Mindhunter, the Netflix series that debuted earlier this month, takes place in 1977 America, amid a nation still fearful of, and confused by, the emergence of a new wave of homicidal criminal. Charles Manson, whose grisly murders rocked the country a decade earlier, remains a hot-button reference; the more recent attacks of David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam,” dominate newspaper headlines. In the show’s opening scene, Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), an intrepid 29-year-old in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Behavioral Science Unit, arrives at a back lot where a disturbed man with a minimal history of violence has taken several people hostage. Holden tries to talk the assailant down gently, notably ditching the customary megaphone in favor of communicating in his unamplified, less-threatening voice. Then, unexpectedly, the subject takes a shotgun to his throat and pulls the trigger, blowing his head off. The hostages survive. The FBI sees this as a win, Holden does not, and, thus, the central conflict of Mindhunter is born: Within a stubborn federal bureaucracy that sees little value in attempting to understand the psychologies of such individuals, Holden wants to flip the playbook.
Four of the ten episodes that make up the first season of Mindhunter — the first two, and the last two — were directed by David Fincher (also an executive producer), a definite non-stranger to the serial-killer milieu. Though there are a few risible crime scenes scattered throughout the series, the material here is more Zodiac (2007) than Se7en (1995): The show is, for the most part, a procession of interviews, debates, arguments, and strategy sessions; there’s even a shot, in episode 10, where Fincher plunks the camera on a rolling-down-the-hallway file cart, a nice, nerdy nod to Zodiac. As with that earlier moody period piece, the historical backdrop of Mindhunter is based on fact, the source material drawn from the 1995 book Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, by Mark Olshaker and John E. Douglas, the latter of whom has inspired a host of cerebrally minded fictional characters, including Scott Glenn’s in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). The extent to which Douglas altered FBI orthodoxy is underlined by an early scene in Mindhunter, in which Holden invites a bureau lecturer out for a beer. “Listen, you and I could theorize all night long,” offers Holden’s more seasoned companion, regarding America’s burgeoning pattern of inexplicable violence, “but the truth is, I don’t fucking know.” Holden’s groundbreaking supposition is to start asking, and sticking by, questions in this vein, even if it means starting from square one. As the lecturer states to his class, “Where do we go when motive becomes elusive?”
This inquisitive boldness convinces Holden’s skeptical unit chief, Shepard (Cotter Smith), to underwrite a secret FBI division in which Holden can conduct interviews with convicted killers and generate a database of their psychologies. He doesn’t want just to catch these men and put them away, but to understand them and eventually use the tools he compiles to preempt and predict their behavior and others like them. His partner in this matter is the gruff, 44-year-old Bill Tench (Holt McCallany, a wonderful actor, from Michael Mann’s 2015 Blackhat and others, here given an outstanding showcase), a veteran of the Behavioral Science Unit who is sympathetic to Holden’s ideas, but also the realistic foil of the pair. (On his days off, Holden schedules interviews with serial killers; Bill plays golf.) Operating out of a basement office, Holden and Bill set about canvassing the United States to interrogate the country’s most confounding criminals. Their first case: the imposing, six-foot-nine Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton), whose seemingly reserved disposition and at times almost suspiciously articulate verbosity belies the heinousness of his past deeds (“So I got a claw hammer, and I beat her to death,” is just the first domino of his chillingly related tale of what he did to his mother).
Fincher’s opening episodes are technically exemplary but mostly serve as efficient, check-all-the-boxes table-setting. From there, the show moves on to its middle six episodes, split between three directors who, on paper, appear to have little connection to one another: Asif Kapadia (the documentarian behind 2010’s Senna and 2015’s Amy; episodes 3 and 4); Tobias Lindholm (the director of A Hijacking and the co-writer of The Hunt, both from 2012; episodes 5 and 6), and Andrew Douglas (2005’s The Amityville Horror; episodes 7 and 8). There are some obvious downsides to being stuck with the middle chunk of this series. For one thing, Britton’s performance as Kemper is so commanding and eerily concentrated that none of the ensuing prison interviews can really live up to his standard. In the interrogation that kicks off episode 4, for instance, the incarcerated subject under consideration (Sam Strike) recalls his first murder, and as he reaches the climax of his story, Kapadia amplifies the dialogue with a swelling musical score — a device that would be unthinkable in the early Kemper scenes. There’s also much time devoted to a small-town murder case in Altoona, Pennsylvania, that seems like little more than boilerplate Law & Order–level stuff stretched obligatorily across hours. During this juncture, there are even a couple of inexplicably short episodes — episode 5 is 42 minutes; episode 6 is only 34 — which only adds to the sense of aimlessness and wheel-spinning.
And yet, during these in-between stages, as the morbid interviews and interrogations all threaten to blur together, the domestic scenes, the ones that take place outside the purview of the FBI, ratchet up their nuance and intrigue. For starters, this show about men who humiliate and mutilate women — and who discuss their deeds in graphic, tell-all terminology — actually introduces a principal female cast member, Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), a Boston-based academic who convinces Bill and Holden that their project could eventually lead to a lucrative and important book deal. Wendy begins to advise the two men in her free time, and is even offered a full-time position at Quantico. (Wendy is the recipient of the show’s most beguilingly doled-out subplot, involving a lower-level laundry room, cans of tuna, glasses of white wine, and an offscreen stray cat.)
These middle episodes also provide rich background for the two main players, Bill in particular. Throughout the early portions, Bill engages in hushed phone conversations with his wife, of whom he speaks lovingly — which makes the quiet, initially unexplained tension of the calls between them all the more mysterious. We eventually learn that Bill and Nancy (Stacey Roca) cannot have children and have thus recently adopted a son, who, in their custody, has displayed uncommunicative tendencies, especially toward Bill. In episode 7, there is a wrenching sequence in which Bill and his wife go out to a tense dinner and, on the drive home, fall into a heated conversation about Bill’s effectiveness as a father. The argument follows them into the house and leads Bill to admit, about his son, “Well, to be honest, he’s not much fun.” Unlike many of the crime-specific sequences in Mindhunter, which can struggle to justify the runtime lavished on them, the situation between Bill and Nancy is one that benefits immensely from the episodes-long buildup of hints, glances, whispers, and implications, all culminating in this living room explosion of two people, tired and stressed and overworked, airing their long-held grievances. Their shouting match ends as it feels it should — in an embrace.
In the final two episodes, both knockouts, Fincher shifts the focus back to Holden, who, over the steady course of the season, gains self-confidence as his forward-thinking ideas acquire traction within the FBI. At the start of the show, Holden is an ambitious and go-getting loner-nerd, taking sips of milk in his no-personality apartment after long nights on the job. By the end, Holden is commanding rooms outright instead of merely locating corners in which he can safely blend in; when his adversarial methods cross the line and receive pushback, he doubles down on his newfound daring, resisting discipline, shunting protocol, and cutting himself off from those close to him. (Gone is the earlier odd-couple banter between the mismatched Bill and Holden, a well-worn dynamic lent terrific specificity by McCallany’s repertoire of Holden-directed eye-rolls and exasperated sighs.) At one point in the tenth episode, Holden states, to a person who has called him out on his bullshit, “The only mistake I made was ever doubting myself,” which sounds a lot like the mantra of a sullen asshole.
This is a bracingly new Holden, and Fincher sees in this hostile trajectory something akin to the self-destructive path taken by Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) in the director’s earlier The Social Network (2010). There is a crushingly curt breakup scene — a condensed version of the kind that opens The Social Network — on a front porch between Holden and Debbie Mitford (Hannah Gross), the postgrad student he befriends at a bar in episode 1 and goes on to date. Groff, who in some of those opening episodes comes off as a bit too one-note Goody-Two-shoes, completely morphs before our eyes, his stares becoming colder, his movements slower, almost like the life has been sucked out of Holden. Fincher conspires to leave Holden as searingly alone as he did Zuckerberg, although the grimness here — this is a show about serial killers, not friend requests — is more horrific and closer to the surface. Zuckerberg is consigned to a life of being sad in front of his computer; Holden, who spends his waking life trying to understand the inner lives of killers, is fated to a more violent brand of isolation. We last see him writhing on the floor of a prison hallway, wracked with turmoil. He’s burned many of his relationships, and he doesn’t have much of anything — like, say, one of the largest private fortunes in history — to alleviate the pain.