Dawn of the dead: Mindhunter takes us back to the start of the serial-killer era

Dawn of the dead: Mindhunter takes us back to the start of the serial-killer era

“It’s not like there’s some magical machine that makes identical copies of things.” To its eternal credit, Mad Men got the single worst line of dialogue in the entire series out of the way in its pilot episode. Don Draper’s brief aside about the state of the art in office equipment functions as a gag only from the perspective of its 2007 audience, at the expense of its 1960 characters. What we know, and what Don doesn’t, is that of course there are magical machines that make identical copies of things, or that there will be eventually. The poor sap has the temerity not to have journeyed via time machine to an era where photocopiers are a thing. Joke’s on you, buddy!

I thought of this line a lot while watching Mindhunter, Netflix’s new serial-killer procedural from writer-creator Joe Penhall and producer-director David Fincher. The difference is that while Mad Men relegated its “look at these troglodytes who haven’t even heard of Xerox yet” hindsight to one brief, bad joke, it’s Mindhunter’s entire premise.

Based on the influential true-crime book Mind Hunter: Inside The FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit by Mark Olshaker and John E. Douglas, and featuring analogues for Douglas and his fellow Fed Robert K. Ressler, it chronicles the birth of criminal profiling and the concept of the serial killer as we know them, during an era when law enforcement’s skepticism of such notions—and of psychology in general—was ingrained and endemic. In other words, it’s a war story written from the perspective of the winners, one which enlists its audience as recruits for the retrospectively inevitable victory. That’s the problem, really: It’s a tale of bone-deep uncertainty in uncharted territory, told with the quiet confidence of a sure thing.

Jonathan Groff stars as Holden Ford, the stand-in for pioneering profiler Douglas. We meet him when he arrives at the scene of a tense standoff with an unstable but slightly goofy hostage-taker, whose primary complaints are that he wants to see his wife and that he’s literally invisible. Ford shuts down the local cops and their bullhorn-delivered bullying, establishing a rapport with the frizzy-haired perp. But that proves to be his undoing. Ford believes he can be an effective stand-in for the wife, whom he keeps from the scene. The hostage-taker demurs, takes his shotgun, and blows his own head clean off his body, like squeezing edamame from the pod directly into the mouth of God Himself.

An inauspicious start to Ford’s story, to be sure. But as his supervisor (Cotter Smith) points out, there are worse ways for a hostage situation to end. And whether as a reward for his services or, as he suspects, a glorified desk job, Ford is reassigned to full-time training duties at the FBI Academy at Quantico, teaching new recruits to listen, rather than issue commands in the traditional “come out with your hands up” mode.

That reassignment starts a daisy chain of events that radically alter both Ford’s professional and personal lives. When he overhears a fellow instructor, Peter Rathman (Jordan Gelber), deliver a lecture on David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz that describes the killer as “a black hole,” devoid of the traditional motives shared by criminals, the two strike up an almost comically instant friendship. Over beers at a local watering hole, they trade aphorisms about the JFK-to-Watergate disintegration of society and its reflection in the criminal mind, in a rhythm so staccato it reads like Oliver Stone’s Dragnet. (Actual dialogue: “Watergate.” “Our democracy is vanishing into…what?” “Is that what this is all about? Just a response to turmoil?” “The government used to be, symbolically, a parental institution. Now? It’s a free-for-all.” “The world doesn’t make any sense, so it follows that crime doesn’t either.” “Listen, you and I could theorize about this all night.”)

Once Rathman leaves, Ford strikes up a conversation with a local college kid named Debbie (Hannah Gross); their conversation makes the rapid-fire Manson/Nixon stuff that preceded it sound naturalistic by comparison. I mean, I guess it’s possible that a young woman would react so favorably to a guy openly ogling her before admitting he’s a literal federal agent that she’d crack anachronistic BDSM jokes about handcuffs, ignore the proto-punk band she came to see on a tour from their native Detroit, talk to him about her sociology classes while he complains that he thought she’d be easier, then bring him back to her house to listen to Peter Frampton, take some wicked bong rips, go out to the movies the next night, then bring him back to her place again and fuck while she rattles off the dirty words he told her the FBI trained him not to say in mixed company. But it sure doesn’t seem likely!

From there, we get to the meat of the episode. Inspired by Debbie’s inexplicable romantic interest in him to enlist in classes in her department at UVA to better understand the cutting edge of psychology and criminology, he starts employing unorthodox role-play training methods with his students at Quantico, drawing the…ire, of his boss, I guess? I dunno, one minute he’s getting dressed down for the amount of cussing going on in his classes, and the next he’s being introduced to Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), the Bureau’s brawny behavioral-science guru. Despite a high-and-tight haircut and hulking frame that make him look more like a nightmare gym teacher than a forward thinker, Tench takes Ford along on one of his regular speaking tours to local police departments around the country, where he teaches his techniques and learns what’s going on at ground level.

Their trip takes them to a small Midwestern city in turmoil over the unexplained and unsolved murders of a single mother and her young son. Ford soon finds himself swimming upstream against the local fuzz’s conviction that people are just born bad. He tries everything from quoting Shakespeare and Freud to describing Charles Manson’s hard-knock life prior to the Tate-LaBianca murder spree to impress upon his deeply unimpressed audience the idea that while criminality is more complicated than simple black and white/good and evil, it is nonetheless something rooted in human nature since time immemorial. This gives them a good chance of solving even the most perplexing cases if they could just figure out the nature of the humans involved.

It falls to the department’s saltiest dog, ex-LAPD Detective Frank McGraw (Thomas Francis Murphy), to disabuse Ford of his book-learnin’. A personal friend of the cops who worked the Manson murder scenes, he’s got no interest in hearing about Charlie’s “sob story,” as Tench puts it; nor does he have time for Ford’s flights of literary fancy when a simple “Look beyond obvious impulses” would have sufficed. (“Why didn’t you just say that?” he barks before storming out of the conference room in disgust.)

But he’s angry for a reason, which he describes to the visiting Feds over apologies and coffee one evening. The murders of the woman and child, you see, were extraordinarily vicious, involving broomstick sodomization that crime-scene photos show both the agents and the audience in excruciating detail. The boy was forced to watch his mother suffer and die before the killer brutalized him in turn. “What people won’t do to each other,” McGraw murmurs, almost to himself. “Nothin’ people won’t do.”

Once again, though, Ford screws things up. When he learns that the mother swept up the steps at the Methodist church on a regular basis, he infers that the broom with which she and her son were assaulted might mean something to the killer, who moreover may have really been targeting the boy rather than the woman. Unfortunately, these “might”s and “may”s are all he has to offer; he knows enough about such killings to figure out that they’re operating from a completely different rule book, but he still has no idea what those rules might be. “We are in the dark about this,” he tells a dumbstruck McGraw. “We don’t know any more than you do.” McGraw, who’d allowed himself to get his hopes up that these two federal hotshots could help him crack this haunting case, is not just devastated but infuriated. “How fuckin’ dare you,” he spits as Ford all but flees the scene. He and Tench drive away; the episode ends with little fanfare, less resolution, and no sense that Ford, who’s got the bedside manner of a malfunctioning robot, has learned his lesson.

What lesson should we learn? For starters, I’d like to initiate an investigation into whether or not writer Joe Penhall has ever heard human beings talk—like, even from a distant orbital-satellite observation post. Perhaps the incredibly mannered way in which Ford interacts with his colleagues, his girlfriend, and basically everyone he meets is down to the way David Fincher directs actors; from Chuck Palahniuk to Aaron Sorkin to Gillian Flynn to Beau Willimon, he’s rarely if ever worked with writers who want their characters to talk like human beings instead of ideological avatars. But for real, Ford’s scenes with Rathman and Debbie—even the sex scenes, which are equal-opportunity graphic—are “The LSD Story”–level goofy.

This leaves Jonathan Groff, who plays Ford, in the unenviable position of trying to make a cohesive whole out of a character who just says a bunch of random shit no matter the occasion. To his credit, he never broods, like his equivalents on an NBC/CBS procedural or a CW superhero/supernatural thriller might do. But he’s hamstrung by a script that tries to make him a fish out of water wherever he goes, yet never quite takes him far enough onto dry land. He’s supposed to be too much of a freethinker for the FBI, but he’s got field expertise and enough trust to be handed the next generation of agents as clay to mold. He’s supposed to be too square for the outside world, but he’s worked undercover and manages to woo a vastly more interesting woman without even trying. He’s a collection of quirks in search of a character more than a character himself. Compared to similar insider-outsiders—even if we just limit ourselves to characters in Douglas-indebted material William Petersen in Manhunter, Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs, and Hugh Dancy in Hannibal—he doesn’t make the grade.

That’s why the episode only really sings when his elders are onscreen. Holt McCallany has been an engrossing screen presence ever since I first saw him in Fincher’s Fight Club; here, his big, bright, lively eyes and at-ease body language complicate his macho Bureau mien. Thomas Francis Murphy’s McGraw, meanwhile, gets the most moving lines of the episode when he muses on the evil that men do; his hurt that Ford and Tench can’t help him is palpable. The whole time those two were onscreen together, I wondered why Groff’s Ford was even hanging around in the first place. We don’t need a standard young, handsome entry point into this world, since we know exactly how the story plays out. His side wins. If we absolutely must spin a yarn about a foregone conclusion, the weatherbeaten veterans who helped bring it about make for a far more interesting focal point. But as of this pilot, I’m not convinced we need to spin said yarn at all.

Stray Observations:

  • This is admittedly a fixation of mine, but the period-appropriate music supervision here was scattershot as hell. What kind of person goes to a Stooges/Dolls/whatever gig in 1977, then takes the dude they picked up home to listen to Peter frigging Frampton? (Nothing but love for “Do You Feel Like We Do” here, but you get my drift.) And what kind of show pays for 10cc’s luminous “I’m Not in Love,” then just pastes it up as sonic wallpaper behind half-assed pillow talk?
  • From its uninspired crime-scene-photo imagery to its melody-free music, the opening credits are what Netflix invented the “SKIP INTRO” option for.
  • Same with the ending, in which the episode just sort of…ended. No climax, no closing-line kicker—just the cessation of a single scene in the middle of what the streaming service expects to be hours of uninterrupted binging. The algorithm walks among us.
  • Do students ever really just rush out of a class the second a bell rings, while the teacher is still talking? I certainly never did, because that’s stupid. What if they say something important? But Hollywood has ended classroom scenes like this for decades, and not even Quantico is immune, apparently.
  • Ford and Debbie see Dog Day Afternoon during their first date; Ford then plays it to his Quantico students. Can we please call a moratorium on TV shows reminding us of the vastly superior movies we could be watching instead?
  • There’s a great bit at the beginning of the episode when Ford, returning home from his botched hostage negotiation, tosses his suit jacket on a chair, only to watch it slide off onto the ground. That’s a terrific “one of those days” moment, and it displays a wry sense of humor that could really improve the rest of the show.

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