There was a time when I thought that movie and TV storytelling should just keep away from serial killers for the next, oh, several decades? It’s not because of the horrific subject matter, it’s more that serial killers had become stale in the decade following Silence of the Lambs. The writing was usually lazy, the performances showy but empty, the genre as flat as a glass of Chianti left out in the open overnight. Every return to the psycho well brought with itself diminishing returns, to the point where even the Chef of them all, good old Hannibal Lecter, had been turned into a camp ham, barely any more frightening than the third rubber skeleton from the left in a tacky haunted house ride.
It was David Fincher’s underrated Zodiac (2007) that changed my opinion: here was a film about a serial killer that didn’t rehearse the same tropes. Instead, it told a different story, about the people who, looking for some sort of meaning, for the solution to what they think of as a puzzle, are sucked into the emptiness at the centre of these crimes – and, in some cases, consumed by it. A story where the serial killer isn’t the only one who is obsessed.
Other serial killer media followed that revitalised my interest, not least the kinky, yummy Hannibal series that reinvigorated Hannibal Lecter himself, that particular cliché of clichés. Not all of what has come out since has been good, not all of brings a new spin on old material to the table, but there’s a much wider range of styles and stories than ten, fifteen years ago. But Zodiac‘s more sedate, moody approach has still been a rarity much of the time – until David Fincher found himself with another serial killer itch that he needed to scratch: the Netflix series Mindhunter.
Mindhunter doesn’t immediately look particularly novel, though from the first scene it’s clear that it is immensely well crafted. At a glance it looks like, well, Zodiac – The TV Series, set in an often-nostalgised era (the late 1970s) and looking the part too. This, however, is no bad thing. What Mindhunter shares with its cinematic older brother goes beyond its aesthetics: like Zodiac, the series takes its time to establish tone and character, and like Zodiac it is nothing if not methodical, though it can also be discomforting and oddly witty. Mindhunter tells the story of the early days of criminal psychology and profiling and of the development of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, through the eyes of its three leads, the young, awkward, highly intuitive Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff – yes, King George from Hamilton and Kristoff from Frozen), the more seasoned, cautious Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) and Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), a psychology professor with an interest in sociopaths. Together, these three disparate characters work on the foundations of understanding the mind of a serial killer.
Agents Ford and Tench begin to investigate the psychology of killers already in custody by talking to a smart, erudite, strangely compelling murderer who is already behind bars: Edmund Kemper, also known as the coed killer. The setup may sound more than a little Silence of the Lambs, and Thomas Harris, author of the Hannibal Lecter novels, did take inspiration from the FBI memoirs of John E. Douglas, the FBI investigator that Agent Ford is based on, but Mindhunter isn’t the gothic thriller that Silence of the Lambs was, and Kemper’s nerdy charm is entirely different from the charisma of Hannibal. In these interviews, Mindhunter finds a fascinating position for itself in between old-school serial killer storytelling and the more modern trend of true crime. And it is exceedingly rare in choosing not to depict the horrors that these killers bring about directly: we don’t get the murder-as-art tableaux of so many films and series in the genre (even Hannibal indulged in this, though indulgence was obviously a great part of the series’ appeal), but we get people talking about them. We get murderers trying to play up their own image, trying to fashion themselves into something they aren’t, by means of language. And Mindhunter is interested in the gap between these pathetic figures and their attempts at self-mythologising.
Mindhunter is also interested in our culture’s fascination with these killers, holding up a mirror to us in the shape of Agent Ford, who is as much of a gifted investigator as he is something of a fanboy. His face lights up when he learns that he gets to interview Ed Kemper or Charles Manson, not unlike that of a small boy on Christmas morning who’s just unwrapped the latest Xbox. He’s intuitive when it comes to the inner workings of the sociopaths they are investigating, but in his interactions with regular people he often seems lacking, as if his senses are so focused on the extraordinary that they do not register the ordinary that is right in front of him. Ford is an odd protagonist and at times downright unlikable in his growing arrogance at having become the FBI’s golden boy.
Bill Tench is also an unusual protagonist: McCallany looks much like the bullish bad cop character from a James Elroy novel, and he can definitely play the part of the old-school, conventionally male detective – but he shows a surprising degree of vulnerability to the horrors they investigate and that the killers often delight in reliving in their own words. All in all, Mindhunter is as much about the toll this work is taking on the characters (the word “PTSD” is never uttered, but it is clear that the agents are not immune to the trauma of bearing witness to these horrific crimes) as it is about their investigations. Dr Carr completes the set of unusual protagonists: her gift for analysing the psychology of her subject in no way derives from a clichéd notion that, as the woman in the outfit, she would be the most sensitive of the three. In many ways, she proves to be much less emotionally affected by the work than Agents Ford and Tench are, which provides the series with a fascinating contrast to many of the murderers whose narcissism only adds to the various forms of toxic masculinity they display.
Carr sadly takes something of a backseat in the second season, but its focus on the Atlanta child murders of 1979 to 1981 places Mindhunter‘s narrative squarely in the sociocultural upheavals of the era, and this is another way in which the series ends up being more, and more interesting, than most serial killer stories one or two dozen years earlier. Conventionally, the genre uses its historical settings as little more than set dressing, but Mindhunter considers its historical context as central to the story as the crimes the BSU investigates – again a quality it shares with Zodiac, though it is even more pronounced here. This also means that viewers expecting the prurient thrills of so many ’90s serial killer stories won’t find them here. While Agent Ford may have a fascination for the grizzly celebrities many of these killers ended up becoming, Mindhunter is more about bearing witness and striving for some kind of unterstanding where none might be forthcoming than it is about ogling and gawping and sensationalising.
While I will gladly recommend Mindhunter to anyone going into the series with the right set of expectations, though, there is one thing to note: David Fincher planned for the series to have five seasons, but after the second season ended it went on hiatus, ostensibly while Fincher completed work on Mank, his biopic about Citizen Kane co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz. Its cast has been released from their contracts and the series has been put on hold indefinitely. While season 2 tells a complete story, the story it tells is in no small part one of frustration and the impossibility of closure (yes, this too is as much a part of Mindhunter‘s DNA as it was of Zodiac‘s). Agents Ford and Tench and Dr Carr do not solve the crime, cuff the bad guy and drive off into the early ’80s sunset: they collect the pieces and try to make sense of them – and very possibly fail in this endeavour. It would be a shame if Mindhunter joined other prematurely cancelled series in the Netflix graveyard, but it would also be an oddly fitting end to the story that the series has been telling from the beginning.