David Fincher’s haunting, revolutionary Netflix show returns for a sophomore glimpse into the dark core of the American soul.
Right smack in the middle of Mindhunter‘s nine-episode second season, BSU agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) visit Charles Manson (Damon Herriman), just the latest subject in their long-term project to develop a toolkit for tracking multiple murderers by performing in-depth interviews with the most infamous killers in American history. It’s a move that certainly makes sense in our cultural moment: this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Manson murders, and Mindhunter is at least the fourth project this year to capitalize on it (see also: Charlie Says, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, The Haunting of Sharon Tate).
But what’s fascinating about this encounter, other than Herriman’s wild-eyed, chair-standing performance, is the way Manson is able to get into the heads of these buttoned-down FBI agents far more than any of their previous subjects – including Cameron Britton‘s Ed Kemper, who makes an expected reprise earlier in the episode given the character’s fan-favorite status in season 1. Instead of a profile about how he convinced Tex Watson and the rest of the Family to murder Sharon Tate and several others, Manson turns the table on them; they’re not his children, but ours. “Your world is your prison,” argues Manson. “You’re your own wardens.”
In a lot of ways, this haunting line encapsulates the real psychological meat of David Fincher‘s Netflix-ready procedural, which just dropped its second season this weekend after a two-year hiatus. Much ballyhoo has been made of Mindhunter as a spiritual followup to his incredible 2005 thriller Zodiac, and the comparison is apt: with its desaturated, carefully curated cinematography and bleak, matter-of-fact look at the micro and macro effects of the serial killer era, it’s a dynamite second season of television.
While Manson and Kemper occupy a bit of our heroes’ time, as do other interviews with the Son of Sam (Oliver Cooper) and other infamous serial killers, Mindhunter throws Ford and Tench in the middle of two major investigations throughout the early 80s: the BTK Killer — short for Bind, Torture, Kill, who killed ten people in the Wichita, Kansas metro area throughout the 70s and 80s — and the Atlanta child murders that happened around the same time, where nearly thirty black children turned up dead, either in nearby woods or the Chattahoochee River.
In the meantime, political shakeups change the fabric of the BSU when their initial head, Shephard (Cotter Smith) is ousted after leaked tapes embarrass the unit; he’s replaced by Ted Gunn (Michael Cerveris), a politically-attuned supervisor who sees which way the wind is blowing. The BSU have greater resources, but deeper pressure as a result; plus, they have to play the political game now, which rankles everyone involved.
Of course, the emotional and psychological toll of spending so much time digging into the minds of murderers begins to show in our heroes: Ford begins suffering from panic attacks, while Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) finds her methodical attitude affecting her budding relationship with a bartender (Lauren Glazier). But it’s family man Tench who might have the biggest hurdle to climb, as shocking events surrounding his family force him to handle psychopathy even under his own roof.
If season one was a rocky if ambitious start, Mindhunter‘s second run feels far more polished and assured. The entire season is placed in the hands of three directors, who helm all nine episodes: Fincher, Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), and Carl Franklin (House of Cards, Out of Time). Fincher’s obviously the tastemaker here, and Dominik and Franklin admirably follow in his heavily curated, dollhouse style while throwing in some individual flair of their own. DP Erik Messerschmidt dives headfirst into inky blacks and fluorescent lighting, crafting an America that’s literally and figuratively had all hope drained out of it.
Mindhunter‘s second run feels far more polished and assured.
But Mindhunter is a series about difficult conversations — with bosses, with family members, with serial killers — and none of that would work without its impeccable ensemble. Ford’s personal life blissfully takes a backseat this season; he’s a creature of process, one who finds it hard to relate to people. Instead, the personal angle gets spread to Torv, who pulls in some wonderful emotional pathos (though she doesn’t get to do as much mindhunting as I’d like), and McCallany, who pulls in one of the best TV performances this year.
Conceptually, Ford and Tench couldn’t be more stock — dweeby, principled nerd paired with stern, tough-guy pragmatist — but Groff and McCallany both find ways to elevate and complicate these characters. Groff dutifully avoids the trap of making his criminal savant neither Patrick Bateman nor Dr. House; McCallany imbues Tench’s stocky build and intense frown with a deep well of empathy and sensitivity.
But it’s Mindhunter‘s probing look at the social dynamics of ’70s-’80s America, and the fever that gripped the American people at a time of great uncertainty and fear about our safety and identity, that makes the show stick so indelibly in your craw. As with season one, cold opens for many of the episodes focus on the BTK Killer himself, Dennis Lynn Rader (Sonny Valicenti), showing the way these killers explore their pathology right under the noses of everyday Americans. Everyone’s touched by this madness to some extent, either experiencing it themselves or ruining their minds and relationships to understand and stop it.
In Atlanta, where Mindhunter spends much of the latter half of its season tracking down the Atlanta Child Killer, a racial component rears its ugly head, as young black children are killed with alarming regularity while grieving black mothers distrust even the most well-intentioned white law enforcement. “Save your promises, Agent Ford,” one mother tells him; in the real world, black murders just aren’t as high a priority as white ones. This is evinced in the contrasting investigations in Atlanta and Tench’s hometown — the death of a white neighbor’s toddler is quickly resolved, while all the community organizing and press conferences in the world can’t bring justice to Atlanta’s dead black children.
Head writer Courtenay Miles flirts with these dynamics with subtle but resounding statements: Ford, a man blinded to everything but pure textbook pathology, thinks the child killer is also black, since serial killers rarely cross racial lines. But as black officials and fellow officers remind him, missing black kids are hardly a surprise in an area where the Klan still has tremendous hold.
Here more than ever, Ford and Tench (but particularly the former) are out of their element, dealing with not just a killer who can anticipate their moves and avoid justice but their own obliviousness as to how their methods — and most importantly, mistakes — can reverberate throughout the city itself. Mindhunter is just as much a show about the politics of police work as it is the mechanics, and it’s refreshing to see a show that recognizes the social role of law enforcement, and how that can be just as much a liability as a comfort (especially for communities of color).
Between Se7en, Zodiac and now Mindhunter, David Fincher has managed to singlehandedly craft the aesthetic of modern serial killer media. That mercurial combination of formal distance and intimate truth, gory grime and dark comedy (some interviews, like Michael Filipowich‘s William Pierce, Jr., with his predilection for circular logic and malapropisms, are downright hilarious) is a rare cocktail for a feature film, much less maintained over a nine-episode season.
In a genre replete with hokey detectives and sneering, cartoonish killers, Mindhunter sees the master stepping up to the plate and showing us the method behind the madness. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait another two years for more of Fincher’s continued exploration of the complicated collapse of the American psyche. As Manson grimly implies, something about the society we’ve built — all the racial animus, the bureaucratic red tape, the interoffice politics — keeps us from preventing these kinds of brutal murders from happening. We’re in our own prisons; we are our own wardens.