The belly of the beast is usually a warm place to be, but with Mindhunter, the home stretch takes a turn toward cold, alienating territory, especially regarding its central protagonists. After six hours of speaking with very real human monsters (and helping to identify a few themselves), FBI agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) have begun to not only hone their constantly developing knowledge of behavioral science, but are also feeling the lasting effects that their interests are having on them...
Episode 7 (d. Andrew Douglas, w. Joe Penhall & Jennifer Haley)
"This is a scientific study, not a locker room hazing."
The primary focus for many when discussing the creative forces behind Mindhunter are David Fincher and Joe Penhall, but it's important to remember that Charlize Theron is one of the primary executive producers, having originally brought John E. Douglas' non-fiction chronicle to Fincher and suggesting Penhall's involvement as showrunner. Penhall helped handpick many of the writers who staff the show, including playwright Jennifer Haley (Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom), whose distinct point of view is felt during the series' seventh hour. The damage done by being around these bad men is starting to show with Bill Tench in public, while Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) breaks down a little in the bedroom with Debbie (Hannah Gross). But it's through their female partners' eyes that we see these changes - a POV we couldn't have with an all-male collection of scribes.
Salem, Oregon. Convicted multiple murderer Jerry Brudos (Happy Anderson) lured several young girls into his home, took photos of them, and then cracked their skulls open and strung them up in his garage. He kept parts of their bodies as trophies, and was often fixated on their clothes, as he'd been cross-dressing since five years old. Tench - an old school army man who looks at Brudos like he's in some sort of test tube - cannot fathom a man wearing womens' clothing beyond a sexual fetish, infuriating Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), who accuses him of attacking the subject during their interview in order to get a rise out of him. But what she doesn't see is what his wife Nancy (Stacey Roca) sees - a damaged man, at the end of his rope with the world's perversities, and trying desperately to connect with a possibly autistic son who keeps his adoptive father at arms' length. Nancy knows Bill views himself as a failure in terms of being a father, and maybe he is? All he knows is that he looks at Holden and cannot fathom how the Boy Scout presents himself as such on a daily basis, while these madmen continue to dangle psychotic carrots in front of their faces.
Though he's credited as the "creator" of Mindhunter, Penhall's essentially conceded that his original concept (which was based on a five season "bible") is out the window, as the series has become Fincher's latest Netflix baby, reworked to fit the Zodiac ('07) director's brand new design. Though the show's original creative force is essentially on the periphery, that doesn't mean those whose influence he hoped would shine through is lost forever. Episode Seven utilizes a lens that hasn't been present up until this point, resulting in perhaps the most nakedly emotional episode.
Episode 8 (d. Andrew Douglas, w. Erin Leavy & Jennifer Haley)
"...unless you're gonna start predicting what people do."
It was only a matter of time before Mindhunter transitioned into a chugging, linear narrative; jettisoning the more observational approach to its characters' places within this specific timeframe. It was also only a matter of time before we began witnessing the downfall of Agent Holden Ford, who's quickly evolved from bright-eyed, curious do-gooder to self-centered, egotistical asshole, allowing the studies he's helped pioneer go to his head. With Episode Eight, his "instincts" are now telling him to apply these new behavioral sciences into preventative practice, as opposed to using it in a purely investigative sense, leading to an instance of peculiar harassment that calls the Constitutionality of his work's application into question.
"People are concerned. No one will help them." Holden Ford is triggered, but there's a solid chance it has nothing to do with Roger Wade (Marc Kudisch), a local elementary school principal who substitutes tickling his students' feet for punishment. No, Ford can't stand to have his own words edited for a small presentation he's giving for career day at the disciplinarian's school, thus leading him to look into "complaints" regarding the community leader's activities (despite Wade having a spotless personal record and Tench telling him to back off). Ford swears he's just following up on signs of "deviant behavior" that could escalate if unchecked (just look at where Brudos' fascination with feet led him), but is it the FBI's role to become the "thought police"? Furthermore, is it within the scope of any law enforcement body's authority to investigate crimes before they've even been committed?
While Tench and Carr hire a fourth team member in Agent Gregg Smith (Joe Tuttle), Ford is sneering from the other side of the office, warning that they should kick the "flim-flam" out of this Christian family man before he rats out whatever they're doing to Unit Chief Shepard (Cotter Smith). But what is Ford so afraid of? Does he know he's overstepping his bounds a bit, calling Bill a "pussy" for ducking out on a Brudos interview (which goes to disturbing levels of disassociation regarding the killer's crimes), while his home life crumbles (Debbie's been seeing a lot of that new lab "partner", after all)? Having Erin Leavy - who won a Primetime Emmy for penning "Shut the Door. Have a Seat." for Mad Men in '10 - co-author the beginning of Ford's downward spiral is a stroke of genius staffing. Here's a writer who's dealt with self-centered, brilliant men in the past, and illustrated how their genius turned self-destructive, often without them even recognizing it.
Episode 9 (d. David Fincher, w. Carly Wray & Jennifer Haley)
"He's almost up there with Manson."
As well as Asif Kapadia, Tobias Lindholm, and Andrew Douglas have done maintaining the series' uniform visual component (not to mention cinematographers Erik Messerschmidt and Christopher Probst), there's still an instant shift in aesthetics as soon as Fincher's name is credited as director (which he is on the last two episodes). The tenor of each conversation shared between the killers and agents is slightly tweaked, each dialogue beat hitting a little harder. Tiny details - such as the sweat that stains Ford's shirt when he and Tench exit the car to interview rock star serial killer Richard Speck (Jack Erdie) - stand out where they hadn't in episodes he didn't helm. It's the difference between eating at a good restaurant and knowing when the chef has prepared your steak, as opposed to a cook firing up that slab of meat.
Holden is quickly spinning out of control, and his behavior's starting to beg the question: why does he love this job so much? Tench has commented in the past about the young agent's imperviousness to the interviews he performs, sitting on the other side of a jailhouse table with maniacs who've murdered multiple victims and then getting up like it was just another routine lunch in the Quantico cafeteria. His controlling nature with Debbie has grown, to the point that he's showing up to parties, seemingly with the expectation of catching her in the act with a grad student colleague. So, it's really not a major surprise when he takes the interview with Speck (whose autograph he considers asking for before the interrogation even begins) into uncomfortably familiar territory. These madmen are admirable to him. But why? Does he see a part of himself in their psychopathy and ego simply disallows him from acknowledging it?
There have been complaints about Mindhunter since it dropped on Netflix that its main protagonist is "unlikable" by the end, and that's certainly true. But that doesn't make him any less fascinating. In fact, there's an argument to be made that his inflated sense of self actually makes him a more intriguing character. Just like the caged killers he studies, there's an emboldening aspect to his "vocation" (as Edmund Kemper would call it). After being scoffed at by a Bureau set in its antiquated, Hooverian ways, he's finally proving that what he's doing matters; he is important. Like the maniacs who killed women because they were never paid attention to, Holden Ford is pushing on with crusades that are meant to really elevate himself, not the science. He's a man who was tired of being ignored, and found a brand new hobby that allowed him to shine, no matter what damage he did to others (like newly tarnished educator Roger Wade, who's been dismissed by his school board due to Ford's investigation).
Episode 10 (d. David Fincher, w. Joe Penhall & Jennifer Haley)
"Then you'd be with me in spirit."
It all comes back to Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton). Though there have been many others since Ford made his first visit to the "Co-ed Killer" jailed in Sacramento, Kemper will always be the first - that perverse spark that sent the agents down their investigative path. He writes Ford letters, inviting him back so that he may share more "insights" into the ways serial murderers are categorized (a word he's now using himself in conversation), but the agent's been too busy with his own exploits - not to mention trying to maintain his failing relationship, which finally falls through the floor during this final hour of the initial season - to fly back and visit his forgotten "friend". Knowing that Holden won't return without a bit of showmanship to grab his attention, Kemper slits his wrists and ends up in the ICU.
Why Ford returns to visit Kemper in the hospital - what with Debbie leaving him, an investigation being launched into his interview "tactics" by an internal FBI review board, and both Tench and Dr. Carr essentially wanting to disown the tarnished star thanks to his big mouth (and bigger ego) - remains a mystery. But it's the logical conclusion to his arc this season, as Ford struggles to maintain any semblance of sanity in the face of both acclaim and scrutiny. The two share what may be the most chilling moment of kinship this first round of Mindhunter episodes have offered, as it seems Ed's got the investigator's number; possibly even a little more than the agent has his.
In Kansas, our mysterious ADT man slowly burns photos in a trash barrel in his backyard while Led Zeppelin blares, once again signifying (despite the plot-heavy final three hours) what Mindhunter is truly about: a new era, where monsters are born and thrive, and the cops who hunt them suffer from panic attacks on hospital floors because they've become so overwhelmed attempting to get into their heads. What's truly riveting about Fincher and Penhall's first season is that it brazenly defied our expectations, refusing to show us one act of violence onscreen. Instead, it's detailing a niche history, where obsession and paranoia set into the US' collective psyche. Free love and rock music have died leaving a suburban arena, where your meek next door neighbor could be hiding seven severed heads in his freezer. Dennis Rader - whom we all know this mysterious Kansas area fantasy artist to be - is living out his own dark dream, exorcising demons by binding, torturing and killing those he selects at random. Nobody's safe in this new United States, and David Fincher is going to be the one writing its textbook from here on out. God bless America.