Mindhunter is often described as a David Fincher project; he directed four episodes of the first season (including the pilot), and returns to direct the opening three episodes of the second season. To be sure, Fincher’s imprint—his directorial precision—is all over Mindhunter, and the show deals with topics that recur in his work (Se7en, Zodiac). But I think Fincher is getting a little too much credit—it’s important to remember that the show is based on a book by actual FBI agents John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker; furthermore, English playwright Joe Penhall is the series creator, and was primary writer for the first season, and other writers including Courtenay Miles and Joshua Donen contributed to this season, which feels very writer-driven. The drama hinges on meticulously crafted scenes of dialogue in drab, sometimes oppressively stuffy rooms, and the result is exhilarating, but—back to subverting expectations—not in the way you expect.
Take the show’s recurring centerpieces: the series of interviews the two primary FBI agents conduct with imprisoned serial killers. These conversations are based on actual transcripts, but they’re polished by the writers, actors, and crew into scintillating drama. And yet there’s something frustrating, something elusive about every single one of them. We’re conditioned to think of these types of scenes as dramatic blowouts—think of the Hannibal Lecter scenes in The Silence of the Lambs, or (in a slightly less murderous example) the Jack Nicholson bits of A Few Good Men. We expect answers and closure from these scenes, some kind of understanding into the bad guys’ motives, some kind of bow that we can tie around their actions.
In so many ways, Mindhunter, as a show, behaves as those interviewees do. It gives us plenty of juice—plenty of the sensational, fucked-up stuff that makes true crime media so addictive. But it never gives us exactly what we want, or what we think we want. There’s always something left in the dark, some shadowy, unknowable quality that mirrors the actual, disturbing questions these real-life killers posed. This is not a procedural, and this is not a podcast. Mindhunter is going to make us dig for meaning, the same way the FBI agents had to dig through the transcripts and behavioral patterns of the killers they surveyed. And the results are never going to be as conclusive as we’ve been conditioned—by books and movies and TV—to expect.
I haven’t said much about the characters so far, but they’re extraordinary. Holden Ford (played by Jonathan Groff) was the main figure in Mindhunter’s first season, but this time around he’s relegated to a significantly smaller role, with the older, more weathered Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) taking center stage. Tench is simply a terrific character—a world-weary, coffee-slugging lifer who at first seems like an over-the-hill schnook but turns out to contain multitudes. We watch how he puts on the charisma at a cocktail party as if it’s a particularly well-fitting hat, and we see how he tries to balance an increasingly tricky home life with work that he finds both utterly beguiling and soul-sucking. McCallany could’ve made this a one-dimensional figure, a tough-talking suit in a crew-cut to serve as the foil to Ford’s more head-in-the-clouds golden boy. Instead, Tench is the emotional center, and the thing that keeps the whole Serial Crime Unit together, even as he himself starts to fall to pieces.
The season can be divided into three unequal chunks. There’s the Fincher-directed trilogy of episodes that kicks off the second season, then a pair of episodes directed by Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), which includes the attention-grabbing interview with Charles Manson. Coming at the center of the season, the Manson thing is meant to be a really big deal—but this Mindhunter, so tame those expectations (or, better yet, experience those expectations completely, and then explore the friction between them and what Mindhunter ends up giving you). Manson’s played by Damon Herriman, who has been having an extraordinary recent run: He also played the same role in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in what was basically a walk-on, but did excellent bigger turns in The Nightingale and a show on Epix called Perpetual Grace, LTD. We see how Manson’s modus operandi is to sow chaos and absorb attention; he says a lot but means very little, and the show gives us enough background to see through his latticework. I won’t spoil what comes after the Manson scene, other than to say it’s another interview—but wow. That’s where the real meat is.
This is a show that has a lot to say, even if on the surface it sometimes appears to be primarily about men in bad suits drinking cheap coffee in grubby rooms. One implied undercurrent that I don’t think the show’s dealt with head-on just yet is how the serial-killer phenomenon—by which I mean their proliferation during the mid- and late 20th century, and our subsequent fascination with them—seems to be a uniquely American one. That’s all implied by the FBI backdrop, but for now Mindhunter’s second season is absorbing, upsetting, and fascinating, and it leaves us wanting more. Television can’t do much better than that.
Mindhunter's first two seasons are now streaming on Netflix.