Review: Mindhunter

Jonathan Groff and Anna Torv in Mindhunter

Mindhunter, season 1, is a Netflix original. Set in the late 1970s, it’s about how the FBI began to develop a behavioral sciences division and look at the psychology of psychopaths and serial killers. These were early efforts to understand the criminal mind in days when the killers managed one-offs with a kitchen knife or a sawed-off shotgun.

I couldn’t help thinking about today’s mass murderers, who kill so many so quickly with automatic weapons. Nowadays, even if the FBI can understand the psychology of mass murderers, they are thwarted from doing anything about it by the gun lobby.

The series begins with FBI agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany). They are on the road teaching cops. Holden pushes constantly to talk to criminals incarcerated near where they teach, to see what can be learned about their thinking. In the early episodes, Bill is square against this and plays golf while Holden is in prisons talking to murderers. Eventually the chain-smoking, world-weary Bill understands what Holden is talking about and gets on board.

Holt McCallany and Jonathan Groff in Mindhunter
Bill finally sees the value in interviewing criminals

Bill brings in an academic friend of his Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) who is researching the psychology of the criminal mind. The three of them formed a team. They fight every step of the way for acceptance and approval from Unit Chief Shepard (Cotter Smith) within the FBI.

I decided to watch Mindhunter because Anna Torv is in it. I was sadly disappointed with the development of her character. All we learn about her outside her demands for scientific research and building data sets about criminals is this: she’s willing to leave her intellectually pretentious girlfriend (Lena Olin) and her academic career behind for a job with the FBI, and she feeds cans of tuna to a stray cat in her new apartment near Quantico.

J. Edgar Hoover was head of the FBI until 1972. There’s no chance that in 1977, when this series begins, Wendy Carr would be open about her sexuality. Maybe this will go somewhere in future seasons, but it went nowhere in season 1.

Holden was a more developed character. In the early episodes he’s like an eager schoolboy. Innocent. A Boy Scout.

He had a girlfriend named Debbie (Hannah Gross) who was smart and capable. As Holden became more and more immersed in the minds of serial killers, his behavior toward Debbie changed. His behavior as an FBI agent changed too. He became more in tune with the minds of the men he tried to understand and it infected everything about his life.

Holden’s descent in to the minds of serial killers makes him the most expert interrogator on the team. But his straight-from-the-gutter technique puts the whole team and behavioral sciences unit at risk. Jonathan Groff shows Holden’s slow development of understanding with subtle changes in posture, demeanor, and body language from episode to episode. He seems to age before our eyes.

Bill has a wife (Stacey Roca) and an adopted child who never speaks. His marriage and family were explored slightly, especially his difficulty relating to his adopted son. There’s a lot to Bill we don’t know yet. I hope it is a focus in future seasons.

Happy Anderson and Jonathan Groff in Mindhunter
Happy Anderson played one of the serial killers.

There were many conversations with many different killers. The actors who played the murderers often had more personality than the FBI team.

The team of Holden, Bill and Wendy listened to the recordings of the conversations with the murderers again and again looking for patterns, similarities. One of the earliest patterns they discovered was that many psychopathic killers abused animals as children before they went on to murder repeatedly. They frequently had abusive mothers and absent fathers.

Together they built the vocabulary we use now. Words like serial killer came from them discussing what vocabulary to use to describe their findings. They explored profiling and began to see it and use it as a way to find and  identify killers.

Despite my feeling that the Bill and Wendy characters were flat and undeveloped, the history was interesting enough to keep me going. We see baby steps toward the science the FBI now uses as the basis for all sorts of police work.

A tantalizing mystery was held up in each episode keep us going. In episode 10, the last of the season, we realize the mystery  won’t be addressed until season 2. An ADT Security Services installer (Sonny Valicenti) from Park City, Kansas showed up briefly in every episode. Only a knot noticed in season 1 will connect to him in season 2 (or beyond).

In the last episode of season 1, Holden Ford’s medical condition is in doubt. Another good cliffhanger.

Mindhunter was created by Joe Penhall, who wrote in every episode. About half the writers were women but none of the directors. There were several women producers, including Charlize Theron. David Fincher, who executive produced, also directed several episodes. I’ll bet he’s happy to be working on Mindhunter right now instead of House of Cards.

The series is based on the book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, written by real-life F.B.I agent John Douglas. The Holden Ford character is based on him.

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