Clayton Purdom: Mindhunter was just compulsively watchable, at least for me. It hit the perfect mid-October note of derangement and morbidity while still being funny, quick, and tightly produced. I loved it. But it was an odd show, wasn’t it? The show shirks a traditional antagonist in favor of raw, procedural action for most of its runtime. In the last few episodes, that starts to change, thanks mostly to Holden Ford, who starts picking up enemies within the FBI and his own unit, all while his relationship crumbles and he starts glibly violating the rights of the killers he’s interrogating.
These threads are all left pointedly untied in the season finale, which seems to be pretty divisive. It reunites Ford with the show’s first and still most engaging serial killer, Ed Kemper, an encounter that leaves Ford collapsing in a swirl of voices in the hallway of a psychiatric hospital. The show cuts to one last scene of a mysterious killer at work before ending abruptly, and, to many people, unsatisfactorily. Our own review deemed it “disappointing,” finding the breakdown hackneyed and the various plot threads underdeveloped.
For the record, I totally disagreed, thanks in part to the strange clinical nature of the preceding episodes. The whole thing felt as intentional and structurally daring as any proper Fincher film, allowing the director to indulge his procedural jones at gobsmacking leisure. This is my favorite mode of the director’s—seen in Zodiac, mid-Social Network, and the back half of Gone Girl—and it sets up a sort of theoretical framework the same sort of logical, ordered worldview that comes crashing down in the hospital. (The camera coming untethered after 10 hours of meditative perfection was as stylistically audacious as anything I’ve seen on TV since, well, Twin Peaks, but we can get to that later.) I get that a lot of themes were left under-explored, but the climactic transformation of Ed Kemper, was, I think, the point. He had scanned as almost perversely likable in earlier episodes, but then rose monstrously in his final confrontation with Ford, detailing the way he thought of his victims as “spirit wives” as if to remind Ford (and the viewer) of the deeply unknowable darkness that drives men to commit these murders. It was a procedural that ate its own tail. I’m not sure how that’s disappointing!
Alex, I know you were a little less enthused with the finale than I was. Tell me why.
Alex McLevy: I thought Mindhunter was terrifically fun. Sure, that first episode had an absolutely ridiculous script, but Fincher’s direction made even that hack dialogue watchable. And from there, it turned into a deliciously dark little crime drama, with all the juicy serial-killer nastiness welded to a historical accounting of the birth of the modern profiling science. So consider me firmly in the camp of those who thought the show was (mostly) great but found that ending disappointing.
Let me be clear what I mean by the ending, however, as I think it’s too easy to conflate that with “last episode.” The last episode was superb, with Fincher ratcheting up the tension as Holden’s personal and professional lives slowly become unglued. But as the final installment of a season of television, it left something to be desired. The weaker Netflix shows mistake binge-ability for an excuse to not have to craft a stand-alone hour of quality entertainment, by turning the end of one episode into little more than another scene, with the knowledge the next installment can pick up right where the show left off. And by that standard, Mindhunter stumbled in its season-long tease of a budding killer. Nearly every episode began with a short pre-credits sequence of a mysterious man in Kansas, an ADT serviceman who seems to be working his way up to some sort of deadly crime. But in the last scene, he’s shown burning drawings of crudely illustrated bound women, with no explanation of whether these pictures are evidence of a crime he’s planning to commit, or ones he’s already performed. Who knows? Tune in next season, everyone!
That’s not clever foreshadowing, that’s a waste of time. Spending a season building up a mysterious killer (which the internet has already sussed out is almost certainly the BTK Killer, or at least inspired by him) only to reveal less than nothing about him, no forward momentum, nothing even resembling an arc, and then punting on doing anything with it until the next season? It’s a lazy form of passing the buck in the guise of slow-build intrigue. Imagine a season of The X-Files that featured the cigarette-smoking man just silently running errands for 30 seconds per episode, then ended with no explanation of who he was or what he was doing. There’s nothing that transpires in those scenes that couldn’t have been better handled as a brief montage at the start of season two. Yes, serialized narratives offer ongoing ways of drawing out a story, but the idea of a “season” of television should still mean something, even in the binge-watch era. So here’s hoping next year of Mindhunter doesn’t waste our time with another character it has no intention of delivering on that year. The ending was missing something, and it left a big ADT-shaped hole in the overall season.
Katie, you love serial killers. What’d you think of the conclusion?
Katie Rife: That was totally the BTK Killer. The Kansas setting, the ADT security job, it all adds up. David Fincher has said that season two will cover the Atlanta Child Murders of 1979-81, but given that several murder investigations were covered in season one, I wouldn’t be surprised if Holden and the gang get involved with BTK as well. (The existence of a serial killer in Wichita wasn’t announced until 1978, after the BTK Killer demanded media coverage in a letter to the police.) I can see it now: The ever-confident Holden Ford is shaken by his inability to catch BTK (the culprit, Dennis Rader, wasn’t arrested until 2005), prompting him to act out in increasingly disturbing ways that further hammer home the theme that, to hunt a sociopath, you have to be a bit of a sociopath yourself. (More on that in a minute.)
So, yeah, it’s foreshadowing, but it’s also one of the show’s many nods to true-crime weirdos. Throughout the series, Mindhunter winked at viewers who get as geeked out on Richard Speck and Ed Kemper as Holden does; beyond the killers who are actually portrayed in the show, names famous (Charles Manson, David Berkowitz) and obscure (Vaughn Greenwood, Posteal Laskey Jr., Gerard John Schaefer) are mentioned in casual conversation, providing the equivalent rush of recognition (and, therefore, implicit bonding with the show’s writers) as a well-placed ’80s-movie reference on Stranger Things. Serial-killer fan service, you might call it.
That aspect of the show was interesting, but as I mentioned earlier, the concept of an FBI criminal profiler who’s a little bit creepy himself has about run its course in crime fiction, I think. This isn’t entirely Mindhunter’s fault; John E. Douglas, the real-life FBI special agent on whom Ford is based, also inspired Hannibal’s Will Graham and Red Dragon and The Silence Of The Lambs’ Jack Crawford, so they were coming in at a disadvantage. Still, the cold, emotionless characterization of Holden was by far the least interesting thing about Mindhunter season one for me (I was much more interested in the private lives of his colleagues). For that reason, I found the finale promising, if a bit abrupt. Thank god, something for Holden besides staring intently at people with his creepy eyes and not understanding why they’re uncomfortable with his dispassionate spouting of misogynistic slurs in the interrogation room! Combined with the reframing of Kemper from a quotable goofball to the truly dangerous man he really was—I agree with you on that “spirit wives” line, Clayton; it was absolutely terrifying—it brought stakes back to the show, something Mindhunter really needed in its back half.
Clayton: I really like the “serial-killer fan service” angle for the show, Katie. I guess I found something puckish about, as you put it, the lack of stakes in the back half of the show, or, as you put it, Alex, its refusal to adhere to the standard season-finale script. I liked that it didn’t hit the normal beats. The show unfolded—I’m damning myself here—more as a film than as a TV show, which I know is a huge cliché in the world of television but is true of both Mindhunter and another show helmed by a filmic auteur, Twin Peaks: The Return. Both were structured as these oblong, unruly things—how about that 35-minute episode in the middle of Mindhunter?—that I just found refreshingly weird. A lot of prestige TV leaves me cold, but these sort of had their own biological rhythms. The idea that a whole season of buildup to the BTK Killer wouldn’t even pay off just added to that for me. I may just really, really like David Fincher doing procedurals, but this lack of payoff reasserted the notion that we’re not playing by normal TV rules, and that the scale of the story being told here is larger than one season.
Katie: I absolutely agree that this show is playing a long game. I think it’s more driven by conventional narrative than Twin Peaks: The Return, though; it’s just taking its sweet time about it. My hope is that Mindhunter is being envisioned as a narrative arc stretching out over, let’s say, four or five seasons. Sexual Homicide: Patterns And Motives, the book that was the culmination of the project fictionalized on the show, wasn’t published until 1988, the tail end of the worst decade for serial killings in U.S. history. Seems like a logical end point to me.
Clayton: So we’re agreed: Four more seasons! Get on it, Netflix.