How Mindhunter Makes Conversation More Frightening Than Blood

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

I know I’ve been on a bit of a ’70s run recently, with the likes of The Long Goodbye, The French Connection, The Parallax View and Marathon Man, so I thought this would be a nice change of gear with recent Netflix series Mindhunter. But, ah ha! I’ve fooled you, because Mindhunter is actually set in the late ’70s, with second series bridging into the early eighties, so (sort of) maintains our theme, for the time being.

Starting in 2017, Mindhunter is the true story of Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), two special agents of the FBI, who stumble across the idea of a Behavioural Science Unit, analysing and interviewing some of the most dangerous men in history. With Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), a psychology professor, joining the team, they begin to try and understand the psyche of a serial killer – but at what cost to themselves?

What I love about this show is not only the fascinating insight into the serial killer mind, but the effect the serial killer mind has on normal people – and, in a way, that’s what this show is all about. These three people – Holden, Wendy and Bill – become obsessed with people convicted of violent crimes. They coin the term ‘serial killer’, they work out that absent fathers and abusive mothers are the recipe for a killer, and begin the first steps into truly understanding the narcissistic and sociopathic mind.

However, as they get more and more engrossed in their work, they lose sight of themselves. Holden fails to see his own narcissistic qualities, and, with a hole in his life, tries to fill it with his work on these dangerous men. The same goes for Bill – he’s constantly away from home, leaving his adopted and disturbed son in the hands of his cold wife, Nancy… you see where I’m going with this?

Joe Penhall, a talented playwright, is the show’s creator, and while it was Fincher’s idea, it was very much part of Penhall’s vision. Which probably explains why many scenes are in one room, and most of the time a group of people talking, much like a play. Most of these scenes end up being interrogations, but our two protagonists discover ways to bond and draw out the criminals, even ordering pizza. We would expect violence to be the driving force of the show, but these scenes are the heart beat of Mindhunter, and simple conversations end up being electric – everything is left up to the imagination.

In all reality, this show shouldn’t work. There are scenes stretching out fifteen minutes, and practically all dialogue. It’s a procedural taken to a new level of realism. This is unlike any other crime series ever made before, and I’d be willing to say that Mindhunter is the most experimental programme made since The Sopranos.

So why does it work? I think part of it is the dynamics between the characters. Take a typical interview that has become the staple of the show. Usually, not only are they talking to a fascinating character, but there’s tension between Bill and Holden, either because of the way the interview’s being conducted – the Richard Speck interview would be a prime example – or what’s going on in their own lives – the Charles Manson interview.

Another reason is probably because of humanity’s long running obsession with killers. It just appears we can’t get enough of them, and while you can read all the material you like, you’d be surprised how much you’d learn from Mindhunter. It’s an incredibly enjoyable education. And having these murders in the show isn’t only for enlightenment – they’re brilliantly played by a few gem actors, with Cameron Britten being nominated for a Primetime Emmy as Ed Kemper, the coed killer. Every scene has the feeling it could so quickly escalate into something much worse. And that’s seen in a wider sense with the first series. The tension slowly builds, consuming Holden, till he can’t take it any longer.

SPOILERS!!!

This is one of the best moments in the show. The joltiness of the camera is so effective because we’re usually so still and observant, a little like the characters themselves. Another is the cross carrying scene, which is horribly tense to watch. This is breaking point for Holden, and puts him amongst the best “panic attackers”: Tony Soprano and Hank Schrader being two.

Holden’s a very interesting character himself. He seems like the typical Boy Scout at the start: innocent, naive and a little wet. He would certainly never break the rules. Then he meets Bill, hits the road and is exposed to the true horrors of the world. His breaking bad isn’t particularly satisfying, unlike a Walter White, say, mainly because it isn’t supposed to be. At points, you can’t help but feel repulsed by him. Yet, for all his faults, he’s a sympathetic character. We like him. He’s arrogant, but he’s got the ability to back it up. At the end of the day, there’s no one who can do what Holden can do.

The second series focuses more on Bill and his family, with disconcerting problems involving his son, Brian. It’s a nice contrast to the first, where Holden struggles to fill a hole in his life, Bill struggles to empty out a blockage in his. But, at the end of the day, both are about getting consumed by their work. Wendy is also a big part of the show, providing vital insight, but with a secret to hide. As the show’s based around two flawed men, it’s nice to have some common sense in the room. She’s a character on the grow – but a growth that might not be fulfilled, unfortunately.

So why shouldn’t you watch this show? Because there’s only two seasons. David Fincher was exhausted by the whole experience and wanted to pursue some other work in the film industry. Both of the creatives found that the research into the characters came at a personal cost. There was a two year gap between season one and season two, so I’m still hopeful that eventually Mindhunter will return for a deserving third, but it may be a while. Like, “five years” a while. So, it’s currently in a state of limbo.

At this current moment, we don’t really have a proper ending. We have no idea what’s going to happen with BTK (a ADT serviceman/serial killer who appears in nearly every teaser), let alone the rest of the characters. It’s so engaging that it’s frustrating that we won’t know where this develops, but you’ll still get great entertainment for nineteen episodes. It’s worth giving your time for some fantastic performances and for some of the most well paced episodes made in television history.

Mindhunter – 8.5 out of 10

42 thoughts on “How Mindhunter Makes Conversation More Frightening Than Blood

  1. I really loved the first season and not got round to the second one yet. Looks like I have time, I do like me some crime history. Have you watched The Staircase? They are making that into a movie next? GreTe review and a reminder to get back on track.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great that you managed to catch the first series, and I hope you can watch the second. It really is just as good. Not watched The Staircase yet, but it looks interesting. May have to check it out, especially if they’re making a film of it. Cheers Neon! Glad you enjoyed!

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I’ll put it on the list! In terms of Manson, he’s definitely not disappointing in Mindhunter. A brilliant performance, and a chilling scene. Bill is also excellent in it 👍

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Watched the first season and even though I enjoyed it I haven’t been back for a second bout and your blog got me wondering why. I think it’s for all the good reasons you spell out – long stretches of dialogue and procedural stuff. I thought Bill was the more interesting character and though I appreciated that this was the first time cops were confronted the full extent of the serial killer world and underestimating the impact it would have on their domestic lives, that is very much a given on a cop show. That said, I did enjoy it and will go back for the second series.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good to hear you’re going back. Bill is a great character, and you’ll be glad to hear he’s a big part of season 2. I see what you’re saying, but I would still disagree. Unlike in your usual cop shows, these are people who are influenced and forced to empathise with killers – not just catch them. It rubs off on Holden, and it sickens Bill. It’s a fascinating study. In fact, in real life, John Douglas actually did suffer attacks, and went into week long comas from the stress. Definitely worth a revist.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I take your point. You are right that they had to play along with the killers and empathise with them in order to get inside their minds. Looking forward to revisiting the team.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Ooh one of my favorite series! I felt cheated by the decision to suspend it after two seasons and no resolution – but I do see how making it would be draining for all involved. Not only because of the burdening psychological mess of actual serial killers the creators/actors needed to expose themselves to (and it’s no fun to dig into that, I’m sure – especially because all of these murders really happened), but also the highly intense acting/writing experience that’s visible for the audience. There’s no knight in shining armor, and every protagonist is exposed to the worst the humanity has to offer – so inevitably they also find a bit of it in themselves. The second season wasn’t as good as the first, I believe – mainly because of the change of focus from our everyman Holden to Bill and Wendy, but also because Manson was a bit of a letdown 😉 But still, it’s hand down the best of what I watched on serial killers.
    Incidentally, I’ve recently watched Brtitten play a time-traveling assassin in the Umbrella Academy! 😀

    Have you seen the Unabomber TV series?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know – it is annoying, and part of me feels it’s a bit selfish on Fincher’s part. Yes, I know he was the de facto showrunner and most common director, but to put a whole show on hold, leaving all the actors and everyone else working on the show, as well as the audience, in a state of limbo? That’s frustrating.

      Interesting you don’t think the second was as good as the first. I thought the pay off towards the end of season two was gold – y’know, the moment where Holden and Bill look at each other when they hear Wayne talk for the first time. Wow. But I do agree – Holden was my favourite character, and it was interesting to see him change in such a profound way during season 1. I thought Manson was a thrilling scene, mostly because Bill was completely losing it. But yes, it’s a great series, and so is Britten! I’m glad you’re enjoying him in other things. I haven’t watched Manhunt (which is what I think you are referring to). Recommend?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Manson was a letdown for me because it’s been so hyped over the whole season and in the end he looked more like a trained monkey than a charismatic, evil leader capable of seducing others to his vision so completely. I do agree, we have the emotional payoff of the psychological discoveries in s02, but s01 perfectly showcases the personal cost of that knowledge – in the second season we’re left to ponder nature vs nurture, ie. whether Bill’s adopted son is a psychopath or was he made one by Bill’s work, and we see the grind of the system in the case of the young Black boys, but the personal costs are somewhere in the background, the protective layer of being inured to it all becoming thicker and thicker.

        Yes, I recommend Manhunt: Unabomber – it’s very well acted, and the story is quite interesting indeed! I’m not a fan of Worthington’s, but here he is a solid opposite for Bettany 😀 Britton plays there as well! 😉

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yep, I definitely see what you’re saying, and you’re right. Season one is their discoveries, and the personal effect on themselves, and season two is them putting it into practice, and, by the end, beginning to doubt themselves. Holden wonders if he’s been too stubborn and gotten it wrong with his profile, and Bill wonders, as you say, nature Vs nurture. In the first series, we delve deeper into Holden’s personal life, and we can’t really do that in the second because what personal life does he really have? He’s all about the work.

          I’ll have to check Manhunt out. Sounds good!

          Liked by 1 person

        1. Ah, I see. Don’t know how long this one will take to go to a DVD format – could be a while, I don’t know. A waiting game, Alex, a waiting game.

          Watched Succession yet?

          Like

    1. Netflix has a lot of cack on it, it’s true, but a few good things pop up every once in a while, and this is one of them. The Sopranos is, undeniably, a great show, which I probably need to rewatch. Mindhunter is definitely a quarter as good, if not more. But if you don’t watch series that much but want to make a commitment to one, I would want to recommend you the cream of the crop. Breaking Bad is a must, of course, so hopefully you’ve watched that, but I still wanted to drop it in anyway. The other show I would say is Succession (https://overtheshoulder129848657.wordpress.com/2021/04/23/we-need-to-talk-about-succession) because that’s simply brilliant. The acting is off the scale. Nearly Soprano levels? Well, I don’t want to big it up too much, but it’s definitely worth considering.

      And congratulations on the magazine! Very cool – I’ll give it read.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have every episode of The Sopranos on DVD. A friend bought me the first box set of ‘Breaking Bad’, but I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t watched it yet. Sad too, as he died 5 years ago, not long after gifting it to me.
        I started to watch Gangs of London on NOW TV, but have only got to episode 5 so far.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. That’s how I watched The Sopranos, but since then I’ve got borrowed a friend’s Sky account, and I think you can watch it on demand there, as it’s an HBO programme.

          I’m sorry to hear that, Pete. Very sad. He’s already got my respect for having such good taste in TV. You must watch Breaking Bad. By series 3, I can tell you, there’s nothing quite like it. And it’s on Netflix, so easy to watch, and you can get some good use out of that subscription.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. I watched the Sopranos on TV first, then had the box sets bought as gifts. I lent them to a neighbour in Beetley who had never heard of the show. He sat up all night watching them over a few days, and said it was the best thing he had ever seen. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

        3. He had been in Beetley, and had just never watched it. Like me with so many ‘must watch’ things that I have never seen. (Like Harry Potter films, Stranger Things, Mad Men, etc.)

          Liked by 1 person

  4. A serial for serial killers, that was kind of self-evident, wasn’t it?
    With serial liker as Fincher behind the camera, the result is obviously brilliant, direct extension of his first murder autopsies on the screen. You’re right when you insist on the major influence of Joe Penhall, associated to the man behind Seven or Zodiac, it produces a high quality show.
    I hope for a new season.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yep, we can only hope that it’ll return one day. Penhall and Fincher make a brilliant team, and that’s reflected on the screen. People will talk about Bill and Holden, but those two are the ones that really make it.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Mindhunter is a great show. I hope David Finch comes back to it in the near future. By the way I am currently reading FBI agent John Douglas’ true crime book ‘Mindhunter’. The details of the book are mirrored well in the show.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Reads like a true crime novel so far. Douglas details his early life and career as an FBI agent. before delving into the cases he has worked on and many others that are related and interesting. I find myself looking up cases he talks about. Fascinating stuff. Eerie and haunting too. He doesn’t hold back in describing crimes committed by serial killers. I highly recommend it.

        Liked by 1 person

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