Television's recent love affair with serial killers — The Following, Dexter, and sadly Wicked City, for example — was obsessed with the gory details and process of chopping up bodies, dissolving corpses and whatever it was Hannibal's demented murder artists were up to. The concepts of many of these shows went something like this: a charming, brooding man seduces victims, often women, and a pair of mismatched cops chase him around town, always one step behind.
House of Cards' David Fincher brings Mindhunter, a beautiful and intellectual addition to the genre, to Netflix with a different approach to the depravity of these killers: let their own demented thinking be all the terror you need to double-lock your doors. Mindhunter is surprisingly lacking in violence and blood, at least in the two episodes screened in advance to critics, as it tells the story of the development of modern criminology in 1977 — the same year the Son of Sam killer reigned terror — through FBI agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), a character based on criminal profiling pioneer John E. Douglas.
After a hostage negotiation goes terribly wrong in the opening moments of the first episode (one of the few scenes where violence comes into play), Ford, a green agent obsessed with the connection between psychology and the increasing occurrences of violence in the country, pushes the FBI toward softening its typical understanding of serial killers. The bureau would rather stick with its idea that "these dudes are crazy, end of story," whereas Ford would rather understand why killers behave they way they do. That involves actually talking to these depraved weirdos. Obviously, everyone thinks Ford is nutso for wanting to do anything other than put these guys in the electric chair, and Mindhunter becomes a merry-go-round of Ford arguing that violence and those who commit it are changing while his superiors threaten to take his badge.
But every once in a while Ford meets someone who shares an overlap in his approach, most notably Bill Tench (Lights Out's Holt McCallany in one of his best roles), a member of the FBI's Behavioral Science unit who takes Ford on bureau-sponsored road trips across the country to teach local cops what they know. The two impart their wisdom to beat cops, who are equally accepting of and perplexed by their methods, and occasionally dip their sticks in some odd murders in the county.
One of these trips leads Ford to come face to face with the incarcerated Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton), better known as the real-life Co-ed Killer, and what Mindhunter is trying to accomplish suddenly becomes clear and the show is instantly invigorated after a slow start. Where no one else in law enforcement wants to speak to these murderers, let alone look at them, Ford wants the details of their acts laid out and their states of mind exposed. And it's incredible to watch.
The scenes between Kemper and Ford are some of the most tense and disturbing television you'll see all year, all without any of the broken skin or screams that pollute serial killer dramas. Britton makes Kemper both charming and totally f---ing demented, allowing us to really understand what Ford is going after. As Tench puts it, after coming around to Ford's thinking, "How do we get ahead of crazy if we don't know how crazy thinks?" These killers aren't the animals they're portrayed to be, they're human beings who experienced some sort of trauma in their lives that threw them off track, and Ford believes the more we know about them, the more we can prevent future killers. Yet there's no room for sympathy with these creeps; Kemper will offer Ford a cup of coffee in the same breath he talks about cutting off his mom's head and having sex with it. That's what elevates the tension and curiosity with these individuals.
The subject matter is entrancing and proves to be the series' strength, particularly in the way Mindhunter handles it, which is by burrowing into the psyche of these killers rather than their actual work. I could watch four hours of Kemper talking about his heinous acts and not be bored. Mindhunter picks that spot in your brain that's fascinated by the macabre without ever pulling back the white sheet to see the product. It's intellectual sensationalism with a purpose, rather than the torture porn of failed one-note dramas like Stalker.
Other parts of Mindhunter don't work quite as well, especially Ford's unbelievable relationship with Debbie (Hannah Gross), a whip-smart and confident grad student who casually drops mentions of Durkheim and other sociological terms in casual conversation, chastises Ford for looking at her butt and then says, "You coming?" while leading him up to the bedroom. There's no chemistry between the two and the dialogue between them is murder on the ears, something further underlined when Ford and Debbie go on a date to see Dog Day Afternoon and Ford mentions how amazing the dialogue was. Debbie doesn't play a huge role in the first two episodes, and it's unclear what her future is in the series, but there's time to iron things out.
Ford also doesn't light up the screen. He's a vanilla hero and devoid of any personal conflict that usually drives the haunted protagonists in these sorts of shows. Rust Cohle he is not, but Ford's admirable in his determination even if something else is lacking. That said, Netflix shows tend to meander a bit (Fincher is no stranger to that formula as well) and what Mindhunter accomplishes in its first two episodes is solid ground with which to build on, tracing Ford's obsession with serial killers and the potential for something more intriguing start to take root by the end of Episode 2.
Fincher's in a league of his own behind the camera, as usual, and his muted palette ups the sterile nature of the locations and lets the subject shine through. Much like his work work in Zodiac, which a colleague of mine accurately called "good but slow and boring," the first episode isn't in a rush to get anywhere. But just when you think Mindhunter might not have the energy to sustain a whole season, the energy kicks up in Episode 2 and even features a fun road-trip montage to lighten the mood.
There won't be enough blood for fans of shocking violence, and there isn't any action to be seen for fans of police procedurals in Mindhunter. What there is, instead, is thoroughly researched subject matter that will draw in fans of true crime and documentaries. It's the natural answer to the dying breed of predictable serial killer dramas, and the clear successor to the current oversaturated wave of true-crime series. Hopefully the rest of the episodes focus on what matters: what stimulates the mind — both the killers' and ours.
Mindhunter premiers on Netflix on Friday, Oct. 12.