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On Mindhunter, closing the case is no guarantee you're closer to the truth

Illustration for article titled On Mindhunter, closing the case is no guarantee you're closer to the truth
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And now, an episode of Mindhunter in which our heroes blow it.

Armed with a reel-to-reel recorder, a killer bad cop/bad cop routine, and the body of knowledge they’ve developed in tandem with Detective Mark Ocasek and Dr. Wendy Carr, FBI agents Holden Ford and Bill Tench uncover the truth about the brutal murder and mutilation of Beverly Jean Shaw. Her would-be fiancé Benjamin Barnwright beat her in a jealous rage. He called up his domineering brother-in-law Frank Janderman for help. Frank seized the gruesome opportunity to rape her, then goaded Benjy into murdering her with him by calling her a slut. Frank then called up his wife Rose for help cleaning up the mess. Rose noticed that Beverly Jean was still alive (a detail picked up on by Wendy), so they finish the job with some more stabbings. They take her body to the town dump, where Benjy returns four days later to mutilate the corpse as a display of dominance.

Case closed…for all the good it does them. The Altoona district attorney opts for a simpler theory of the crime, pinning not just the killing and the mutilation but also the rape on Benjamin and allowing Frank, the more recidivist violent criminal, to cop a plea that will land him in a mental institution for a few years instead of life—or, like Benjamin, death in the electric chair.

But once again, Mindhunter refrains from the mistake it made in its earliest episodes, where Tench and Ford’s boss was a mouthpiece for outdated and ignorant views—a convenient obstacle to be overcome by the real visionaires. It’s true that the D.A. doesn’t quite grasp the complex interplay of impulses and triggers that shaped Benjy, Frank, and Rose’s respective involvement in the murder and its aftermath. But it’s not that he can’t understand it, or doesn’t want to understand it. Wendy, Holden, and Bill simply haven’t figured out how to express it in a way that will get a guilty verdict out of a jury. When Wendy asks him “How do we translate this so you can use it?” it’s neither a rhetorical question nor a passive-aggressive dig—she really wants to find a way to make their findings useful outside the laboratory conditions of their office.

And when the D.A. approaches them after allowing Frank to cop a plea, he’s sincere when he tells them why his hands were tied. It’s a utilitarian numbers game—“the lowest cost for the highest quality justice”—and he couldn’t take the risk of confusing a jury and letting justice of any kind slip away. Even when Holden and Bill grumpily reject his offer to take them out for dinner by way of an apology, they still shake his hand when he offers it. There are no hard feelings. How can there be? “What difference does any of this make if we can’t communicate it to the people who matter?” Holden asks Bill before they drive away. “I don’t know,” Bill sighs. Their own uncertainty about the trail they’re blazing makes them more forgiving when others demur from following.

Contrast their approach with the intellectual arrogance of Annaliese, Wendy’s girlfriend back in Boston. (Wendy’s gay, btw.) Played with continental swagger by Lena Olin, she might have come across as your typical antihero-drama wife who just doesn’t understand, if it weren’t for the strength and specificity of how she’s written. In an attempt to commiserate with Wendy’s frustrations about the local D.A., she says “These people have reached their intellectual limits”—condescending, yeah, but sometimes you want your significant other to condescend to your enemies and obstacles. But when Wendy starts talking about moving to Virginia and working with the Bureau full time, Annaliese repeats the line, not only weaponizing it against Wendy’s fed friends and colleagues, but attributing to Wendy. “You said it yourself: These people have reached their intellectual limits.” “I didn’t say that,” Wendy replies. In that moment, you can see the fatal flaw in their relationship. Despite her feigned respect for Wendy’s decisions (at one point she says “You know best,” and Wendy actually has to say “I’m not sure I do—that’s why I wanted to talk it over”), Annaliese feels entitled to make those decisions for her, then tell herself they’re what Wendy wanted all along.


This solipsistic possessiveness is embodied in their dinner date with another pair of blowhard professors. As they discuss the masks people wear in public to hide their true selves, Annaliese takes Wendy’s hand. But there’s no romance or tenderness in it—it’s more like a toddler grabbing a favorite toy and saying “Mine!” Wendy senses it, and almost immediately skips out on the dinner and heads back to the Bureau. Ford and Tench may have different backgrounds, styles, skills, and interests, but when she speaks, they listen. Even when they disagree, they don’t try to gaslight her into thinking their ideas are hers.

Stray observations

  • DebbieWatch™: Hey, it’s a miracle—Debbie behaves like a human being this episode! There’s a brief rough patch when she and Holden get ready for dinner at the Tenches’ house: “You could be a little less sarcastic,” Holden pleads, to which she replies “What makes you think I’m being sarcastic?” QED! But at the dinner itself, she’s warm, gracious, and sensitive to Nancy’s pain over parenting their uncommunicative adopted son. The scene where they watch the adorable little guy sleep is Debbie’s most humane moment to date.
  • On a similar note, there’s a joy in Bill’s eyes as he watches Holden try to play with his son that’s really moving to see. He’s growing to love his partner.
  • Okay, this is so weird I’m half-convinced it was done on purpose, but here goes. As the dinner party winds down, Holden and Bill are shooting the shit about the upbringing of the various killers they’ve encountered. “It’s always the mother, isn’t it?” Bill says. “They all have a crazy, angry mother.” “Or an absent father,” Holden adds. “Aren’t all fathers absent in some way?” Bill replies—a nearly verbatim repetition of what Debbie said to Holden about dads a couple episodes earlier. Is the idea that Bill and Debbie also had this conversation offscreen, and he’s adopted her bon mot as his own? Is it that this concept is so obvious that anyone who thinks about it for any period of time will come up with it independently? Is it just weirdly bad editing in the writers’ room? Your guess is as good as mine!
  • Fleetwood Mac Mach One’s “Albatross” as Wendy flies home to Boston, ruminating on her future? Good music cue!
  • The Boomtown Rats’ ironic schoolgirl-murder anthem “I Don’t Like Mondays” over the closing credits after Wendy decides to join the Bureau full time? Bad music cue!