Charles Manson makes his Mindhunter debut, and (almost) everyone is stoked

Charles Manson makes his Mindhunter debut, and (almost) everyone is stoked
Screenshot: Netflix

Holden Ford is a Charles Manson fan. Holden’s been obsessing over the infamous cult leader since the very first episode of Mindhunter, when he pissed off a classroom full of Iowa beat cops by suggesting that Manson was a victim of his circumstances. He likes Manson’s shitty music. He wears his coolest sunglasses to go meet him. He’s even willing to entertain the idea that it was Tex Watson (Christopher Backus) who masterminded the Tate and LaBianca murders, even though their conversation makes it obvious that Manson is a deluded narcissist. He has to hear from Watson himself before the megalomaniacal spell is broken, much to Ford’s presumed disappointment.

And Ford’s not the only one fixated on Charles Manson. In life, Manson received duffel bags’ worth of mail from admirers up until his death in 2017, and even married while he was in prison. On Mindhunter, the Tench family’s new court-ordered psychologist can’t hide his excitement when Manson’s name comes up in Bill’s description of his work. “Co-Ed Killer” Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton) seethes with resentment for the far more well-known Manson, who he haughtily refers to as “the charlatan.” Kemper need not worry, though, as he’s still the scariest killer in Mindhunter’s lineup. “Have you got somebody, Holden? Someone you can’t catch?” is a real pants-shitter of a line, even if, in a victory for realism, Ford and Tench quickly squash his Hannibal Lecter ambitions.

This self-reflexive exploration of the cult of serial-killer fandom is a bold choice for a show whose greatest attraction is its gritty and granular depictions of famous serial killers. I admit that I find it satisfying when I know the backstories of the killers depicted on the show. And I don’t think that Mindhunter is trying to wag a finger at its audience, or itself, with this light critique. It’s simply a thoughtful take on an aspect of true crime that does exist, whether we choose to actively participate in it or not.

It also provides the writers an opportunity to deepen the divide between Ford and Tench, whose generation gap has never been so evident as it is here. (Ford is around the same age as Manson’s acolytes, while Tench was already working in law enforcement by the time August 9, 1969 came to pass.) Carr, meanwhile, seems to have never fully come around after the events of the season one finale, and will be keeping her distance from Ford for a while. But she and Tench are gingerly pushing the limits of their alliance past just exchanging intel on Holden Ford and his weirdo ways. Given the loneliness that still seems to haunt her even as she and Kay (ahem) get to know each other better, I do wonder if she’ll come out to him eventually just so she can have a real friend to confide in.

As with episode four, there were themes I liked and themes I didn’t in this episode. I liked the fame theme, obviously, but the scene where Tench and Carr were exchanging subtexts across the conference room table was a little too clever for its own good considering those two themes have already been articulated better elsewhere in the series. And I still can’t get into the disturbed-kid storyline that’s making the Tenchs’ lives so difficult, a subplot only gets more on the nose as they go deeper into the system. (See: Tench’s comment about “walking the crime scene.”) Perhaps these plot points are starting to get a bit stale, or perhaps I’m just not as interested in Mindhunter scenes that don’t involve serial killers. As this episode proved, none of us are exempt.

Stray Observations

  • “It’s a screw top.” “How can I say no to that?”
  • After his debacle in Texas, Gregg Smith is now officially too much of a fuckup to be allowed around FBI upper management. Congrats, Gregg.

  • If you ask me, the biggest sign that Ford is a fanboy is his comment that Manson’s music is “not bad.” I have never once been high enough to think that Charles Manson’s music is “not bad,” even in college.
  • When agents Ford and Tench drop by to visit Ed Kemper, he’s busy recording an audiobook. That’s a real detail, and you can listen to a night-mare inducing sample in our GJI about the subject.
  • You may recognize Damon Herriman, who plays Charles Manson in this episode, from playing the same part in Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood. Herriman’s impression is indeed quite uncanny, but he humbly insists in interviews that the reason he was cast in the role twice is simple: like Manson, he’s short.
  • The theory that his followers masterminded the murders has proponents besides Charles Manson. A book alleging as much, Hippie Cult Leader: The Last Words Of Charles Manson, was released just 10 days ago. A book alleging that the Manson Family was somehow tied up with CIA mind control experiments, Chaos: Charles Manson, The CIA, And The Secret History Of The Sixties, came out in June.
  • This is the second episode of the show to be directed by Andrew Dominik, best known for the movies The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford and Killing Them Softly. His style isn’t quite as distinctive as Fincher’s, but his camera movements have been downright graceful. I salute him.

Join the discussion...