Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
We may earn a commission from links on this page

The "serial killer" is born in a Mindhunter that shows the team at their best—and worst

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

For the Behavioral Science Unit, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The penultimate episode of Mindhunter Season 1 shows the team operating at the peak of their powers, working in in tandem to create the term for which they’ll go down in history: “serial killer.” It also depicts faultlines forming that could jeopardize the whole project (if this weren’t verifiable historical fiction, anyway). If you’ve been following along, it’s not hard to understand why the former aspect of “Episode 9” works much effectively than the latter. Mindhunter is always better when its characters are all on the same side.


The “serial killer” scene is the most satisfying example of this phenomenon yet—a conference-room scene between Holden Ford, Greg Smith, Bill Tench, and Wendy Carr that feels like watching a tight jazz quartet trade eights. Wendy tries to come up with a term for murderers who carefully prepare for their kills versus those who go on a spontaneous rampage. Smith asks if that isn’t simply organized versus disorganized killers. Wendy says, no, that refers to the process during the crime, not the pattern behind it. Killers like Charles Whitman or Richard Speck, she says, take random victims during rapid-fire rampages, so their existing term of art “sequence killer” doesn’t work. “Whitman was on a spree,” Holden says, with Wendy and Greg backing him up. Bill agrees too, but then expresses doubt about the “sequence killer” label for a killer like Ed Kemper: “It feels too…cadenced,” he explains, starting to actually sound like a musician. Debbie thinks he might be on to something. “It should feel like a long story,” Holden follows up, “continually updated.” “A series of killings,” Bill replies. “Serial?” Holden murmurs. “Serial murderer?” Greg suggests. “Serial killer?” Bill says, refining the concept, and you can see on everyone’s face that he’s hit the mark. “That’s better,” Wendy says, impressed. “Let’s see if it sticks.” Yeah, let’s see!

Unfortunately, this is the last time the team functions this well together. Everyone’s at their wits’ end with Holden following his interview with Richard Speck, who butchered an entire rooming house full of nursing students in one of the most famous crimes of the 1960s. Played by Jack Erdie, Speck is another addition to Mindhunter’s roster of memorably acted serial killers; Erdie turns him into a wiry knot of filth and fury, spouting curses so extravagantly it almost qualifies as glossolalia (sample quote: “I’ll fuck you so hard your asshole will come out your motherfucking mouth!”) and tossing an injured bird he’d nursed back to health into the blades of a fan just to prove how hardcore he is. Everything you need to know about this guy you can piece together by drawing a line from “got a tattoo of the phrase ‘BORN TO RAISE HELL’ on his arm” to “murdered eight women in a single night” and seeing the shitty shape that emerges.


To get useful information out of him—from how he selected which of his victims to rape to the fact that he had no idea he was going to kill anyone when he broke into that house—Holden sinks to his level. He purrs misogynist slurs at the murderer, successfully getting him to open up by speaking his language. As he puts it to his boss Shepard later, “You want truffles? You gotta get in the dirt with the pigs.”

Holden’s overconfidence in his unorthodox methods, however, lands the BSU in the hot seat. Speck files a complaint against the Bureau, in part on the grounds that Holden “fucked with his head.” He, Greg, and Bill conspire to hide the tape of the interview and redact the portion of the interview featuring Ford’s foul mouth. When the furious Wendy and Shepard uncover the ruse after they’ve already gone on the record with the Office of Professional Responsibility, they’re now all in on the ruse. The episode ends with Smith (who at least was up front about never running out of guilt when he applied for the job) anonymously mailing the incriminating tape to the ethics investigators.

The problem is that the rest of the units objections to what Holden does feel inconsistently applied. Sometimes Bill is Mr. By the Book, other times he’s arguing on behalf of breaking the rules. Wendy defends the Speck interview against Bill’s contention that it gave them nothing useful, but she’s the first to turn on him, and call in their boss, when she finds out how he got the info. Smith spontaneously lies that the tapes have been destroyed entirely, then rats himself out after he’s in the clear. Look, everyone’s got lines they don’t realize they won’t cross until they come to them, but with so many characters hitting those points in such rapid succession, it feels less like a depiction of human inconstancy and more like standard-issue prestige-drama “everyone shouts at everyone else” conflict manufacturing. I can’t help but blame David Fincher, back in the director’s chair for the first time since episode two, for at least some of this herky-jerky character work; he always seems more at home with sociopaths than normies.

On the other hand, Fincher’s return delivers two of the most skin-crawling shots of the series. One of them involves literal crawling: the swarm of ants that pour out of the can of tuna that Wendy had left out for her unseen stray-cat friend, who’s apparently either found greener pastures or, as I’m guessing she suspects given her line of work, met a more sinister fate. But that’s the thing—we have to guess. The show has yet to beat us over the head with a connection between Dr. Carr’s cat-rescue attempt and her job; ditto the wine she’s been seen downing by the goblet. It’s just out there like evidence, waiting for us to come along and catalog it. Again, in a genre that usually spells everything out as a matter of course, even slight ambiguity is welcome.


An even creepier shot pops up in the cold open, once again featuring Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer. With a panthose mask atop his head and latex gloves on his hands, he sits impatiently in an empty house, drinking water, until the chime of a clock seems to indicate his time is up. Stickler that he is, he actually washes and dries the glass before leaving. It’s safe to assume this is the night he’d planned to murder a woman named Anna Williams, who escaped certain death simply because she stayed out past the time she usually got home. Fincher enhances our perception that something rotten and wrong is going on in there by cutting to an exterior shot and an extremely unnerving camera movement: It slowly pushes toward the house it as he stands silhouetted behind the front window curtains, taking one last peek outside for signs of his quarry. It’s the kind of image you’d use to suggest the house is haunted. In a way, it is.

Stray observations

  • I’ve seen complaints that referring the BTK Killer by his nom de muertre when discussing the cold opens in which he appears constitutes a spoiler. As an extremely hardcore spoilerphobe (I was traumatized when, in the middle of my first viewing of Twin Peaks on VHS in 1998, the identity of Laura Palmer’s killer got spoiled for me in an aside in the middle of random article about the short-lived Malcolm McDowell remake of freaking Fantasy Island in freaking Spin magazine), I feel your pain. But as both a serial-killer buff and a viewer of this particular show, I have a harder time seeing this point. BTK is an extremely famous serial killer, who looks exactly like this guy, has his same job, and lives in the same place. What other conclusion is there to draw? I feel strongly that the rate and timing with which a story reveals information about itself is every bit as important to the artistic process and product of filmmaking as cinematography, sound design, casting, acting, or any other element of the artform that jaded critics don’t sneer about the way they do with spoilers. But there’s only so far you can go with historical information about famous people in a show based on real life. To be honest, it was so obvious it never even occurred to me to think about it as spoilable at all. It’s like going into Narcos and being surprised when Pablo Escobar dies. (Spoiler alert!)
  • Even if the team is fraying, Holden and Bill can still work wonders when there’s no killer-interviewing involved. The way they figure out a profile for the killer of an Atlanta schoolgirl is pure Mindhunter procedural magic—tossing ideas back and forth, intuitively grasping when they’ve caught a winner.
  • DebbieWatch™: For reasons unknown, Holden and Debbie, who in no way seem to even like each other, get back togethe —just in time for her to bear witness as the wife of the now-jobless and disgraced Principal Roger Wade shows up at his apartment to berate him. This scene features more fine work from Fincher, who shoots the aggrieved woman from a disconcertingly long distance, with the elevator door constantly closing behind her and opening again as she pushes the button in frustration.
  • If they ever make a movie or show out of Stephen King’s The Stand, Jack Erdie should just do his Richard Speck over again and call himself The Kid.
  • “We erased the interview.” “…We recommend you do not do that in the future.”
  • “It just wasn’t their fuckin’ night.”