The late great Halt And Catch Fire famously took a while to actually become great. It got there because its writers figured out a new way to create personal and professional dilemmas for its characters. Rather than present black-and-white choices in which someone was clearly in the right and someone else in the wrong, or follow the shades-of-gray antihero-drama approach where the interest lies in studying why people do the wrong thing to begin with, Halt took a third route: It constructed scenarios in which the protagonists faced two equally compelling options and had to choose between them with no clear-cut right answer at all. For example, should they gut the creative innards of their new computer, lowering the price tag and guaranteeing competitiveness in the marketplace at the expense of what made the product special? Or should they keep their innovative interface intact and take a shot at something great, risking not just their livelihoods but those of everyone who worked for them in the process? Each path had its partisans, each argument was persuasive, and in the end they had no more idea of what would be best than any of us do when we face turning points in our own real lives. The show’s total lack of hand-holding for either its characters or its audience made for riveting viewing.

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I thought about this a lot while watching this episode of Mindhunter. Focused almost exclusively on the murder and mutilation case that Bill Tench, Holden Ford, and local cop Mark Ocasek started working in the previous installment, it’s the story of three investigators hashing things out as they go, testing competing theories of the crime with no slam dunks in sight. It’s not about winnowing out false leads until the one true answer is found—even though they make an arrest by the end of the hour, the exact circumstances of the killing remain a mystery. Rather, it’s about trying to figure things out in a field, and a world, where there are no sure things. It’s a very different way to write a procedural.

If you’re looking for what makes this work, start with Detective Ocasek. Altoona, Pennsylvania’s Finest isn’t the best cop on the beat by any stretch of the imagination. A quiet, church-going type, he’s too soft on suspects and too eager to clear his beloved community of guilt for the horrible crime that’s been committed there. Bill and Holden spend half the episode shooting him dirty looks over every minor screw-up. But he’s not the stock character he might be on other shows—the local yokel whose ignorance, incompetence, and naîveté serve as an example of what not to do that the more seasoned investigators must overcome. He’s just a bit out of his depth with a case this extraordinary, is all. And despite their impatience with him, Ford and Tench value his insights into the personalities and histories of the suspects, as well as the community ties that enable him to access information they wouldn’t even think of looking for, much less be able to find on their own. When they take him out for beers to shoot the shit about the case, they’re not just doing it to be nice—they want to know what he thinks, because they’re not sure themselves.

In part, that’s because the crime isn’t fitting the rudimentary patterns they’ve sussed out so far. The timing and nature of the assault, murder, and desecration of the corpse send mixed messages—“two different presentations,” as their teammate Dr. Carr puts it. The science of “sequence killers” the three of them are working to establish is still so new that their profiling techniques are uncertain even under the best of circumstances. For all they know, an outlier like this may not even be an outlier at all; what they think they know could simply be wrong.

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From our vantage point in the true-crime saturated year of 2017, it’s a bit easier to figure out. The crime was committed by two different men, working in an uneasy partnership: the victim’s milquetoast “fiancé” Benjamin Barnwright and his assertive, abusive brother-in-law Frank Janderman (Jospeh Cross and Jesse C. Boyd, the latest in the show’s string of nuanced, un-showy portrayals of murderers). But that doesn’t matter in the moment, anymore than our present-day understanding of computing made the Halt And Catch Fire scenario any less tricky to untangle.

As Ford, Tench, and Ocasek interrogate both men and their female family members, you can see why they might disagree about their believability, potential motives, and ability to carry out the killing. They have their suspicions, some of which are borne out—Holden’s gut instinct that Benjamin’s constant crying jags indicated deflection rather than vulnerability, say, or Mark’s decision to look into Frank’s background and bring him in for questioning. But until Rose (Jackie Renee Robinson), Benjy’s sister and Frank’s wife, comes clean about her involvement in the murder’s cover-up, suspicions are all they really are.

More than any other genre of television drama, procedurals are defined by formula. Yet as Mindhunter settles into this mode, its focus on process and conversation rather than goals and solutions have helped keep it clear of the cliches that bog down its CBS and NBC antecedents. It feels open even when the cases are closed.

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Stray observations

  • DebbieWatch™: In the only scene not directly tied to the Altoona case, Ms. Mitford’s pulling an all-nighter while doing speed and blasting the Sweet’s “Fox on the Run.” Who hasn’t, right? So that’s not so bad. The bit where talks about faking tears in order to get a better grade out of one of her professors, on the other hand…Is no one on the writing staff troubled by the fact that every time Holden learns something new about sociopaths, the show’s main female character provides an in-home demonstration for him? At least the part where he grills her about how many sexual partners she’s had is supposed to make us uncomfortable.
  • As Rose, Jackie Renee Robnsion reads like a Rust Belt Shelly Duvall from The Shining.
  • “Here’s a question: Shouldn’t our funding cover separate rooms?” “You don’t like my company?” “We’ll get connecting doors.”

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