On rare occasions, I like to start a new show rather than bingeing an old favorite. One of these recent excursions outside my comfort zone came in the form of Mindhunter. Mindhunter is a Netflix original series that ran from 2017 to 2019. Directed by David Fincher, the show stars Jonathan Groff, Anna Torv, and Holt McCallany as agents within the FBI’s behavioral science unit. The show kicks off in the 1970s when killers were categorized as lust murderers or spree killers. Holden Ford (Groff) comes to the FBI with novel ideas like attending university classes and studying serial killers directly. While FBI head Robert Shephard (Cotter Smith) bumps heads with Ford, BSU agent Bill Tench (McCallany) buys into his ideas. They then recruit psychology professor Dr. Wendy Carr (Torv) and get down to business. Season 1 of this true crime reenactment sees the team catalog murderers using the revolutionary title “serial killer.” Meanwhile, season 2 finds them embroiled in personal drama and national scandal.
This brings me to my three main points in looking at Mindhunter: this show is fantastic, season 2 ends at the height of drama, and it absolutely requires a follow-up. I am not at all inclined to enjoy true crime dramas. I often find myself baffled when friends or colleagues discuss their favorite serial killers and crime stories. There’s no judgment here; we all have our interests, and I don’t think being curious about killers makes you one. But this was never in my range of interests until I watched Mindhunter. Mindhunter represents excellence on a technical level, displays empathy and insight into its characters, and features witty, revealing dialogue.
The first thing that struck me about Mindhunter was the cast. I was only familiar with Jonathan Groff going in, knowing him as Kristoff in the Frozen franchise and King George in Hamilton. In short, he’s something of a modern-day musical theater legend. I never imagined him leading a stirring crime drama, but he’s magnificent. Agent Ford is a brilliant but deeply flawed man with a keen eye for compulsive behaviors and an inability to connect with others. He struggles with fellow law enforcement officers because his explanations get too wordy and philosophical. Meanwhile, Holden can’t have a simple conversation with his girlfriend due to a penchant for bringing work home. He also displays some of the obsessive behaviors he observes in his cases, doesn’t know where the line is, and frustrates his co-workers to no end. This is a multi-faceted, riveting performance, and the best I’ve seen from Groff. I’m amazed an actor with this much range and versatility isn’t more widely known and headlining movies; he’s not hard on the eyes, either. Anna Torv (Fringe) plays Dr. Wendy Carr, and she’s wonderful, too. Due to the time period the series takes place, she’s a closeted lesbian who desperately wants to keep her personal life separate from her work. Then you have my favorite character, Bill Tench. What isn’t there to love about Bill? He’s well-meaning and relatively open-minded; he’s the first one in the FBI to take Holden seriously. But Bill’s character is another strong indicator of the show’s time period; unable to openly discuss his feelings with his wife. You can sense the building stress under Bill’s tough exterior as marital trouble and the nature of his work tear at him from the inside. Bill’s wife Nancy (Stacey Roca) is alright in season 1 but becomes unbearable in season 2. I don’t begrudge the actress for this; the writing behind this character is baffling, even if she is put through difficult circumstances.
At the risk of jumping ahead, this is the primary reason Mindhunter must be renewed: the sad, infuriating, unsatisfying season 2 ending. This ending is reminiscent of many “beginning of the end” type chapters, where the hero (or heroes in Mindhunter) is at his lowest point. Think The Empire Strikes Back or the Avatar: The Last Airbender Book 2 finale, “The Crossroads of Destiny.” All three leads are at rock bottom in Mindhunter’s season 2 finale: Holden is utterly alone and has failed to help the families of missing children in Atlanta. Wendy ends her first relationship after leaving her longtime partner/teacher/mentor. By the way, what a creepy basis for a romantic relationship! In ending things with Kay, Wendy ends up alone again and continues to question the integrity of the life she leads. Bill returns from the Atlanta case to find that Nancy and their son Brian have left, taking most of the household goods with them. I absolutely have to know what happens to Bill, even more so than the other two. Brian displays unsettling behaviors throughout both seasons, but in season 2, it’s discovered that this young boy is partly responsible for the murder of another child. Bill and Nancy continue trying to do right by their adopted son, but she goes off her rocker, and Bill is pulled away by work.
To be clear, I understand Nancy’s situation, at least as well as I can, given that I don’t have a child, much less a crazed, murderous one. Nancy isn’t entirely in the wrong here; I can admit that. Throughout most of season 1, Bill doesn’t talk to his wife about his work or emotions at all. This would drive a wedge in most relationships, even without a son to care for and a demanding job. The one time Bill does open up to Nancy about the strain his career puts on him in season 1, episode 7, she shows support and embraces him. But in season 2, when Bill mentions what he does at work, Nancy grows impatient and silences him. I understand that investigating murders and interviewing serial killers doesn’t make for polite dinner conversation. But if Bill’s friends are asking him about work (as they do at the cookout in season 2), Nancy is the one being rude by shutting him down. How is he supposed to get relief and emotional support if not from his wife? Remember, this was in the 1970s; it was taboo for a grown man to go to therapy and talk about his feelings. While Nancy could be frustrating or self-centered at times in season 1, she’s a nightmare in season 2.
Normally this would make me lose interest in a show, but there’s so much more to Mindhunter. I grew to care so much about Bill over the two seasons that I cared about Nancy, too, at least insofar as she related to my favorite character. I hated it when they fought because I wanted Bill to be happy, or at least as satisfied as he could be given his line of work. Bill is the most reasonable member of the BSU, less unpredictable than Holden but less rigid than Wendy and Gregg (Joe Tuttle). By the way, Gregg is the worst; Gregg is a rat, a traitor, and the most boring character on the show. I hate Gregg, and again, to be clear, I don’t blame the actor. He does his job; this is a whiny, sniveling, untrustworthy character. Back to Bill, it’s hard not to wish Nancy, as well as his superiors and co-workers, could sometimes grant him a little grace. In season 2, Bill struggles to balance his home and work life. This issue is exacerbated because both facets of his routine are disrupted in ways he can’t openly discuss. Bill can’t very well tell his co-workers (who study and categorize killers!) that his son took part in a killing. Likewise, Nancy is not interested in the demands of his job or how stressful the nature of murder investigation is. This goes hand-in-hand with what I’ve been saying, but the acting in Mindhunter is consistently outstanding. Aside from the leads, one of my favorite performances comes from Cameron Britton as incarcerated serial killer Edmund Kemper. This is a real guy, by the way; he’s still alive in a California prison. Britton delivers one of the most unsettling performances in recent memory, equally polite, pleasant, and disturbingly gruesome. He talks to his FBI buddies about raping and decapitating women like it was fishing or playing golf. The spectacular performances from the leads and ensemble cast are due partly to the masterful hand of director David Fincher. He’s also dealt with material of this nature before.
In closing, I am bewildered at the lack of a third season, or at least a renewal for another one. Mindhunter is a masterclass in acting and character writing and always looks and sounds great. True crime isn’t one of my favorite genres, but the amount of it on Netflix leads one to believe it’s popular. Mindhunter caters to a growing audience hungry for content, features a stellar cast, and tells a riveting story of scientific discovery and the depravity humans are capable of. The Atlanta victims featured in season 2 didn’t get a happy ending, at least not entirely. But the leads of Mindhunter deserve closure of some kind, as do the show’s fans.