It had to happen sooner or later: The Mindhunter monster squad finally found a killer they can’t stand.
Actually, withstand is a better word for it. After all, it’s not like Holden Ford, Bill Tench, and Wendy Carr like any of the murderous men they’ve interviewed. It’s just that they’ve been able to put up with all of them well enough to keep working on the project in relative peace. While the investigation did cost Wendy her relationship, that’s because of the job itself, not the work she’s doing as a part of it. Bill’s problems with his wife Nancy had to do with parenting, not his profession, and to the extent that anything was wrong with Holden and Debbie it’s mostly because she’s one of the most bizarrely written TV characters in recent memory. Can’t blame that on the Bureau!
Then along comes Jerry Brudos, a big grinning ghoul whose interactions with Bill and Holden are split evenly between obvious lies and open mockery. The only time they can really get him to open up, it’s not about the series of women he abducted, murdered, and strung up and posed in his garage, taking photos all the while — it’s about his lifelong paraphilia for women’s shoes. (He used the severed foot of one of his victims to showcase his collection.) Then he gets a little too open, interrupting the interview to take the shoes Holden brought him as incentive to talk and jerking off into them. Bill’s exhausted “What the fuck?” speaks for all of us, I think.
That’s when the trouble starts. Wendy and Bill, Bill and his wife Nancy, Holden and his girlfriend Debbie—all of them get in fights directly traceable to the impact Brudos’s insufferable interviews have had on them. To paraphrase the great Yakov Smirnov, on Mindhunter, case cracks you!
Given that curiosity, cooperation, openness, and uncertainty are the show’s strengths, an episode in which the characters spend a lot of time yelling at each other is unsurprisingly one of the weaker installments in some time. The writing of Bill and Nancy’s fight in particular, sparked when a previously dependable babysitter of their quiet but challenging kid bails on them after she discovers he’d swiped one of Bill’s bloody crime-scene photos and placed it under his bed, saddles them with dialogue out of an old-school Lifetime movie, from back when they were bad by accident instead of on purpose. (Sample exchange: “I’m trying to protect everyone.” “No, you need to protect your son!”) It’s uninterestingly staged as well—basically, they just stand on opposite ends of the living room hollering at each other. Even the resolution feels, well, like something from a script: When Bill finally lets out all the horror he feels about the cases he’s investigating, brandishing photos that seem to shock him more than his wife, Nancy hugs him, finally understanding…but even as she does so, he’s looking down at one of the pictures, detecting fresh clues. See, it’s because his mind’s always on the job, get it?
Another part of the problem is Brudos, a more cartoonish killer than any of his predecessors. This isn’t necessarily the fault of the writers, or actor Happy Anderson; some serial killers really do talk and act like a comic-book villain. (Try watching an interview with Richard Rameriz, Ted Bundy, or Charles Manson sometime, man.) It just makes him less interesting to watch than weirdly cooperative Ed Kemper, teenage dirtbag Monte Rissell, or crybaby killer Benjamin Barnwright. From his constant Jokeresque cackling to his exhibitionistic masturbation, Brudo’s twin poles of bullshitting and bullying are nothing we haven’t seen before.
Admittedly, other elements of the episode run deeper than they first appear. Take Wendy’s outburst at Bill and Holden when she listens to the recording of their second interview with Brudos, the one to which Ford brought women’s shoes at during which Tench pretended to be friendly with the killer’s wife. Wendy accuses Bill in particular of being more interested in humiliating Brudos for his transvestism than learning what makes him tick; angrily, Bill insists that the focus on his interest in women’s shoes and clothing is how they’ll learn what makes him tick.
From our present-day perspective, Wendy’s objections might not even have occurred to us. It’s not that Brudos’s shoe fetish or crossdressing are inherently dangerous markers of criminal behavior, any more than being interested in plain old vanilla sex is a warning sign you’ll become Ed Kemper. They’re just unique facets of Brudos’s personality, ones that he incorporated into his killings, and which occupied a similar forbidden zone in his superficially square wife/kids/house/job life. Addressing this aspect of how he lives is a promising way of accessing why he kills.
But it would be many years in real time before deviations from “normal” sexuality and gender identity would cease to be seen as warning signs, comorbid in killers with the killings themselves. Wendy, meanwhile, is a closeted lesbian who sacrificed openness about her romantic life in general and her girlfriend in particular to do this job. (Her girlfriend was kind of an asshole regardless, but you get the drift.) Small wonder the tape triggers such an intense response. Fortunately, both she and Bill are intelligent and thoughtful enough to patch things up the next day, with Wendy admitting his tactics were valid and Bill apologizing for letting the stress of the job affect his behavior toward her. “He’s fucking immune,” he jokes afterwards, indicating Holden. “How do I tap into that?”
Au contraire, Bill. On a very special episode of our regularly scheduled program DebbieWatch™, Ms. Mitford surprises Holden by dressing up in lingerie and heels to cap off her celebration getting through her grad school finals. Try as he might, though, Holden can’t get Brudos’s fixation on these garments, or the images of his victims (which as Bill had pointed out were staged in ways uncomfortably similar to garden-variety advertising and pin-up shots), out of his mind. Rather than admit that the job is getting to him, however, Ford shittily pins the blame on Debbie herself. “It’s weird,” he sighs, moving her off of him. “This? It’s just…not you.” “Yeah, Holden,” she replies with understandable steel in her voice. “That’s the point.” Holden’s right, though not in the way he thinks. It’s not her, it’s him—not the lingerie, but the problem.
And in a particularly sharp bit of foreshadowing, Ford actually described earlier that morning exactly what he’d wind up doing that night. “I’ve been thinking about another angle with Brudos,” he says to Bill when his partner arrives at the office. “Remember what Wendy said about deflecting responsibility?” Bill cuts him off, but clearly Holden remembers it, well enough to do it himself later on. Abyss, meet Holden, Holden, meet the abyss. Have you guys seen each other’s gazes before?
- Whatever else you can say about Brudos, he’s got jokes. I’d say it’s a first-place tie between his cheery “Heeyyyy, welcome to Oregon!” and, once Holden starts reading off their questionnaire’s canned introduction, his fake snoring followed by “I thought this was going to break the monotony.”
- It was goofy, I know, but I still liked the comedy bit about the fellow airplane passenger who insists on taking the middle seat between Holden and Bill, until he starts getting a look at the crime-scene photos they’re passing back and forth.
- “The high heels worked.” “You could say that.”
- DebbieWatch™ Extra: Once again, Debbie is used by the writers to provide an in-home demonstration of Holden’s latest serial-killer findings. This is getting weird. I know this won’t happen, but a version of Mindhunter in which she wound up being either a figment of Holden’s imagination or a killer herself would make more sense in terms of how this character is handled.
- The foley effects on the door to the team’s basement office are unreal. When Bill shuts it behind him when he shows up for work in morning it sounds like he’s closing an airlock.
- For some reason, Anna Torv’s Dr. Carr spends an entire scene walking around in a dress shirt and no pants as she does laundry and tries to lure a stray cat with a can of tuna. The part of me who likes watching attractive people be attractive on television isn’t complaining. The part of me that’s watching a show about serial killers is kinda uncomfortable, though. Then again, I’ve spent time in Hannibal reviews writing about Mads Mikkelsen’s cheekbones, so I guess I contain multitudes.
- The most subtly crushing line of the night goes to the Tenches’ babysitter. When she gets visibly worried about the impact the crime-scene photo might have had on their son, Bill tries to reassure her: “I’ll talk to him, make sure he understands that nothing’s wrong.” “‘Nothing’s wrong’?” she replies, her voice trembling with horror and disbelief. How could anyone look at that photo and think nothing’s wrong?