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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Building a mystery: The Mindhunter team creates the science of serial killers

Holt McCallany, Jonathan Groff, Sam Strike (Photo: Merrick Morton/Netflix)
Holt McCallany, Jonathan Groff, Sam Strike (Photo: Merrick Morton/Netflix)
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Twitter is a portal straight into hell, but every so often a li’l angel of insight manages to spread its wings and fly out of its maw. So I offer a sincere thank you to the twitter user who put into words something I might not have been able to put my finger on otherwise: The more like a procedural Mindhunter becomes, the better it gets. Sure enough, the show’s fourth episode spends nearly all of its time watching Holden Ford, Bill Tench, and their new partner Wendy Carr at work, and it’s the best episode yet.

In their study, they interview Monte Rissell (Sam Strike, doing subtle work), a weaselly little shit who capped off his short life of criminality and sexual violence with a string of five rape-murders. He blames them both on a neglectful girlfriend and an abusive upbringing: “Nobody on this earth ever wanted me. Put that on your fucking tape.” Lines like that help us see how valuable these interviews are not just to the agents, but the killers. At last, someone will be forced to listen to the depths of their rage and despair and live to tell the tale.


In their office, Ford, Tench, and Carr use the insights gleaned from Rissell and Ed Kemper to create the “terms of art” that will form the basis of serial-killer studies, for want of a better term. Full disclosure: I’m one of those shame-faced serial-killer buffs—if you’re watching this show, there’s a decent chance you are too. So to see the trio begin to isolate the “stressors” that spark the killers’ murderous outbursts, or to come up with now-familiar categories like “organized” and “disorganized” to separate the premeditated “hunters” from their less intelligent, more impulsive counterparts, is a genuine thrill. And as a big fan of cooperation between characters in drama, the way the three of them legitimately listen to and respect each other’s suggestions and ideas, even if they ultimately shoot them down, is deeply refreshing given the morbidity of the subject matter. The whole thing, weirdly, reminds me of watching a making-of documentary, like one of those old VH1 Classic Albums episodes about, I dunno, Steely Dan’s Aja or what have you. It’s people who are legit geniuses, at the top of their game, working together to create something that will enrich—or in this case, save—countless lives.

And in the field, Bill and Holden continue their “road school” to teach local cops FBI techniques, a gig that’s increasingly a front for what they’re really interested in doing. They’ve got the routine down so cold by now that they make bets on how long it’ll take a cop to approach them with a difficult case after their lecture. This time around, an Altoona, Pennsylvania lawman, Detective Mark Ocasek (Alex Morf), asks them for help solving the vicious murder and mutilation of a local woman found in the garbage dump.

The interplay between the three men is fascinating. Ocasek seems eager to get as close to the cutting edge of criminology as he can: He’s enthusiastically embraced the relatively newfangled field of forensic science, and he reacts to the Feds’ insights into the psychology of killers like a student who feels he’s really getting something out of the class. Tench has perfected a method of essentially reopening the existing investigation without making the local cops feel condescended to or pushed aside. Ford, somewhat against type, bristles at the unwitting errors Ocasek and his comrades have made—letting the victim’s fiancé leave town, leaving potentially vital evidence behind at the crime scene, jumping to certain inaccurate conclusions and dragging their feet about obvious ones.

But all the while, Bill and Holden are spreading the dark gospel of serial killers, converting nonbelievers as they go. There’s one particularly chilling exchange between Ford and Ocasek when he and Bill speak to the Altoona PD about the case they’re now officially helping to investigate, when Ford discusses, in passing, how the killer “hunts.: “’Is that a figure of speech?” Ocasek asks. “It is not,” Holden replies, actor Jonathan Groff hitting every syllable like he’s a doctor delivering a terrible prognosis.


All of this is so new to everyone, you know? The lack of traditional motives. The idea, proposed by Dr. Carr, that these killers react to familiar criminal stimuli in abnormal ways, like how Rissell was driven to kill not because his first victim said no, but because she said yes. (It was a ploy, but still.) All the differences one can deduce from pre-mortem versus post-mortem injuries, from motive to marital status. (Bill, whose relationship with his wife has hit a rocky patch due to the stress of raising an adopted son who seems to be autistic, hits this last bit uncomfortably hard.) They’re like evil Johnny Appleseeds, roaming the countryside, planting trees of terrible knowledge.

And now, a quick break for our regularly scheduled feature: DebbieWatch™. Once again, the appearance of Debbie onscreen brings the whole show to a…well, not so much a halt as a prolonged cringe. To make things perfectly clear, this is not the fault of actor Hannah Gross, an intense performer who makes a meal out of her character’s continuous conversational trouncing of her boyfriend, Holden. The blame lies with the writing, which has yet to give her a single line of dialogue a real person would actually say.


During their awkward dinner date with Ford’s new ally Wendy Carr, she razzes him with ironic formality when he brings up the topic of marriage (“Are you proposing, Holden Ford?”), makes fun of him as an icebreaker with Wendy (“For a fed, he’s not so bad at having a good time”), and pays him a backhanded compliment when Carr jokes that he’s probably not as comfortable being around women smarter than he is as he makes out to be (“He has a lot of flaws, but surprisingly, that’s not one of them”). This happens in, like, three minutes of screentime? Like, who acts like this?

I think I understand what showrunner Joe Penhall and his cowriters (in this case Dominic Orlando) are going for with Debbie. Holden spends most of his time talking to men who detest women, viewing their every word and deed as part of an elaborate lifelong conspiracy to disempower and humiliate them. This is true not just of victims with whom they were close, like mothers and girlfriends, but also complete strangers; not just of people who might actually be said to have some sort of power over the course of their lives, but random sex workers and teenage girls—that is, people our entire society render disproportionately vulnerable at all times. To men like Monte Rissell and Edmund Kemper, a woman like Debbie—brilliant, accomplished, young, conventionally attractive, free-thinking, prone to giving people shit and taking none in return—would be an absolute nightmare. Holden’s relationship with her establishes that while men like Rissell and Kemper fascinate him on a professional level, he does not share their lethal prejudices. The paradox, and problem, is that this renders Debbie an instrument in Holden’s story, despite the surface trappings of independence that would seem to indicate otherwise.


Stray observations

  • With their gray trees, steel bridges, Rust Belt detritus, and crime-scene photos of a decomposing and horribly butchered female corpse, the Altoona scenes are as Silence of the Lambs as the show has gotten yet.
  • I’m hardly the first person to say this, but man does Anna Torv’s Wendy Carver give off serious Carrie Coon vibes.
  • The BTK cold open laid on the spooky music way too thick. But the way he couldn’t suppress a sinister snicker when the woman whose home he’s inspecting asks for just the stickers and sign without the actual alarm system? Legit chills up my spine.
  • Ditto the way Rissell decribed women, proclaiming “Can’t live with ’em…” without ever finishing the sentence. To him, the sentence is finished.
  • That bit is so good that I’m willing to forgive Rissell’s anachronistic use of the phase “No more drama.”
  • Another great music cue as our trio leave Unit Chief Shepard’s office with hundreds of thousands of dollars in unexpected funding in their proverbial pockets: “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” by Klaatu.

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