This was supposed to be a regular review.
Only, upon beginning Mindhunter - David Fincher's latest foray into the world of serial killers (producing all and directing four installments of the Joe Penhall created series) - it quickly became apparent that one rundown of all ten episodes just wasn't going to be sufficient. Hell, even the pilot is so rich in character and period detail that it deserves a review all its own, in order to run down the numerous historical sign posts and rich texture that's inserted into the first of this ten-hour Netflix drop.
However, penning ten reviews for a series most are going to consume in one sitting is also a fool's endeavor, so it felt more appropriate to gear some form of writing toward that viewing experience; a journal of sorts, jotted down while ingesting this sprawling exploration of the beginnings of serial killer investigation and psychology. In that spirit, this formal "review" has now been divided into three entries that are going to cover Mindhunter in chunks; episodic bursts that allow for a slightly deeper dive into its complex world than a simple binge recap would allow for.
Episode 1 (d. David Fincher, w. Joe Penhall)
“The world barely makes any sense, so it follows that crime doesn’t either.”
1977. FBI Agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) tries to talk a man off the ledge during a hostage situation in Braddock, Pennsylvania, and the disturbed, shotgun-wielding terrorist refuses, turning the gun on himself and taking his head clear off in front of his wife and roughly a dozen local cops. Shaken, Ford returns to his post, and is reassigned to an instructor's position at Quantico, where he struggles to convey the psychology of negotiation to rookies. All the while, he gains a girlfriend in behavioral sciences PhD candidate Debbie (Hannah Gross), who's fascinated by the smart boy's straight laced demeanor and naïveté when it comes to approaching human behavior. For Debbie, the why of criminals' actions should always trump the how, and her layman's explination of sociological notions (such as Durkheim's Labeling Theory) spark a fire inside this perfectly manicured Boy Scout in-between sweaty fuck sessions. Here's a woman who's actually experienced the counterculture Ford gawks at, influencing the way The Man's mind works, and thus the central thesis of Mindhunter is provided in its inciting, motivational incident.
It's fascinating to have David Simon/George Pelecanos' The Deuce and Mindhunter be released within a month of one another, as both seem like natural dovetails to the thematic explorations of societal change presented in Matthew Weiner's Mad Men. Where The Deuce is exploring notions of sexual freedom and expression, unshackled from the moralistic constraints of previous oversight (that, in typical Pelecanos/Simon fashion, lead to greed and corruption as well as liberation), Mindhunter (at least in its first hour) delves into the foreign concepts of criminal psychology and (by extension) human empathy inside of a governmental power structure. Ford is an outsider, no matter how hard he tries to fit into the black suit and tie of the old school, who frown upon his curiosities regarding the mental states of wrongdoers. Even as late as '77, criminals were mostly believed to have been "born bad", with no further exploration as to why they do what they do. Bucking against that trend, Ford is just as likely to try and empathize with the criminals as he is with their victims, an alienating concept to the FBI which is (emphasized through Fincher's compostionally clean lens) a house of white men born of privilege. When a supervisor hears Ford asking students to roleplay (thus leading to profanity and one white recruit even acting as a "negro") it ruffles their feathers, as there's no place for this type of talk in a clubhouse of Caucasian Gentlemen Investigators.
“If we’re looking for a motive, we suddenly find there is none,” Ford tells a class of rookies. “It’s a void. It’s a black hole.” In a post-David Berkowitz world, there isn't necessarily a logical rationale for the reasons a man would suddenly pick up a hangdun and start blowing folks away (because a dog told him to). Enter Bill Tench (Holt McCallany). Where Ford is based off of real life FBI Profiler John E. Douglas (whose eponymous novel is the source for playwright Penhall's Netflix series), Tench is modeled after his partner, Robert Ressler, who not only coined the term "serial killer", but whose early criminal psych teachings inspired Douglas to start delivering seminars at local police departments. Fictional counterparts Ford and Tench hit the road together, condensing their Quantico lessons so that these blue collar law enforcement dicks can comprehend them; a challenge for Ford, who continues to drop Freud quotes on men still looking for the how of it all. Here is where the direct conflict within these local and federal systems comes into plain sight for audience members, as these smoky sheriff's stations may have hard nosed dudes who knew all of the investigators who worked the Manson murders, but still aren't willing to hit the books too hard and figure out why Ol' Chuckie's eyes look so black in those mugshots. But using Manson as its primary example in the pilot shows Mindhunters' hand a bit, as sex, drugs, and The Beatles gave way to America's first celebrity mass murderer (who didn't really kill anyone at all), and the Summer of Love suddenly became the Summer of Sam, as counterculture and bloodshed went hand in hand.
Episode 2 (d. David Fincher, w. Joe Penhall)
"His 'oeuvre'? The fuck? He's Stanley Kubrick?"
Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton) killed his mother, decapitated her, and then made the severed head perform fellatio on him. Then he butchered and dismembered several coeds, earning him the moniker "The Coed Killer" from a Santa Cruz PD member who also happened to be Kemper's friend (due to the "sequence killer" regularly drinking at the same cop bar with the boys in blue). Everyone loved Kemper, especially the dudes on the Force; even though they had an inkling (on account of his past institutionalization), that he may very well be their man in this case. But Kemper's love of cop shows, and the ability to empathize with these flatfeet kept him in their good graces, right up until the moment he called from a payphone and confessed to his crimes, leading those same chums to slap the bracelets on, sending him straight to prison (where he, uncoincidentally, became friends with the guards).
Of course Kemper fascinates Ford, who interviews the "Coed Killer" as a backup option after he finds out he's not going to be able to speak with Manson (because, as the Santa Cruz PD inform him, "no one can"). Meanwhile, Tench is flabbergasted that the kid would want to spend his time on this nonsense, and warns Ford that if the Bureau finds out he's befriending the beast as a pet project on their dime while they're out on the road giving seminars, its going to be Ford's ass, not his. Plus, Tench knows that Kemper's playing Ford like a fiddle, feeding the turk's curiosity with what he thinks the agent wants to hear. Yet that doesn't stop Tench from throwing the Boy Scout a few pointers before heading into that jail cell and confronting the six-foot-nine two-hundred-ninety-pound hulk; ways to get Kemper to spew forth everything about his heinous acts. Because let's face it, deep down Tench wouldn't mind being in that room himself instead of golfing, at least out of morbid curiosity. But he's going to play it safe right now, because a back nine is certainly better than a government bread line.
There's a fascinating subtext being injected into Mindhunter that's emphasized by Fincher's involvement, as its best to remember that the exploits of John Douglas and Robert Ressler influenced countless classic entries into the pop thriller lexicon (namely: Silence of the Lambs). The main draw to the Netflix series is Fincher, who has now become the reigning king of the serial killer subgenre (with Seven and Zodiac, the latter of which the meticulous period design of Mindhunter certainly draws from). When Kemper finally lets his guard down and spills about his "vocation", he almost seems to fall under a trance, and Fincher centers the ghoul in frame, allowing him to almost address the audience directly. Because Fincher knows what we signed up for, and is in turn interrogating both his own filmography's fixation with these monsters, as well as the audience's, while simultaneously relishing all the gnarly, spoken details (which are relayed like a hypnotist attempting to get us to quit smoking). Way back on the Panic Room DVD commentary, Fincher said, "if you're going to pander, pander." Here, you could substitute "indulge" into that sentence, and it still remains true.
Episode 3 (d. Asif Kapadia, w. Joe Penhall & Ruby Rae Spiegel)
"...a modern day Sherlock Holmes, which would make you Watson."
Like a lot of cops, Sacramento Detective Carver (Peter Murnik) dreamt about being a policeman when he was a kid because a piece of pulp fiction told him it'd be cool (in this case, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet). But he never thought he'd actually get a chance to meet a pair of geniuses like Holmes & Watson in real life. So, when he raises a toast to the two men who've swooped in and helped his department catch a brutal murderer of women (who beat one kind, elderly lady into a coma before going the distance and slaughtering the next, along with both's dogs), it's a big moment in this lawman's life. Ford and Tench simply did Carver a solid by consulting on the case (with a little aid from the friendliest psychopath behind bars, Ed Kemper), but when the Detective saw them interrogate the scuzzy lowlife (Tobias Segal) who was obviously acting out a fantasy he wanted to perform on his own oppressive mother (Cynthia Mace), it was like watching his idols materialize before his eyes. These dudes are onto something, even if he doesn't quite understand it himself.
For mystery procedural fans in '17, Ford and Tench's new basement digs are going to feel more Mulder & Scully than Holmes & Watson, as Ford narrowly avoids suspension and censure after telling Unit Chief Shepard (Cotter Smith) about their extracurricular activities with Kemper. But as soon as they're "vindicated" by the second attack in Sacramento, the UC tells them to catch the next flight out there. Results are what the Bureau is after, and the fact that their theories can now possibly be backed by real world proof (instead of textbook theorizing) means action must be taken. The gruff class instructor and his often annoying, boyish sidekick (who's starting to somewhat resemble a pre-Lecter Will Graham) now have crimes to solves with their fancy, intellectual ways, and who's Shepard to stop them from closing cases (even if they technically don't fall within the federal scope of jurisdiction).
It's good that this new dynamic duo are applying their methods to actual criminals, because there's an odd ADT Employee (Sonny Valicenti) who's obviously up to no good in Kansas. The last two episodes have included cold opens, teasing a bespectacled everyman who obviously has some rage boiling under that nebbish exterior (a colleague asking for a new roll of tape without presenting the spent cardboard makes him quietly seethe). Those who know their serial killers will instantly recognize the set up for this strangler (spoilers here if you can't wait), and its only a matter of time before class is out for Ford & Tench, and the hunt becomes their full-time occupation.