors of both his work and home life.

Thankfully, the series backs away from any kind of reenactment or gore when it comes to the crime scenes, especially in Season Two. But we hear about them, often at length. One of the most chilling and disturbing scenes in the new season is a description of the notoriously depraved Otero family murders, which is paired with a haunting recounting of a would-be victim’s encounter with BTK. These are just conversations—most of the series is—but the performances are so nuanced and compelling that it’s enthralling.

The series is enthralling for other reasons, as well. There’s a perverse excitement when Manson is mentioned as an interview subject and a desperation to learn, through each of these encounters, the why of it. It’s how the obsession with serial killers began and continues on; as Tench discovers throughout the second season, almost everyone he meets is hungry for details. Not the real details, but some of the quirks, that confirmation of “otherness” from a safe distance. It’s hard to not start applying some of the things we learn alongside Holden (Jonathan Groff), Tench, and their team to the situation with Tench’s son. There are obvious dialogue parallels (the show is not, as Rae Nudson noted in her spoiler review, subtle in any way), and we’re meant to go there. But where is it leading us? Usually to a humbled state. Though Holden is seemingly one of the stiffer and more difficult characters to relate to, he’s also our closest viewer avatar. He is focused on the killers and his own theories to the exclusion of almost everything else (and I found myself doing the same thing: “Enough with the tangents, get back to the case!”) But the show doesn’t make him a hero—his blinkered approach is almost always wrongheaded.

Mindhunter is, in many ways, a horror series. It’s shot and styled like one, with a skittish soundtrack and untold numbers of dark corridors and terrible reveals. It’s also set up to ostensibly give us the same kind of psychological relief: here are the bad guys, and no matter what sins they commit, ultimately they lose. We are supposed to find out why they did what they did, we nod in satisfaction, and then we move on.

Except, Mindhunter doesn’t actually give us any of that satisfaction. It’s a horror without release.

In the season’s later episodes, I found myself almost physically straining for the team to catch Atlanta’s child killer. I knew that in reality it wasn’t really resolved, but I couldn’t remember how or why. There was a desperation that the show might give us a strong working theory, something that could alleviate the true horror of not knowing what happened or who was (or was also) responsible. There is a desire for meaning here that Holden is also desperate to find. When he interviews two killers in Atlanta before becoming embroiled in ATKID, he dismisses them as a waste of time. They had no plan for their multiple murders, no strategy with symbolism and a honed MO. It was chaotic evil, killing without cause or without remorse. The men were cold, of low intelligence, and had no way to articulate why they did what they did besides simple statements: “she called me a moron,” “she was making noises.” It’s chilling in a totally different sense; these predators were not premeditated in their actions, they just struck out at random. You couldn’t predict it. They killed without thinking much about it as it happened or afterwards, and that drove Holden crazy.

It drove me a little crazy, too.

There is an order, at least, or some kind of methodology of evil that creates a comfortable fascination with serial killers. It suggests that there is something to be understood, uncovered, solved. And yet, Season Two of Mindhunter did everything it could to unravel that notion. Many of the interviews shown didn’t fit a pattern, didn’t inform other cases, or didn’t actually reveal much about their own crimes (the Manson interview was one of the show’s least interesting, which was a really wonderful subversion of our expectations as well as those of the FBI).

Where Mindhunter Season Two is at its most satisfying, then, is when it focuses on that tedium of working the cases. There’s something there that we can hold onto, that feels familiar and like something is getting done. It’s why Jim Barney (Albert Jones) is the quiet MVP of the season. He’s doing the work, he’s not flashy, he’s not embroiled in the politics. He keeps his head down but also follows his instincts (the Holden method) as well as looks at the practicalities of the situation (the Tench of it all). In many ways Barney replaced Wendy Carr’s (Anna Torv) role on the team; he isn’t part of the series’ horror, he appeals to the crime show procedural side of it fueled by the murder mystery. He’s the order in the chaos. He is searching for truth, even if we don’t get to experience any of his triumphs. (Which is, perhaps, another problem).

The search for truth is what holds my attention in Mindhunter and what ultimately motivates its major characters, yet it’s also what none of us get in the end. As Rae noted in her piece, the rule here is that perception matters more than justice. It’s not about who murdered almost 30 children over the course of two years in Atlanta, it’s about arresting someone for it so that we all—the unaffected, from the comfort of our homes—can feel better about it. For nine hours of Season Two I was watching Mindhunter because I wanted to feel better about the horrible crimes presented. I wanted to know the why so that it was solved, and feel comforted that the killers were caught and stopped. But in the end I faced the same unsettling realization as Holden: justice was never the point. So where, exactly, does that leave us? Still watching. Waiting. Hoping.

Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV