Netflix’s “Mindhunter”: The Abyss Gazes Back

Netflix’s Mindhunter is one of those rare series that kept me interested, if not exactly hooked, until the final episode. I have an ambivalent relationship with Netflix or TV series – watching the same characters do pretty much the same thing for episode after episode bores me. I don’t think I’ve ever been afflicted with a binge-watching compulsion, unlike most of civilized society.

What Mindhunter isn’t is just as interesting as what it is. What it’s not is action-packed. Even though this is an FBI drama centering around serial killers, there are no shootouts, chase scenes, wildly improbable escapes (think Silence of the Lambs), or Sherlock Holmes-style deductions. What it does have is people sitting around talking and thinking. The series is basically one long strategy session.

The main characters, who have undertaken the “radical” mission to analyze society’s deviants, have three overall issues to contend with: one, how to get inside the mind of convicted serial killers and extract useful information; two, how to use this knowledge effectively; and three, how to deal with pushback from various quarters regarding their objectives, morals, and methodology.

Of course, the trio of protagonists don’t see eye to eye, and spend just as much time arguing with or undermining each other as they do trying to pick the brains of murderers. In fact, gaining insights from the deviants of society turns out to be relatively easy: research their crimes, meet them on their level, be patient, and they’ll drop useful info, even if they don’t mean to. The FBI agents are even able to solve several murders early in their “education,” which highlights the fact that profiling and interrogation of this sort is extremely useful.

The FBI brass, which has a “lock ’em up and let ’em rot” mentality in regards to murderers and rapists, is predictably suspicious about its agents having chit-chats with the lowest of the low, despite the tangible results. Also, local law enforcement is flummoxed by the “advanced” techniques the agents use, and district attorneys just want convictions, not psycho-babble that confuses everyone.

As mentioned, our trio of “mindhunters” also have vastly different goals. Wendy Carr (played by the excellent Anna Torv) is an academic – she wants a multi-year study with manageable data. Her insistence on using a standard questionnaire for all interviewees irritates Holden Ford (played by Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (played by Holt McCallany), who claim they can’t be locked in to some cookie-cutter form when dealing with psychos.

Holden Ford, the “mastermind” behind this project, wants to use the insights they’ve gleaned right now, and this constantly gets him in hot water. When he tries to stop the odd-but-not-quite-deviant behavior of a school principal, the effects are disastrous – I wouldn’t be surprised if the aftershocks extended into season two.

Bill Tench’s motives are somewhat muddier. At first, his gung-ho new partner infuriates him. Then he decides to go along for the ride. Then Ford’s “unprofessional conduct” brings back the irritation, but Tench nonetheless unprofessionally persuades Ford to alter an official transcript – which puts the entire project in jeopardy, although Tench still blames it on Ford. His commitment seems to wax and wane, and this baffles me; Tench’s adopted son has severe behavioral problems, and it’s clear he has the potential to develop into a dangerous adult – maybe even a sociopathic killer like the ones Tench is studying. Tench, more than anyone else, has a strong reason to learn all he can about the mind of a killer, but he’s depicted as a sidekick rather than a driving force.

Tench’s acting is still good, though his delivery is sometimes as heavy as a sledgehammer. His earnest partner, however, gets low grades. I have no idea how Jonathan Groff landed the lead role. He talks in a super-soft voice that’s maddening to listen to. He’s as stiff as a steel beam. Charisma is nil. Maybe he’s using some avant-garde acting method that my uncultivated mind can’t process. Whatever he’s doing or not doing, it doesn’t work for me – it looks to me like he stumbled onto the set by accident. His performance alone knocks an entire star off my rating.

Anna Torv, though – Mrs. Torv is a gem. Netflix could ship a series called “Anna Torv Stares at a Wall,” and I’d watch every episode. As Wendy Carr, she’s the competent, professional psychology professor, who acts as the guiding light to the inexperienced (or I should say, non-academic) Ford and Tench. She rarely smiles or laughs or engages in idle banter, and this does make her seem aloof or even cold, but her aloofness seems more genuine, more correct, somehow, unlike everything Groff does. She’s a fantastic actress not because she steals scenes, but because she flows through them naturally.

Moving beyond our “three amigos,” we have a staggeringly well-cast collection of serial killers. Cameron Britton should win some sort of award for his portrayal of Edmund Kemper, a real-life murderer who killed and horrifically violated women. As Tench puts it, there’s nothing behind Kemper’s eyes, but that’s not entirely true – while there’s certainly no empathy, there is a calm, devious intelligence. Every line Britton delivers, every movement he makes, is perfect – you can feel the overwhelming menace of this man, even when he’s doing nothing overtly threatening. After finishing all ten episodes of Mindhunter, I still don’t have Kemper pegged. Does he really consider Ford a friend, or is he manipulating him? What are his long-term goals? How intelligent is he, really? Does he feel even an iota of remorse?

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Cameron Britton as the complex and terrifying Ed Kemper.

His “showdown” with Ford in the last episode is one of the most tense scenes I’ve watched in recent memory. Kemper towers over Ford. He says he could kill Ford pretty easily: he says it in a dead tone, a simple statement of fact, like someone saying they’re going to change a tire. Ford is shuddering, nearly sobbing. Kemper stands there solidly, in total control. He’s basically saying to Ford, “You think you can abandon me? You think you can steal my secrets and cast me aside? Well, that’s not going to fly.” And then he…I’m not going to give it away, but the ending is shattering.

Happy Anderson and the cadaverous Jack Erdie, playing real-life killers Jerry Brudos and Richard Speck, also deliver stunning performances. “It just wasn’t their fuckin’ night” will be hard to forget, as will Anderson’s winning-in-any-other-context chuckles.

While every serial killer interview is gripping, many of Mindhunter‘s sub-plots are weak. This is a problem I have with many series: the creators don’t seem to understand that you can’t just start something up only to let it peter out because you don’t know what to do with it.

For example, early on Ford has a physical and intellectual crush on Carr, but this completely fizzles. Carr herself is either a lesbian or bisexual, but after a brief foray into her love life, the series jettisons this plotline outright. Why introduce these pieces if you aren’t going to build on them?

Ford’s relationship with Debbie Mitford (played by Hannah Gross) gets plenty of screen-time, but adds little. Debbie is sarcastic and nagging, and Holden talks about his work all the time. That’s about it. Even Debbie’s apparent cheating is glossed over; they just get back together and never speak of it again. It made me wonder if I missed an episode. Then they break up – sort of – but even this is stale; Debbie’s reasoning is the classic “you’ve changed,” and Holden’s response is the classic “I’ll come by later and pick up my stuff.” There is one great scene where Debbie’s sexy attire (or lack thereof) freaks out Holden, who’s just been chatting with the shoe-obsessed Jerry Brudos, but scenes like that are few and far between.

As I’ve mentioned, Tench’s relationship with his family is built up to be pivotal, but it seems we’ll have to wait until season two for more.

Finally, the addition of the puppylike Gregg Smith (played by Joe Tuttle) to the team is an intriguing move. I don’t know how I feel about it. He adds a dimension of innocence, as Ford, Tench, and Carr are rapidly becoming experienced and jaded. His actions also create major problems. But on the other hand, he sort of seems tacked on, like the creators were uncomfortable assigning his actions to the main characters. I expect he’ll leave the team in season two.

Then again, if he takes screen time away from Groff, I can’t complain much; I suppose I should hope he stays and gets his own sub-plots.

In all, Mindhunter is a good choice if you’re looking for a cerebral, slow-burn take on the FBI and the killers they’re duty-bound to track down. If nothing else, you should watch the serial killer interview clips on YouTube or wherever you can find them, because they’re fucking amazing.

I rate it three-and-a-half electric chairs out of five. Blame Jonathan Groff for the sub-four-chair rating.

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