The 1970s! The FBI! Sex with decapitated heads!
BQB here with a review of the new Netflix series, “Mindhunter.” (BEWARE SPOILERS)
Hey 3.5 readers. I heard a random recommendation for this show on a podcast the other day and had I not heard it, I would not have known this show even existed. I’m not sure it’s getting the credit that it deserves because it’s well done, dramatic, smart, good timing, pacing, writing, acting, the whole she-bang.
I have no pull in Hollywood but I hope I can at least push the 7 eyes of my 3.5 readers to this outstanding series.
So, what’s it about? It’s the late 1970s. Watergate, Vietnam, and a series of 1960s political assassinations have left the public with what President Jimmy Carter once referred to as a “malaise” (although he never actually used that word but I don’t want to veer too far off track.) Essentially, the institutions society depended on were breaking down and people started losing faith, accepting that life kinda blows and there’s not much to be done about it.
Against this backdrop, a new form of criminal emerges. While the FBI was born in the name of stopping the likes of Dillinger and Capone, i.e. crooks with a clear motive (profit), there are now killers whose crimes are inexplicable – Charles Manson, Son of Sam, et. all. Murders that are bizarre, disturbing, gruesome and incomprehensible.
Young, late 20s FBI agent Holden Ford (Jonathon Groff), an instructor of hostage negotiation tactics at the FBI training academy at Quantico, wants to understand how humans become monsters and sees potential in applying psychology to criminology.
Alas, Unit Chief Shepard (Cotter Smith), a typical gear clogging government bureaucrat, sums up the FBI’s thoughts on psychology – it’s bunk, hippy dippy nonsense, pointless prattle about thoughts and feelings that are not worth the bureau’s time.
Enter Agent Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), a stereotypical gruff and grizzled, buzz cut sporting G-Man. He believes he’s found a golden gig in the FBI, teaching “road school,” i.e. each week he visits a different city, trains local law enforcement with a condensed version of FBI tactics, finds a lot of free time to hit the local golf courses, then heads home on the weekend to the wife and kid until he turns around and does it all again the next week.
Alas, Holden is assigned to work with Tench and as you might expect, he becomes a real turd in Tench’s punch bowl.
Holden sees a lot of potential in the road school’s downtime. During a visit to California, he talks his way into a prison visit to interview serial killer Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton), a 6’9,” 300 pound man who infamously killed his grandparents as a juvenile, only to be released as an adult, where he turned around and killed a number of women, cut off their heads and well, did unsavory things to said heads. He even did this to his own mother before finally turning himself in.
Holden arranges for multiple interviews with Kemper and slowly but surely, talks the skeptical Tench into believing that locked away in the minds of serial killers is the information needed for the FBI to develop the new science of “criminal profiling” i.e. looking at traits held by certain people and determining the likelihood they might kill based on those traits, perhaps maybe even one day being able to stop such gruesome murders from happening. Even further, they hope to be able to look at aspects of a crime, determine what kind of traits would be in a potential suspect and from there, be able to find the killer that much easier.
Thus, the FBI’s first behavioral science unit is born and soon enough, it grows in the form of Dr. Wendy Carr (Ana Torv) a professor turned FBI consultant.
As season one progresses, more serial killers are interviewed. Although Holden and Tench are amalgamations of the real life pioneers who convinced the FBI to incorporate psychological profiling into its box of detection tricks, the killers interviewed are all real, i.e. actors doing their best imitations of said murderers.
Britton steals the show as the socially awkward Kemper, who blames his mother for all his problems, and is apparently so lonely that he starts to live for Holden’s interviews. A crazy giant who kills people and fornicates with their heads is not exactly someone you want on your speed dial.
Happy Anderson plays Jerry Brudos, a hulking beast who murdered young women and stole their shoes (also blames his mother, it’s sort of a running, I don’t want to say joke but maybe a point that all the killers blame their moms).
Other killers include Montie Rissell (Sam Strike) who killed his female rape victims because he wanted them to be quiet and Richard Speck (Jack Erdie) who committed perhaps the most horrific acts in serial killer history, kidnapping a house full of nursing students and murdering all eight women in a single night.
The dynamic between Holden and Tench makes the series not just watchable but bingeable. Holden is fascinated by what he sees as psychological tidbits being mined from the brains of these madmen – aspects of their childhoods, experiences, upbringings, things that can be looked for when hunting murderers.
Tench reluctantly admits the research will be helpful and yet, the research disgusts him. While Holden views the interview subjects as victims of their own psychiatric circumstances, Tench views them as scumbag losers who couldn’t handle life so they flipped out and then blame everyone else but themselves for their own evil doings. At times, the buddy cop dynamic is fun and humorous.
From a writing perspective, it’s an example of how good writers can incorporate infamous figures from a history (here, a dark history) and incorporate fictionalized interactions to create something that is interesting.
Of course, no science is perfect and the ethical ramifications are explored. Is it possible to use profiling to stop crimes before they start? If a person is law abiding but exhibits strange but legal traits, should that person be deprived of a job, of a livelihood, cast aside from society, treated as a criminal before committing a crime? Holden wrestles with these issues as his research causes him to start seeing potential psychos everywhere.
As the buddy cop duo continue their research, they often get called into the field to help local police departments catch killers, giving Holden and Tench a chance put what they have learned into practice.
SIDENOTE: Congrats to McCallany, who is one of those actors who has long played tough guys in movies, one of those actors who is in a lot of stuff but you never know his name…until now.
STATUS: Shelf-worthy. I can’t wait for season 2.