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Netflix
It’s strange that Netflix didn’t provide critics with advance screeners for the second season of Mindhunter, the true-crime thriller about the origins of the FBI Serial Crime Unit in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Instead, the nine new episodes hit the streaming service last Friday with little advance fanfare, and this week the internet’s been playing catch-up with what’s turned out to be a largely excellent new season. Of course, a big chunk of that internet catch-up has taken the form of sticking the show’s slightly clunky title into the lyrics of popular songs like Hall & Oates’ “Maneater,” the theme song to Goldfinger, and Fiddler on the Roof’s “Matchmaker.” This is good fun, but it’s at striking odds with the somber, soft-roiling tone of the show, which explores the psychology of serial killers—a topic usually dealt with luridly—in muted, measured steps. As such, it’s become a show that explores not just our base fascination with murderers, but also the media mechanisms (movies, true-crime podcasts, TV shows like this one) that have transformed them an industry. It’s a show about subverting expectations, metaphorically and literally.

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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.

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Netflix
Mindhunter never gives us that. The killers are all skilled rhetoricians, and the interviews become delicate chess games played by masters on either side. The killers lie, and we as viewers learn how to recognize those lies, and what each lie actually means. And, of course, the killers have their own agendas with these interviews, agendas that only sometimes align with those of the FBI—specifically, establishing psychological profiles that can be theoretically used to track and even prevent other killers. It’s as inexact as a science gets, especially when these killers are profound derangements of science, examples of where the scientific rules got twisted somehow and created diabolically broken examples of human beings. As the FBI agents routinely find, these killers all share qualities, and yet they’re also entirely different from each other.

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.

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Netflix
Anna Torv’s character, Wendy Carr, is often left behind while Tench and Ford travel around the country, but her season-two arc gives the show another firm leg on the ground. We see Carr outside of work, establishing a life outside of Quantico, and how deliberate her decisions are. Carr's workdays, spent reading between the lines of the rantings and ramblings of serial killers, have turned her psychological aptitude into a very fine point. This means she sometimes sees things she doesn’t want to see in other people, including friends and potential dates; she’s also rebounding from a relationship in which she was the junior partner, and the notions of recruitment, influence, and control become themes that echo through the entire show, especially in the patterns the team is finding in serial killers’ behavior.

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.

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But I think the show’s triumph is the four-episode arc that closes the season, directed by Carl Franklin (One False Move, Devil with a Blue Dress). This stretch takes place largely in Atlanta, where Tench and Ford relocate to chip in on the law enforcement effort to solve the famous series of killings of children that occurred there between 1979 and 1981. This is where the show makes its strongest hints at becoming the kind of murder-mystery we’re accustomed to, but once again, Mindhunter gives us something else. And that something is a rich, tragic retelling of a historical incident that defined Atlanta as it was in the middle of transitioning to a major American city. We see what the transformation cost, and who was left behind; we learn how crimes always, always get politicized; and we watch the show weave its recurring themes—rhetoric, obfuscation, recruitment, and chain of command—into something extraordinary. Franklin’s work here is the best thing Mindhunter’s done, and it’s utterly disquieting.

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.