Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany (Photo: Merrick Norton/Netflix)

Two out of three episodes of Mindhunter have begun with brief, decontextualized scenes starring the man who will become the infamous BTK Killer. Two out of three episodes have not concluded or reached a climax so much as just…stopped, at the end of a scene that feels like it could have fallen anywhere within the hour rather than serve as a summary statement. Put these two storytelling quirks together, as the show’s third installment does, and there’s something kind of interesting going on here. Yes, Mindhunter is the origin story of the FBI team who’d refine profiling, define the serial killer, and crack open one of the darkest mysteries of modern life. But it’s also part of a larger story, one we’re joining already in progress. In that story, as Ed Kemper said last episode, over 35 “sequence killers” are in the middle of their murderous careers already—including Dennis Rader, the as yet unnamed home-security technician whose “bind, torture, kill” method gave rise to his self-selected acronymic nickname. If his story just kind of rolls on no matter what, these odd open endings make a strange sort of sense.

As of “Episode 3,” so does the show as a whole. Directed by Asif Kapadia and co-written by Ruby Rae Spiegel and series co-creator Joe Penhall, it delivers on the promise of watching pioneers, y’know, pioneers. As the unorthodox methods of FBI Agents Holden Ford and Bill Tench gain grudging support within the institution, enthusiastic backing outside of it, and worshipful admiration from ground-level cops, the pair solve their first big case, using insights derived from the very serial killer they had to break all the rules to interview in the first place.

That killer is Kemper, back for another round of interviews so thick with gallows humor you can almost see the nooses. “Big Ed” had a sick sense of humor during his murders, one he can’t help but chuckle about to himself as he recounts the details to Bill and Holden—like how he shoved his mother’s severed vocal cords into the garbage disposal to shut her up permanently, or how he buried the decaptiated heads of his victims face up near her window, because “Mom always liked people to look up to her.”

These exchanges say a lot about both the killer and his questioners. Ed thinks he’s winning them over with his gruesome gags, but he’s really revealing the depths of his disregard for other people: The women he killed meant nothing more to him than becoming potential punchlines for sick jokes played at his hated mother’s expense. Bill and Holden, meanwhile, react with the reluctant but irrepressible exclamations you might hear from the crowd at comedy club where the stand-up said something particularly off-color—until they get to their car afterwards and simply stare at each other in disbelief. They’re good enough at their jobs to instinctively transform their shock and disgust into reactions that will keep them on Ed’s good side, so they can keep getting what they want from him in turn.

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Bill spells all this out to Holden on the flight home, in one of the show’s best conversations yet about the nature of their job. “There’s nothing behind Kemper’s eyes,” he says. “It’s like standing near a black hole. And he thinks we’re his friends!” He pauses. “Well, he thinks you’re his friend.” Then he leans in to Holden for the conclusion: “Which makes you a pretty great FBI agent.” These guys are uniquely equipped to gaze into the abyss without its returning gaze getting the better of them, for now at least.

This is illustrated best by the assault and murder case they crack during their trip to California—the ostensible purpose for their presence in Kemper’s neck of the woods, and the reason their boss Shepard comes around to their way of thinking, to an extent. Before the wondering eyes of the local detective they met last episode, they use what they learned from Kemper—his fixation on his mom, his way of punishing other people for things done to him at home, the way he sees everyone else as reflections of his own psychodrama, and the thrill he got from chatting with cops about his own case—to pinpoint a local lowlife with an emotionally abusive mother for the crimes. Kapadia’s camera cuts smoothly from Ford to Tench to the cop to the suspect during an impromptu interrogation outside his house, following the younger agent down to the killer’s eye level as he kneels to ask, “Have you ever lost control?” You can feel everything clicking into place in that moment, and the way the camera locks onto Holden gives that feeling visual expression.

With so much going right, how do you solve a problem like Debbie? The sociology grad student who helped set Holden on his increasingly rewarding journey into the minds of the world’s worst men continues to come across as one of the most weirdly written women characters this side of an Aaron Sorkin show. In the course of a single two-minute conversation with her boyfriend she sardonically jokes that murderers’ preoccupations with their moms is “kind of prosaic”; bizarrely jokes about her mother’s breast cancer and her own possible inheritance of the disease while flirting; correctly points out to Ford that the killers he’s studying have grotesque ideas not just about “sex,” but also women—after all, treating the two as effectively synonymous is part of the problem; then abruptly manifests a penchant for BDSM by holding a nail file to Holden’s throat as he starts going down on her as a way of daring him to get kinkier, saying she could murder him and become “part of your case study,” Debbie conflates sex, death, and personhood with an ease that’d make Ed Kemper’s head spin. She’s supposed to be the normal one!

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Perhaps Anna Torv’s new character, Dr. Wendy Carr, will have better luck. Carr is a pioneer in her own right. Based on Dr. Ann Wolbert Burgess, a trailblazer in the vital field of rape trauma counseling, she’s in the middle of a study of sociopaths; she says this category includes most captains of industry and national politicians, which in 2017 is sure hard to argue with. She also has the kind of institutional support, academic rigor, and sheer ambition on her side that Holden and Bill can only dream of. Though they wind up talking almost as much about her looks as her insight, they call her down to DC to consult with them, helping them build a case for their boss that they should be able to focus on the serial-killer interview project full time. The episode ends abruptly after she arrives, and the rest is history; I’m curious to see how Mindhunter will write it.


Stray observations

  • Holden is the world’s least inconspicuous note-taker, but it can lead to some funny moments. Last episode, he stopped Edmund “The Co-Ed Killer” Kemper in the middle of several sentences so he could jot things down; this time, after Dr. Carr suggests they publish their findings for the public he writes the word “BOOK” in capital letters twice the size of everything else she said. Someone’s looking forward to the glamorous life of a writer, folks!
  • You can see the thrill of discovery taking hold not just of Holden, but Bill too at this point. He may make jokes about Flordia golf courses, but when he and his partner plot out potential killers to interview on the map, he’s into it in a way he hasn’t been before. No wonder he, rather than Holden, pulls the trigger on inviting Carr and risking the bosses’ wrath.
  • Casual racism is an undercurrent even for our heroes, and even when it’s nominally “positive.” On the hunt for the killer in California, Bill rejects the idea that he’s black or Latino, believing people of that ethnicity to be too respectful of the elderly to do something so heinous to an old lady. Nobody tell Richard “The Night Stalker” Ramirez, I guess
  • Credit where due department: Rolling the plastic-soul-era David Bowie deep cut “Right” over the closing credits is definitely a step in the right direction, soundtrack-wise.
  • “Pizza! You guys.”

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