Murder is an obsession. It is an obsession that television has had since it was created. Early series revolved around real detectives, the most notable being Detective Superintendent Robert Fabian whose series Fabian of the Yard detailed to audiences what real crimes Fabian had solved.
Fabian never went up against any serial killers, but they are perhaps, even more so that “ordinary murderers” the subject that most enthrals TV audiences. So, a series that combines both serial killers and real-life crimes, like the very earliest TV crime stories, is sure to be formulaic, right? That is where Mindhunter and in particular its second season would have you wrong.
Mindhunter is the story of the Behavioural Science Unit of the FBI, a unit set up to study violent offenders and report on them. In the first series Holden Ford (Jonathan Goff) joined the FBI in hopes of understanding why criminals act the way they are. With the help of Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) and Dr Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), Ford uses the resources of the FBI to expand the BSU and to not only learn why killers like Ed Kemper and Richard Speck committed the crimes they did but also employ the techniques that they learnt whilst studying killers like Kemper and Speck into active cases; helping to catch criminals that the police would not otherwise have been able to locate. The first season ends when Holden goes to visit Ed Kemper and, after speaking to Kemper and suffering from the stress brought on by his work at the BSU, collapses in the hospital corridor.
The second season begins with Tench flying to see Holden in California and to bring him back to the FBI’s base at Quantico so that he can become an active agent again. Tench has learnt that the long-time head of the FBI training academy and their immediate boss Robert Shepard (Cotter Smith) is leaving and will be replaced by a man who he thinks will be good for the BSU; Ted Gunn (Michael Cerveris). Shepard is leaving because “someone had to take the flack” for Holden’s actions when interviewing Speck and his subsequent attempts to hide a tape that Speck complained about because Ford was able to get inside Speck’s head.
Whilst Holden gets on well with Gunn, he is unaware of the problems facing his two colleagues. Tench becomes involved in a family catastrophe when his wife Nancy (Stacey Roca) learns that a property she was hoping to sell has been changed forever by the discovery of the body of a young child, placed on a cross in the basement. To make matters worse it soon becomes apparent that Tench and Nancy’s adopted son Brian was partly involved in the death of the child in that he suggested that the child be placed on the cross.
Wendy is also going through a difficult time when she becomes involved with Kay Manz (Lauren Glazier), a bartender at a pub near Quantico. Whilst Wendy and Kay seem to initially hit it off, their inherent differences cause great trouble between them – such as Wendy’s desire to compartmentalise her life and Kay’s inability to fully accept her sexuality and her responsibility as a mother cause friction between the two of them.
As Wendy and Bill wrestle with their private problems the BSU is expanded as Ted Gunn believes that they – and in particular Holden – can help raise the profile of the unit and be good for the standing of the FBI around the world. Gunn asks both Wendy and Bill to ensure that Holden doesn’t overstep the mark too much as he did with Speck but that they allow his natural intuition to flourish.
However, whilst this may work in interview situations problems soon arise when the team become involved for the hunt for the Atlanta Child Killer whose existence is being quietly ignored by the Atlanta authorities due to the politically toxic nature of the crimes. Holden’s profile of the killer as a young black male immediately causes controversy amongst the Mayor’s office. With Bill distracted by his family situation, Holden and liaison officer Jim Barney (Albert Jones) are forced to pick up the slack on the ground. This causes Wendy and recently hired agent Greg Smith (Joe Tuttle) to continue conducting the interviews with serial killers which Greg, because of his religious background, feels uncomfortable with whilst Wendy begins to enjoy it.
As the investigation comes to a breaking point with Holden homing in on one particular suspect, Wayne Williams, Wendy breaks off her relationship with Kay realising their incompatibility and Bill receives a final demand from Nancy; that they move away so as to attempt to start again. Bill’s hesitance as to wanting to move eventually infuriates Nancy and she moves out of their home. As Bill and Wendy’s personal lives seem to crumble, the Atlanta detective department sweep in and charge Wayne Williams with two of the murders. Holden believes Williams is guilty of a large proportion of them but any attempt to investigate the remainder are shut down and Bill and Holden fly back to Quantico.
The second season of Mindhunter successfully and succinctly builds on the first, both in terms of narrative structure and character development. Narratively, the second season has a more direct story purpose than the first – namely the hunt and eventual capture of the Atlanta child murderer Wayne Williams. This not only feels naturalistic in reflecting the burgeoning direction that the Behavioural Science Unit took in real life but also the series’ own development and the greater attention it has received.
David Fincher understands that by following the story of the BSU and the real people who inspired Holden, Bill and Wendy, he has a flexible but engaging means of developing a story and how their work crosses over and conflicts with their personal lives. Examples include when Bill is helping Holden to build crosses to place near where the Atlanta killer dumped his victims in hopes of bringing him out and he has a moment of disturbed realisation that he is looking at the same thing his son placed a dead child on and Wendy using her own past experiences to elicit information from an interviewee. This ensures that we not only get psychological insight into the criminals but our central characters and how often the horrors they face in their job make them feel disillusioned or concerned with their own lives.
There are certain problems with the second season I have. An example is that we are not always fully given time to comprehend how long the investigation in Atlanta went on for; certainly there are mentions of changes in the seasons and montage sequences that help to inform the audience of this but it sometimes feel perfunctory and the show doesn’t always fully explore how time impacts on the investigator.
There are also, strangely, scenes that would seemingly be ripe for television that aren’t included in the show. Two, in particular, stand out and are recounted in the real Holden Ford, Special Agent John Douglas’ book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit. One scene is the rebuke Douglas faced over giving a press interview when he wasn’t meant to, stating that the suspect was black. Douglas at the end of the investigation recalls that he received an official reprimand for the interview but also a commendation for his work on it and it seems odd that Fincher would leave such an interesting and in character sequence out from the season.
The other may, in fact, be dramatized at some point, perhaps in the opening to the presumed third season. It concerns Wayne Williams’ trial which occurred in 1982. Williams was attempting to portray himself as a completely innocent, softly spoken man. Douglas, knowing that if he didn’t help the prosecution show Williams’ other side that he might walk free spoke to the prosecuting counsel and explained to him exactly how to get inside Williams’ head. The dramatic moment when Williams erupted in court and showed the jury his other, darker, violent side is one that would be perfect for television particularly given the calibre of the actor playing Williams, Christopher Livingston.
The acting throughout the series is astoundingly good, with a great deal of praise hopefully being heaped upon Jonathan Goff, Holt McCallany and Anna Torv. All three give outstanding performances, particularly Holt McCallany as Bill Tench. Tench goes through a great deal in this series an McCallany perfectly expresses the deep and complex mix of emotions that Tench is going through – frustration with Holden, worry for his son and a desire to save his marriage. McCallany’s nuanced and sensitive performance and his attempts to stop his anger coming out are powerfully portrayed – particularly during the scene in which he and Holden interview Charles Manson and Manson suggests that he is not responsible for his actions – rather they are a result of society.
The second season of Mindhunter is an engaging, engrossing and exuberant continuation to the story of the BSU. David Fincher has turned, what could have been if handled by the wrong person a dull series into a captivating and rewarding piece of television history that allows the audience to go deep into the mind of some of the most violent killers in American history and explain what made them commit their terrible crime and why they did it. I would highly recommend it not simply for its well-written plot but also for its tight and forensic direction; its terrific performances and its excellent use of music to set the perfect tone for a perfect show.
Contributed by Will Barber-Taylor
Mindhunter is streaming worldwide on Netflix.