I have to be in the mood for serial killers.
These true crime American monsters of murder have their own genre at this point. Figures like Charles Manson and David Berkowitz (“Son of Sam”) have even gotten the iconic Tarantino film treatment, the latter a Spike Lee joint.
After worshipping Once Upon a Time in Hollywood twice upon a time in theaters, season two of Netflix’s Mindhunter then dropped on August 16th. My recent Manson fascination from the Tarantino flick helped tip the scale to finally watch the serial killer show everyone keeps talking about.
But, again, I’m not an obsessor of the genre. I really need to be in the right mood and mindset for serial killer stuff. Then, I’m fascinated. It is disturbingly dark material. To properly absorb serial killer hunting in a healthy way, I like to take in this kind of thing when I’m totally relaxed and in the best of moods. That’s why I waited until I was hundreds of miles away on vacation to first start Mindhunter, followed by a compulsive season two binge shortly thereafter.
David Fincher, yet another big league filmmaker of nineties fame, has fixated on the stories of serial killers for decades: Seven, Zodiac, Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Now, his fixation continues into long form television with Mindhunter. Fincher is an executive producer on the series. While the title of EP can often mean hands-off involvement, Fincher’s also directing four episodes in season one and three in season two (Each season is only ten episodes). I knew he was a producer and directed a few. But, I had no idea he was involved in such a large portion of the series’ direction. It shows.
Fincher’s presence is felt all over Mindhunter, bringing a serious level of prestige and feature film legitimacy to television. Unmistakably, each episode has the look and quality of a Fincher flick. Production design, attention to late seventies period detail, camera work, it’s all there. Specifically, whether it’s Fincher himself or not, I noticed the rack zooms and focus work were absolutely stellar on this show. For example, when two actors are talking, one will be in focus and the other out of focus. Or, backgrounds vs. foregrounds will be in and out of focus to create depth. Clearly, this is not a new camera concept. I’m just highlighting a visual detail I found particularly impressive on Mindhunter.
Going further, one could argue that Fincher is more in his element than ever on Mindhunter. Again, serial killers are well within his wheelhouse. The man tends to tell rather long stories as it is. Now, Fincher gets to operate more freely, without the time constraint of a feature. If there’s a big criticism I have of his movies, it’s that they drag. But, to a certain extent, dragging works for TV. Especially, if it’s dragging that looks anything like Fincher.
Works perfectly for TV
Mindhunter works perfectly for television. Which might sound weird because it is TV, but Mindhunter is also an adaptation of the novel by John E. Douglas and Michael Olshaker. There are a million different directions you can take with an adaptation, and Mindhunter could have easily been made into a movie; likely poised for direction by our own David Fincher. But, instead: TV.
As they say, TV is the new novel. Unfortunately, no one reads anymore. I mean, some people do, but for most of us, we get our long form storytelling on television–for better or worse. But, in the case of Mindhunter, America’s serial killers have, dare I pun, found their serial home. This is my personal style of TV too. While I appreciate long story arcs (and this show has plenty), I also appreciate self contained episodic stories.
In season one especially, you get your serial killer of the week. And, you get it without feeling like a cop procedural, working even better for my taste. Then, you get your Hannibal Lector consultation visits, but expanded. The impetus of the mind hunting FBI unit is to do the exact Lector thing: interview imprisoned serial killers to gain insight into hunting serial killers. But, again, Silence of the Lambs expanded.
In season one alone, we get to visit three serial killers from the top of America’s most demented: Edmund Kemper, Richard Speck, and Jerry Brudos. These frighteningly sympathetic and intriguing psychopaths lead to the capture of numerous new killers, a new one nearly every episode. I loved that feeling of having a new crazy to look forward to each time. Some new nut with his own “internal logic” that justifies serial murder. An intellectual and psychological journey, for sure.
Then, the episodes get tied together by following the personal and interpersonal lives of the investigators. Honestly, I did not know what to expect going into this show. Again, I have some skepticism with serial killer material in the first place. But, one thing I did not expect was such good character work for these investigators. The writing for our mind hunters is really well done, not to mention the performance of the ensemble main trinity: Special Agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) of the FBI, and Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), Professor of Behavioral Science. We see how interviewing and hunting murderous psychopaths influences and reflects their lives: young, brilliant, straight laced Agent Ford, forced to question his own sexual and romantic shortcomings, even potential deviances; Bill the FBI family man, with a disturbed son of his own, trying to hold his family together while being a great special agent; Dr. Carr, the closeted intellectual lesbian breaking free from a late seventies homophobic academia, now navigating a patriarchal FBI.
Season one’s episodes also build on each other as the mind hunting unit builds. It all starts with a truly crazy yet effective idea from Holden Ford, and quickly escalates to a full fledged unit of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Our heroes show real results and build a life saving behavioral science as they go. Watching all that build through a season of TV was a blast.
Season two leans more into the long form season arc style, which also worked amazingly. It just wasn’t nearly as exciting for me as the villain of the week style from season one. This season focused on the late seventies Atlanta murders of twenty nine black children and young men. It had some really powerful, interesting stuff in there. It’s always important and fascinating to get the minority perspective on history, and in the case of serial killers, not just because of representation. As well as the victims being black, the killer’s profile Agent Ford comes up with is a black male. Serial killer profiles to this day tend to fit white males, so it’s cool to see our superhero mind hunters get thrown a giant profiling curveball for an entire season.
I also liked how sure of himself Holden was by the end of season one, and then season two, he’s completely out of his element. Ford is the one who created the mind hunter unit for the FBI at the beginning of season one. Interviewing serial killers, the task force, all his idea. Then, by the end of the first season, he’s so overwhelmed by visiting a serial killer in the last episode, that he literally has a panic attack and passes out. And now, season two, he’s in Atlanta, away from his home in Quantico for most of the episodes. Culturally, he’s a very white guy in a not very white town. He’s full of anxiety, still having issues with panic attacks. You could tell he’s gained weight. He slouches a lot. He’s unsure of himself.
For reasons like this, character development in particular, I do have to give it up for this season as a TV show. Mindhunter season two really did deliver on its investigators, putting good use to the long season arc. Without giving anything major away, I like seeing how much Tench can actually endure after a particularly horrifying season for his personal life. And, Wendy, similar to season one, has to fight with being more assertive, in a homophobic and patriarchal world where assertion means only trouble for her.
Coming from the guy who’s not always in the bag for serial killers, Mindhunter seasons one and two are highly recommended. I’ll close with reiterating my preference to season one, though. That’s how good I feel it is. And, again, that ties in with my own personal preference of TV. It depends on the particular series as well, but, in general, as much as I love long story arcs, I equally love episodic stories that fit into them.
It’s cool now, being able to look at two full seasons of Mindhunter next to each other. It’s like watching two totally different styles of TV storytelling, but it all takes place in the same cohesive Fincher/Mindhunter universe.
Sound familiar, comic nerds?
All ten episodes of Mindhunter season two are now available for streaming on Netflix.
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