Stylin’ and Profilin’

Mindhunter follows the first FBI agents to try to get inside the head of a serial killer.

Jonathan Groff and Cameron Britton in Mindhunter.

Merrick Morton/© 2017 - Netflix

Mindhunter’s first scene begins with a hostage negotiation and ends in a spatter of blood and brain matter. The gore is a fake-out. Though the series, which premiered last week on Netflix, brims with gruesome murders, but for some hide-your-eyes crime photos we only ever hear tell of them. The show, loosely based on a nonfiction book of the same name about the FBI unit that investigates serial killers, isn’t a bloodbath: It’s a head trip, a cerebral consideration of all the terrifying things that can go wrong inside the minds of murderers and men.

Present at that hostage situation is FBI Agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) a young, curious negotiator with a particular interest in psychology. It’s 1977 and the Bureau, only five years post-Hoover, is figuring out how to approach crime in a world gone mad. The old motives of “need and greed” no longer suffice: The Son of Sam, recently arrested in New York City, blames a talking dog for his crimes. The FBI hardly has the language to discuss criminal psychology, while rank-and-file police departments hardly have the will, preferring to think of criminals as simply evil. Ford intuits that there’s more to know about why criminals behave as they do and is languishing in UVA criminology classes when he is drafted by seasoned agent Bill Tench (Holt McCallany, a journeyman actor who should now get offered every gruff, appealing law enforcement role) to travel across the country updating police departments on the FBI’s investigative techniques.

On a trip to California, Ford and Tench are approached by an officer working a particularly grisly case. Ford realizes the bureau has no particular insight to offer him and decides it’s time to do something about that. He begins interviewing serial killers—or as he calls them, sequence killers: The terminology we now use to describe these men is what the department eventually develops. His first interview is with Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton), the “Co-ed Killer,” who decapitated multiple women. Kemper is tall and doughy with Coke-bottle glasses and a placid, forthcoming demeanor. He insists on procuring Ford an egg salad sandwich from the commissary before discussing his “vocation,” theorizes that he should have a lobotomy, and asks if Ford has any idea how hard it is to fornicate with someone’s neck.

As this suggests, even without the blood, Mindhunter is plenty creepy. Serial killers are a preoccupation of fiction because they are so horrifically dramatic. But Mindhunter minimizes the action—there are no flashbacks, there are no re-enactments, there are no autopsies. Almost every episode of the show opens with a brief scene in which an unknown killer slowly prepares for a murder. We assume that eventually this killer’s story will intersect with our FBI agents’, but if that’s going to happen, it won’t be until Season 2. The climax of the first season is an intra-office conflict.

Instead, Mindhunter locates its drama in interrogations. The show is, in essence, a string of short plays, two- and three-handers featuring Ford, Tench, and a vile murderer in a room. Kemper is the most memorable of these, the nightmare version of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow man. With the insights gleaned from him, Ford and Tench are able to help local law enforcement solve a tough case. They eventually convince their boss that there is a utility in speaking with the deranged. The bureau creates a behavioral psychology department—Ford and Tench are soon joined by brilliant academic Wendy Carr (Anna Torv)—all the way down in Quantico’s gray, grim basement.

The show has widely been referred to as “David Fincher’s Mindhunter.” Fincher, who directed four of the 10 episodes and is an executive producer, is the most famous person directly involved with crafting it; as a movie director, he is usually accorded the privilege of possessing his projects: David Fincher’s Seven, David Fincher’s Fight Club, and so on. Mindhunter certainly reflects similar thematic and aesthetic preoccupations to Fincher’s other films, particularly Zodiac: the workaday office life and data collection involved in catching and comprehending serial killers, the effect serial killers have on those who try to apprehend them, the lovingly filmed outmoded technologies, the murky greens, the fly interstitial title font.

But according the director primary ownership is movies’ prerogative. In television, it’s usually the showrunner-creator who gets first billing. It was only David Fincher’s House of Cards for an instant (though he may have been happy to give that credential up). Mindhunter was written by Joe Penhall, who is also credited with creating the series, but who was brought in by Fincher and Charlize Theron, another executive producer. As more and more money flies around television, and as more and more directors get interested in making it, there will be more and more occasions to wonder if writers’ primacy is somehow inherent to the form, or just a matter of happenstance, the first step in the TV revolution before talented directors with more power arrive and take it away. The solution might be to think (and write and talk) about projects as the collaborations they really are, but that would involve some uncommon humility from the marquee.

This may sound overly inside-baseball, but Mindhunter itself is concerned with these questions of collaboration, genius, and authorship, of text and its uses, of the great man versus the efficient team. As Ford begins interrogating deviants he thinks of himself as an actor, a man wearing a mask to form a connection with a creepy serial killer. (In one scene his girlfriend Debbie, played by Hannah Gross, advises him on how to make the killers like him: feminine wiles.) But by the end of the season, increasingly confident in his skills, he thinks of himself as a director brilliantly staging a scene to inspire a confession. By this point, Ford is under the hubristic impression that as a genius profiler he is beyond doubt, beyond puny ethical concerns, beyond input from the team. The ends, which he is increasingly comfortable predicting, justify his means.

The transformation of Ford is the true subject of Mindhunter’s first season. Talking to serial killers, understanding serial killers, saying the perfect inappropriate thing to connect with a serial killer—this is Ford’s particular skill, and the show asks you to wonder how normal a man with this facility can be. When we first meet him he’s a savant, able to form an eerie bond with the disturbed on the strength of a wild curiosity that drives him to comprehend maniacs others don’t want to understand. Soon after sharing an egg sandwich with Kemper, he’s ordering one at a restaurant. Debbie has to remind him he doesn’t like them. But this porousness can look like callousness, a kind of immunity, in Tench’s words, to feeling undone by the horrors he’s elicited.

Ford’s astounding feats of empathy make him hard. Early on, he cheers at an old woman’s death: It proves his and Tench’s suspicions correct. By season’s end, he’s passing a serial killer’s quote off as his own. The compulsions he spots so easily in others he is unable to see in himself, and they turn him into the righteous kin of the maniacs with whom he is obsessed.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Fincher said he wanted to avoid presenting the all-knowing super killer, the evil mastermind familiar from Fincher’s own Seven. The killers in Mindhunter—Kemper, Richard Speck, and Jerry Brudos among others—are a scary, sorry, diverse lot (diverse in their killing styles, that is; they’re all white men). Some are meticulous, some sloppy, some forthcoming, some withholding, some stupid, some smart, all different kinds of deranged. But while Mindhunter doesn’t have any supervillains, in Ford it does have a super profiler—an all-knowing “good guy” who doesn’t kill anyone but is still a creep.