The final episode of Mindhunter’s first season depicts a pyrrhic victory. Holden Ford, the Behavior Science Unit’s boy wonder, gets a confession out of a man who raped and murdered a 12-year-old girl and becomes a media sensation overnight. But the fallout from both the attention the case brings on the BSU and the impact of his own increasingly radical methods and lack of regard for his colleagues is too much to bear.
The same can be said about the episode, and quite possibly the whole season. Directed by David Fincher from a script by Jennifer Haley and creator Joe Penhall, “Episode 9” lands like a thud, ignoring the show’s strengths—the process of discovery and collaboration among the BSU team, the memorably low-key presentation of serial killers—in favor of a climax that hits you over the head like…well, you get the idea.
Holden’s triumph over the creep is handled well enough. It displays the makeshift methodology he’s come to rely like a virtual classroom demonstration. Holden switches off his tape recording so sensitive portions of the interview remain off the record. He starts talking sexist and sleazy in order to win the killer’s trust. He brandishes a psychologically loaded object—in this case, the rock the killer used to beat his victim to death when he realized his beautiful dark twisted fantasy had gone to shit—to elicit honesty, or in this case an actual confession. He has celebratory drinks with Bill and the local fuzz afterwards. (If he were a serial killer, that part of the routine would be his “trophy.”)
Then he gets both too full of himself and too fragile, and the whole thing falls apart.
Granted, a couple of the confrontations Holden has after his grand triumph inflates his ego (again, a clever bit of mirroring with the actions of a killer, in this case the rape-murderer he’d just put away getting cocky after he beat the police’s polygraph) have their moments. When Debbie goads him into profiling her based on her distant behavior, he becomes the Sherlock Holmes of getting dumped. His moment of realization that this is what all her actions, words, and body language were pointing toward is cringingly funny, as is his subsequent decision to take the initiative and basically dump himself for her.
Later, after the Office of Professional Responsibility receives the Speck tape Greg sent them on the sly and calls Holden in for questioning, he displays a wondrous blend of arrogance and boredom toward what he calls their “principal’s office bullshit. This is what I do with violent offenders,” he tells his interrogators, then adds “only…much better” with a world-weary sigh. He’s not wrong, by the way—they literally tell him his conduct “will go down on your permanent record,” like a misbehaving fourth-grader.
But when he’s not playing break-up detective with Debbie? Their conversations are almost unendurable. It’s not just that they’re growing apart and acting like jerks, mind you—it’s that weak writing and stilted direction make them seem like malfunctioning robots. During a supermarket argument, Holden accuses Debbie, not inaccurately, of providing critical commentary on nearly everything he does. “Could you just be my girlfriend? Could you just listen?” he whines. “You mean shut up and adore you?” “Well, you could try it. Once.” It’s a nasty, sexist line that you could interpret as a sign that Holden is nasty and sexist…until the break-up argument, when he says shit like “I am the exact same person that you reeled in with that jumpsuit” and she lets the gross she-was-asking-for-it implications of that objectifying statement slide by completely, focusing only on whether or not he’s changed since they first met. It all reflects a very, very weird take on what men and women want from one another.
Elsewhere, Holden and Wendy’s meeting with the district attorney in the case he cracked earlier wastes our time completely; the DA is an inert stereotype (“You’re in Georgia,” she drawls, “death is the will of the people”) and Wendy’s inexplicable inability to read the room makes the single smartest person on the show look stupid.
It’s not the last time that kind of thing happens, either. Holden’s meeting with Ed Kemper, who attempts suicide and names Ford as his medical proxy in order to force another meeting, is the first time any of his conversations with murderers has felt like something out of a serial-killer-as-supervillain movie. It’s not actor Cameron Britton’s fault—he plays Kemper with the same unnervingly conversational affect as ever. Rather, it’s the mechanics of the meeting: revealing the stitches from his suicide attempt like he’s a breath away from one of the Joker’s “Do you wanna know how I got these scars?” speeches, leaping from his hospital bed with cat-like reflexes, threatening to murder Holden and make him akin to the “spirit wives” he gained when he killed his previous victims, then reversing course and hugging Holden, thanking him for his honesty. When Holden says he doesn’t know why he came, it turns Kemper into a criminal mastermind, luring the FBI’s best and brightest into a potential deathtrap just to show he could. I’m sure it’s supposed to say something about Holden’s increasingly agitated state of mind, but it just makes him look dumb and indecisive, two things he’s never been.
The follow-up is even more of a misfire. The instant Holden hits the door out of Kemper’s hospital room, Led Zeppelin’s “In the Light” kicks in. The song’s creepy-cool John Paul Jones synthesizer opening had been used to great effect during Holden’s flight to California, but this time the track is fast-forwarded to Jimmy Page’s triumphant, upward-climbing riff. The transition is so abrupt, the musical sentiment so poorly matched to the moment, that I actually laughed out loud—yet that’s not even the half of it. Holden staggers down the hallway and collapses, in the grips of a full-fledged panic attack so severe he thinks he’s dying. As the hospital staff frantically tries to aid him, he hears the voices of other characters in his head, reliving times they called him on his bullshit and warned him about his behavior: Bill, Shepard, Wendy, Kemper, even Principal Wade. “Wait,” you may be thinking, “you mean like the ‘I made my family disappear’ scene in Home Alone?” Yes, exactly like the “I made my family disappear” scene in Home Alone. Add a few floating-head visions and a “You’re what the French call les incompétents” and not even David Fincher and Chris Columbus could tell the difference. The device is so hackneyed it comes across like a joke from a children’s comedy.
Worse, it’s unnecessary. Did we really need to hear people telling Holden he fucked up for us to understand, while watching him have a panic attack brought on by a serial killer who took advantage of him and could easily have murdered him, that Holden fucked up? I can’t remember the last time I saw a season finale swing and miss this hard.
Mercifully, while that’s the end of Holden’s storyline, it isn’t the end of the episode. The show returns to Park City, Kansas for one last look at Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer, allowing the season to go out on a more creatively successful note. With framing and lighting straight out of a Gregory Crewdson photograph, Fincher shows Rader committing various incriminating sketches and scribbles of bondage, torture, and murder to the flames in a barrel in his backyard. Presumably this marks the official start, in his mind anyway, of a long hiatus in his career as a serial killer, likely sparked by his failure to murder his intended victim at the start of the previous episode. (Rader actually claimed no known victims between December 1977 and April 1985, but the failed home invasion took place in April 1979, almost exactly six years to the day before he killed again.)
The use of BTK as a sort of leitmotif throughout the season is one of the most fascinating creative decisions creator Joe Penhall made. Rader is never tied to the main storyline in any way beyond his, uh, shared interests with the characters. Hell, he wasn’t arrested until 2005, so it’s hard to see how the show could ever manage to link the two without investing in a whole lot of age makeup. At any rate, Rader’s connections with the real-life inspirations for Mindhunter’s characters are minimal; as best I can tell, John Douglas, the basis for Holden Ford, contributed to a profile of the killer in 1984, and that’s about it. (Here’s an article decrying the profile, and profiling in general, as half-baked pop pseudoscience by <record scratch sound effect> Malcolm Gladwell?!)
Why is BTK a presence in the show, then? One answer is “who the hell knows?”, and that’s perfectly valid, not just as a response but as an artistic method. As I’ve said in these reviews time and time again, the procedural genre depends on laying out everything as clear as day, and the BTK scenes darken things up. That’s worth doing under almost any circumstances, but in a story about people trying to comprehend the minds behind seemingly incomprehensible actions, these scenes make that challenge disconcertingly visible. What’s more, they point to something Holden must have suspected ever since one of his first interviews with Kemper, when the killer suggested there were over thirty men like him roaming around North America at the moment: There’s simply no way even the best investigators, armed with the best information, can find and stop them all. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the second season’s cold opens shifted to an entirely different murderer who escaped detection for years and years. Even when Holden recovers from his panic attack, he’ll still be the Don Quixote of detectives, tilting at the grimmest windmill there is.
- Whoever did the makeup for the mailroom guy who delivered the letter from Kemper to Holden’s desk in the cold open has some…interesting ideas about blush!
- I got a hell of a laugh out of Holden’s drunken assessment of the killers he’s interviewed: “They are fuuuuuuucked up.”
- As they leave the supermarket Holden and Debbie see former principal Roger Wade, who’s now a wino. I get that Holden’s conduct toward him was unethical, but how bad are we supposed to feel for a professional educator who got told “stop touching my kid” by multiple parents and just refused to do so?
- When Holden fields the phone call from the hospital telling him Kemper tried to kill himself, he gradually realizes Shepard is pulling the rest of the unit into the hallway in the background, for what he correctly guesses is a very stern talking-to. Fincher and company smartly re-use this device during his talk with Kemper, when he notices with increasing alarm that the nurses and orderlies on duty have left the observation room, leaving the pair alone. Television tends not to think too much about blocking, so kudos for this clever bit of business.
- Bad as the scene with Kemper was, the way he ever-so-casually cranes his neck to investigate the hubbub over Holden’s hallway breakdown? Classic Big Ed, man.