- Netflix’s “Mindhunter” is a thrilling origin story of the team that studied the psychology of serial killers. The series includes real-life serial killers like Jerry Brudos, Ed Kemper, and Richard Speck. It is reminiscent of executive producer David Fincher’s 2007 film “Zodiac.” The show never shows an actual murder or crime scene. Within ten episodes, it successfully reinvents what a crime procedural can be.
You probably think you know what Netflix’s “Mindhunter” is like – but you’re wrong.
The new drama, whose executive producers include David Fincher and Charlize Theron, is set in the late 70s and follows the FBI team that studied the psychology of serial killers and murderers, and even came up with the term “serial killer.” Playwright Joe Penhall adapted the series from the non-fiction book co-written by John E. Douglas, the FBI agent who helped invent modern criminal profiling.
“Mindhunter” is, probably not coincidentally, similar in tone, pacing, and look to Fincher’s excellent 2007 film “Zodiac.”
Essentially, “Mindhunter” is an origin story of the team who figured out that serial killers are likely to harm animals, wet the bed over the age of 12, and have terrible relationships with their mothers – and by default, hatred toward women, who are usually their victims.
“Mindhunter,” like 2016’s “Stranger Things,” seemingly came out of nowhere.
Screeners of the first season were not available to the press, which is quite rare especially for new shows. Besides the usual teaser trailer and full trailer, there wasn’t much marketing for the show. I live in New York City, where ads for TV shows haunt me for months on my commute. Usually light marketing and no screeners is a sign that a show is really, really bad.
So I, and many TV critics, were surprised to find that “Mindhunter” is incredible.
In ten episodes, you’ll never actually see a murder, and you’ll barely even get a glimpse of crime scenes. You might see, for example, some episodes begin or end with The BTK killer, Dennis Rader – who wasn’t caught until the early 2000s – leave or arrive at a crime scene. But you don’t see him kill. The violence is depicted and evident in photos, dialogue, and the tension in every scene with one of the killers in prison.
FBI agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) travel around the country educating law enforcement about the psychology of criminals, in hopes that it can help them catch a killer or a criminal. They call this “road school.” While they’re on the road, Holden and Bill visit high-profile killers in prison. Holden and Bill visit Richard Speck (Jack Erdie) in one of the show’s most chilling scenes at a grotesque prison in Joliet, Illinois. In 1966, Speck murdered eight nursing students in Chicago in one night.
At first, their visits are unknown to their boss at the FBI. But after their research helps solve a few murders, their boss gets the project approved, adds Boston University professor Dr. Wendy Carr (a very excellent and underused Anna Torv) to the team, and gets them funding.
Every actor playing the real-life killers is so haunting that the performances will stay with you. And though their performances are terrifying, killers like Brudos and Kemper are so charming and empathetic when they share their troubled childhood that you might end up feeling bad for them, just like special agent Holden eventually does.
What separates “Mindhunter” from other crime dramas is the way it intertwines the agents’ personal lives into the story. A lot of crime shows, particularly on network TV, have a heavy-handed approach to applying a law enforcement character’s personal life in to their work life, and vice versa. “Mindhunter” is different.
Holden is a weird guy, but he’s a good one – or so we think. We watch his first real relationship with grad student Debbie Mitford (Hannah Gross) blossom, and slowly unravel. As Holden continues his research and casual, explicit, and disturbing conversations with murderers, the sympathetic character established in the first episode shifts completely.
Throughout the season we learn more about Bill, who is at first reluctant to do personal interviews with killers. Bill has a wife and an adopted son, who’s not adjusting well after three years – and ironically, might exhibit some of the personality traits they’re finding in the killers they’re studying.
Dr. Carr, who unfortunately doesn’t get as much alone screen time as she deserves (she likely will in season two), establishes her past and personal life in quick scenes that don’t need to explain anything to the viewer beyond what we see.
The show’s showcase (or lack thereof) of its female characters is its primary flaw, with Dr. Carr – an educated, intelligent closeted lesbian who doesn’t answer to anybody – losing screen time to her partners, Holden and Bill, despite the fact that she’s one of the reasons their department exists. Holden’s girlfriend, Debbie, only seems to exist so we are aware that Holden has a sex life. Her only thing, really, is that she is a grad student. Bill’s wife, Nancy, is arguably the most developed female character. She only appears in three episodes, usually to support her husband, and demonstrates her struggle to parent their adopted son, Brian.
In just ten episodes, “Mindhunter” packs significant character development, mystery, subtle-yet-powerful performances, and beautiful (but creepy) cinematography, in what turns out to be a thrilling and educational psychological drama that you should be watching right now.
You can watch the trailer for “Mindhunter” below: