“You think this might help?”
“Help with what?”
“Find a cure.”
A man named Monte asks that question in the fourth episode of Netflix’s Mindhunter, created by Joe Penhall and produced by David Fincher. Monte Ralph Rissell raped 12 women and murdered five back in the 1970s, so it makes sense that Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and his partner, Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) would want to talk to him. Ford and Tench work for the Behavioral Science unit at the FBI, and have taken it upon themselves to interview imprisoned serial killers to figure out why they do what they do.
Mindhunter is not the first time that executive producer and director David Fincher has explored the minds of serial killers. Investigating the minds of the deranged, the misanthropic and the perverted is one of Fincher’s driving themes, one you can find in nearly all of his films. But while most stories that deal with this specific brand of evil usually end with the serial killer thwarted, Fincher has hardly ever taken that approach.
Seven was the first. At the outset, Fincher’s 1995 film doesn’t seem like an atypical detective story. We meet the older, wiser Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and the younger, eager Detective Mills (Brad Pitt) and they bond over trying to solve a series of traumatic murders. It’s only when Kevin Spacey’s serial killer shows up at the police station spattered in blood, allowing himself to be caught, that the audience realizes that this is not your average detective story. It becomes increasingly apparent that this is John Doe’s story, and whatever control the cops might have has evaporated by the final scene, one that Fincher fought tooth and nail with the studio to keep.
Mindhunter begins with a serial killer the cops couldn’t catch. The most thrilling moments in the first two episodes all occur in the presence of Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton), a man who turned himself in when the cops couldn’t figure out he was the one dismembering female hitchhikers. He had been needling police officers for weeks, asking them to their faces if they’d solved the case yet, and they still had no idea he was the killer. They thought he was just a regular loser.
Violence lying just beneath the surface of a seemingly normal human being is another Fincher trademark. Remember Rosamund Pike as Amy in Gone Girl? Or any character in Fight Club? Fincher loves to explore characters with hidden savagery, inhumanity masquerading as humanity. And it seems he’s finally found the perfect protagonist: Holden Ford’s central goal is to understand this psychology, to understand “how crazy thinks.” But Fincher does not tell stories that strengthen one’s faith in humanity, and he does not tell stories that reward their protagonists.
Holden’s drive is met with derision and suspicion. It’s not that nobody believes he can understand the mind of a serial killer, it’s that nobody believes he should. In the early parts of the series, every attempt he makes to explain his project—to identify and profile the behavior of serial killers—is met with horror. How could you want to do such a thing? How could you want to talk to, connect with, understand a person so evil? Doubt and dread both surround Holden’s undertaking.
The flip side to this, of course, is that people also immediately assume he’s got all the answers. After Holden solves one case, a police officer refers to him as Sherlock Holmes—and Holden, clearly riding high on success, makes a grandiose speech about shining a light into the darkness. But high expectations mean failure can be crushing. Another police officer brushes off Holden’s teaching, only to return later to ask for advice on a case. When Holden can’t provide any help, the cop stares incredulously. “How fucking dare you?” he demands. How fucking dare you force me to go over the horror of this case again, and then not be able to solve it? Holden silently walks out of the room.
It’s an obvious subversion of every major crime procedural on television. Genius detectives are a dime-a-dozen on TV—every show that deals with crime seems to have a central character (usually a white man) so good at solving horrific crimes it seems supernatural. When we see murder cases on television, we expect them to be solved—with investigation comes the expectation of a solution. We, like the characters in Mindhunter, assume that when Holden undertakes this problem, he will somehow “solve” the mind of each serial killer he comes across. Despite the stone-cold fact that most cases like these in real life go unsolved, when a hero detective can’t magically make crime disappear on a TV show, we’re surprised.
Even the serial killers seem to think that must be the goal. In addition to Rissell asking about “a cure,” Kemper thinks the best treatment for a mind like his own would be a lobotomy. Kemper, much like John Doe, clearly spends plenty of time thinking about how to cure the wickedness of mankind in between murder. Holden gets increasingly comfortable with breaking FBI guidelines to act like a kindred spirit to these killers, but they misunderstand his work the same way we do, the same way those in law enforcement do.
After battling their way through the FBI just to get their project off the ground, Holden, Tench and later Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) use their new data to classify serial killers and even solve local cases. But each of them has to contend with the negative consequences of this line of work, from both the law enforcement apparatus and the serial killers. Holden faces backlash for what the Bureau perceives as unprofessional behavior. Tench has to admit that even though he believes in the work, he has his limits—some cases he just can’t see through. Carr watches as a cocky lawyer ignores her advice and prosecutes a case according to misguided judgment. She takes this development especially hard—she knows that the work they’re doing is groundbreaking, but she comes to realize it will be misunderstood and then exploited.
These little failures are sprinkled throughout Mindhunter. Even the protagonists’ victories can feel hollow: When Holden finally convinces his boss to let him pursue the project, he’s rewarded with a dingy basement for an office. With every step forward, the protagonists must take a half-step back. With every advance comes a reminder of their limits, their powerlessness. This is a series that knows that investigating serial killers is a frustrating business. The opening titles themselves express that much: A tape recorder is set up, while close-up images of dead bodies are spliced in a few frames at a time. It seems almost laughable that these two operations are so intimately linked—how could such a sterile, scientific process be imposed on something as messy as decaying human flesh?
We find the answer to that question in the film to which Mindhunter owes the most: Zodiac. The acclaimed 2007 film also follows a man obsessed with the mind of a homicidal maniac. Much like Zodiac’s Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), Mindhunter’s Holden Ford is a polite, milquetoast man who tries to make sense of man’s incredible inhumanity and gets nothing but frustration in return. Much like Zodiac, Mindhunter never lets its audience walk away with the feeling that this problem can be solved. And much like Zodiac, Mindhunter obsesses over the accuracy of small, tangible details. The main characters are fictionalized versions of real people, but this historical focus shines through on the serial killers; Cameron Britton is a dead match for Edmund Kemper, and other murderers are played with similar veracity.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Dennis Rader (Sonny Valicenti). Rader is never mentioned by name in the series, but he is certainly present. Known as the BTK Killer, Rader started killing people in 1974, and became notorious for sending taunting packages and letters to the Kansas police. But Rader wasn’t caught because of the FBI’s new behavior profiling, or even good old-fashioned police work. Kansas police caught him because he sent a floppy disk to them, from which they were able to recover some personal data. This occurred in 2005, after Rader had been an active serial killer for over thirty years.
Rader appears in the opening segment of several of the episodes, in largely nonverbal snippets that last less than a minute long. Here he is mailing a letter; here he is at his job; here he is tying knots over and over. He is never named, and the show’s IMDb page credits Valicenti as only the “ADT Serviceman,” but the painstaking details make it obvious that it is Rader. So why focus on him if they were never going to involve him directly in the plot, if the man wouldn’t be caught for decades after the series takes place?
The answer is simple: He’s there to show you that it doesn’t end. Not for Holden Ford, and not for us.
John Douglas (the man Holden Ford is based on) would go on to join the investigation into the BTK Killer. Not only that, he wrote a book about him, even interviewed him. But again, this wouldn’t be until decades later. What the show is saying is that the beat goes on. There are always more serial killers out there (Douglas has been quoted as saying that at any given time there are 25-50 active serial killers in the United States). Rader’s segments are there to show us that just because Holden is making progress doesn’t mean he has the key to every serial killer. The message is clear, and like much of Fincher’s work it says this: Evil persists. You are not as powerful as you think. Just because you desire resolution doesn’t mean you’ll get it.
Like Somerset and Mills in Seven, detectives don’t always get to control the narrative. Like the characters of Fight Club, we can’t always tell when seemingly normal people contain the capacity for incredible violence. Like Robert Graysmith in Zodiac, our justice system can fail us. Like Holden Ford, we may not find the end-all, be-all revelation we hoped for. And that’s just the way it is. We just have to live with the knowledge that there is no solution. There is no cure. Sometimes, when you shine a light into the darkness, all you find is more darkness.
Mindhunter is now streaming on Netflix.
Eric McAdams is an editorial intern for Paste and a podcaster in his spare time. You can see what he’s tweeting about @EdaciouslyYours and you can hear his podcasts on the Major Casts Network.