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Review (no spoilers)
Just in time for Halloween, Netflix released its newest original series MINDHUNTER on October (Friday) 13th.
If I had to sum up Season 1 of the new Netflix Original Series MINDHUNTER is one word, it would be “creepy”. If I had to pick a second word, less-obvious word to define the show, it would be “hubris”.
Despite its generic name (based on a semi-autobiographical account of FBI Profiler John Douglas), MINDHUNTER isn’t your standard crime drama. The fact that David Fincher (Gone Girl, House of Cards, Zodiac, and many more) is on as director is your first clue of this.
I often watch a new Netflix Series immediately upon its release with no prior knowledge or research, so I didn’t initially know that I was watching the work of one of my favorite directors. Turns out, I was in for an unexpected treat.
Visually reminiscent of another one of Fincher’s projects, Se7en, even in the gloomiest, most disturbing setting, Fincher’s direction shines with his trademark beautiful wide-angle style, clean colors and loads of natural light.
Verdict: Very Good, for the Right Audience
MINDHUNTER is spooky. With excellent character arcs, directing and cinematography, this is worth watching. The writing and acting feels a little weird at the beginning of the series, but it makes sense later.
The music is a real high-point in this series, (composed by Jason Hill) and is about as creepy as a soundtrack gets. The intro sequence is especially relentless, and due to its chilling effectiveness, I, at times, took advantage of the “SKIP INTRO” button Netflix has thoughtfully placed in some of its original series to lessen the oppression a bit.
If your stomach is turned by disgusting, graphic descriptions of some of the most despicable acts ever committed, you might want to avoid this one. MINDHUNTER avoids showing the violence described first-hand, a strategy which is eventually used to very dramatic effect.
The series starts showing us our protagonist FBI Special Agent Holden Ford (played by Jonathan Groff of Glee), a very unsuccessful hostage negotiator failing at his job despite his best (and very earnest) efforts.
Holden’s traditional and rigid boss (Played by Cotter Smith of The Americans and Revolution) wants Holden to leave the field and instead teach new FBI recruits at Quantico and not cause a stir with any of this newfangled Psychology nonsense. Psychology, he explains in a whisper, is seen at the (recently J. Edgar Hoover-free) FBI as being for “backroom boys”, and should not be studied or applied despite its potential usefulness in catching the most insane and unexplainable killers.
Yes, he really says that
This is when we see Holden meet and begin a relationship with a very-not-straight-laced woman (Debbie, played by Hannah Gross of Marjorie Prime) who is studying for her Master’s Degree in Sociology.
Debbie and Holden, off to a bad start
Holden, not content just to teach current methods to Quantico recruits, then hooks up with fellow FBI Agent Bill Tench, a more-accepting but still-hesitant teacher of Criminal Psychology to local police departments.
After dealing with his extremely straight-laced and backward-thinking boss, Holden’s introduction to seemingly like-minded fellow FBI agent Bill Tench is like a breath of fresh air. Tench uses his knowledge of criminal psychology to teach road school (FBI training of local police departments). Holden asks if he can tag along and teach with Tench, which Tench, apparently in desperate need of assistance with the workload, gladly agrees to.
Holden has his own ideas, however, and is not content with Tench’s wisdom, or his own knowledge, simply being applied in a teaching setting. The police are not receptive enough or intelligent enough to be taught, he says, but he has a plan. Why not utilize their traveling to interview a notorious serial killer and see if they can learn anything from him? Tench thinks this is a creepy and stupid idea and refuses to go along, but allows Holden to go himself.
Tench isn’t into this at all
This is where the series really hits a groove. We see Holden essentially befriend a monstrous serial killer named Ed Kemper. Ed is terrible. Highly intelligent, articulate and physically giant, Holden is fascinated by,(and maybe even infatuated with) Ed. The success of this first interview sends Holden and Tench down a dark path where they (pushed almost entirely by Holden) interview as many serial killers as possible.
Holden meets Ed Kemper and they become BFFs
To sum-up, we see Holden go from an apparently straight-laced FBI Agent to an extremely arrogant wrecking-ball obsessed with serial killers, in a not-entirely-healthy way. After one serial killer asks him “are we friends?”, we are left to wonder, as Holden does, are they?
We eventually find out, they are, and that isn’t a good thing.
Holden and his girlfriend Debbie’s relationship could almost be a whole separate show, as Debbie and any characters other than Holden himself are rarely on screen together. Their lives are almost entirely separate and isolated from the outside world. We mostly see them hanging out in either Holden’s or Debbie’s apartment alone.
Their relationship runs throughout the series, with Holden repeatedly going from talking to serial killers to immediately hanging out with Debbie. This is disturbing and jarring to watch, as you might imagine, and problems arise from this. Holden and Debbie freely discuss the despicable acts of, and conversations with, the serial killers, apparently thinking they are immune to the darkness due to their academic interest and approach.
Debbie and Holden, not being immune. Stop it, Debbie.
Interestingly, Tench also sees Holden as being immune to the darkness they immerse themselves in, at one point expressing to Psychologist colleague Dr. Wendy Carr (played wonderfully by Anna Torv of Fringe) that he wished he could be as detached as Holden from the acts of the men they were interviewing:
“He’s —-ing immune. How do I tap into that?”
As it turns out, Holden is not immune.
Tench’s version of dealing with the habitual exposure to extreme evil is much more normal, though not understanding Holden’s nature, he believes his own version of coping is inferior. He clams up, doesn’t share anything with his wife, and has to actively control himself from losing control during the interviews. Holden doesn’t just have himself fooled. He’s fooled everyone into thinking he’s just adept at analyzing people, when in reality the reason he is good at getting into the heads of serial killers is because, to an extent, he thinks just like them.
Tench is having a rough time
We see another side of Holden begin to surface: His arrogance. Holden, initially seen as the straight man by everyone around him, begins to veer more and more off the beaten path and into dangerous terrirtory. He wants to do more before he is ready, and he doesn’t care about consequences. He constantly thinks he knows more than he does, and despite repeated instances of his arrogance causing others to suffer, his successes are enough that he does not have to confront his problem until it is too late. He seems to feel little to no remorse for the harm he causes others, instead resenting the fact that people are wasting his time by telling him that he did something wrong.
Dr. Carr, foreshadowing
Pushed by Holden, Tench’s road school teaching quickly becomes more about traveling to meet notorious serial killers to interview them. This is resisted by Tench on many occasions, but he can’t help but see that learning more about the mind of serial killers could be immensely helpful in future investigations. Tench himself sums up his over-arching attitude perfectly when asked if he approved of one of Holden’s questionable strategies.
“In theory. Not so much in practice.”
For Holden, there is no line between “in theory” and “in practice” as he predictably does as the chameleons do, and changes his colors in the form of becoming corrupted by the maniacs he spends so much time talking to. When Debbie asks Holden what he would wear if no one was watching, he replies,
“I’d wear my suit.”
Holden’s “suit”, his identity, becomes what he is around, and what he is around is not good at all. He becomes completely fascinated and enamored of them, at one point half-joking about asking the notorious serial killer Richard Speck for his autograph when they go to meet him.
This is when the corruption becomes a professional problem for Holden and everyone in the Behavioral Science Unit he has been assigned to. With no hesitation whatsoever, Holden speaks to Speck as he believes Speck would like to be talked to, and this, as you may expect, is very unpleasant. So unpleasant that Tench suggests Holden “lose the first three minutes” of the audio recording of the interview. Holden then orchestrates a half-baked cover-up of the interview.
Feeling no remorse, and not understanding what all the fuss is about, Holden doesn’t even really mind when he is caught in his deception, instead making it clear that he thinks anything hindering his work’s progress needs to be done away with, and that anyone standing in his way is unintelligent, without vision, and overly rigid.
Holden is a psychopath, just like the people he is interviewing, but thankfully with better proclivities. This becomes more and more obvious as the series progresses. Dr. Carr makes it clear that psychopaths have emotions, neatly reminding us that the emotion we see from Holden does not disqualify him from being a psychopath himself:
“Well, they have emotions. They just don’t believe other people have them.”
We see him exhibit the very signs of psychopathy he is analyzing in others, and he is escalating, just like them. His chameleon nature is evident, as we see him go from a seemingly straight-laced guy to being friends with serial killers, talking and thinking like them with increased comfort and ease. He has no remorse when he crosses the line. He has no lines. He doesn’t see that he and the monsters he talks to are one in the same. As his Psychologist colleague Dr. Carr puts it:
“And sure, these men all have wives, kids, dogs, goldfish, but not because they stopped being psychopaths, but because they just had different leanings.”
Holden, despite his issues, still has virtuous leanings. He has significant redeeming qualities, as we see when he, with the best intentions, even destroys a grade-school principal’s life by ending his career on instinct and suspicion.
We can empathize with this, and at the same time we question, “What would I do if I had the power to potentially prevent the harm of children? Is my suspicion and the obvious signs of a problem enough to ruin a man’s life?” Holden seems to briefly question himself at this point, but not enough to halt his trajectory.
The show’s creators are more than happy to put terrible images into our heads through the dialogue, but aside from some grisly crime-scene photos held by the characters, we, like Holden, rarely see any violence happening first-hand. To Holden, the violence he hears about and talks about from an intellectual perspective isn’t real until it touches him personally. This becomes very important later, when physical danger at the hands of Ed gives both Holden and us a new perspective on the crimes we have been hearing about the whole season.
Everything comes to a fine point here, and with masterful tension, much is revealed. This is the climax of the season, and it comes in its very last moments, when Holden finds that he is neither physically nor emotionally immune to the effects of keeping such evil company. Turns out, Ed isn’t reasonable or friendly at all when Holden stops visiting him to move on to other killers. Ed orchestrates a failed suicide attempt to force Holden to visit him in the hospital. Once Holden arrives, Ed tells him:
“I could kill you now, pretty easily. Do some interesting things before anyone showed up. Then you’d be with me in spirit. I invited you many times to visit, but even with this, I never thought you’d actually come.”
Ed moves closer to the now petrified Holden.
“Why are you here, Holden?”
Holden realizes this as we do. He realizes that, while he is desperate to find the motivations of others, he does not know his own. He responds,
“I don’t know.”
Now, finally, Holden realizes that his own motivations for everything have not been what he’s been saying all along. Perhaps all of this, the hostage negotiation, the psychology in general, the seeking out of the fringiest possible of all outsiders, has all been motivated for that very purpose; to understand himself as much as to understand them. Now we are all on the same page. Ed also realizes this, responding:
“Well, now that is the truth.”
Then Ed Grabs Holden in an embrace, perhaps at any moment to become a death grip.
In addition to his identity crisis, Holden now can no longer delude himself into believing that what he’s doing is without consequence, and that, to his horror, the consequences can reach even him. In perhaps his most relatable moment, Holden pushes free from Ed’s embrace in a very childlike manner, runs from Ed’s room and falls to the floor, gasping to a concerned bystander nurse,
“I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I’m dying.”
But Holden’s panic attack does not kill him, at least not literally, so hopefully we will get a Season 2. With the invincibility and motivations of Holden shattered in his own mind, and the brief Breaking Bad-esque moments showcasing an unknown, escalating serial killer scattered throughout the season, MINDHUNTER has a lot of fuel left in the tank, and I want to go along for the ride.