Edmund Kemper is not your average pop-culture serial killer. That’s the point. Mindhunter’s second episode may be dogged by many of the same problems as its premiere—we’ll get to that later—but its decision to cast “The Co-Ed Killer” as the Hannibal Lecter to restless FBI Agent Holden Ford’s Clarice Starling is as smart and sinister as the man himself. Played by actor Cameron Britton, whose performance is already one of the most chilling of its type, Kemper is the embodiment of Ford’s argument that this new breed of killer is too crazily complex for the existing rulebook to cover.
When the episode begins, Holden hasn’t even heard of the guy. Kemper hadn’t reached the mainstream celebrity of a Son of Sam or a Charles Manson. In fact, he was only suggested to Ford as an alternate interview option by a sympathetic cop when he found it impossible to gain an audience with the latter killer during a California road trip with his partner Bill Tench. The three meetings between the killer and the Fed that follow are a sort of baptism by the weirdest fire imaginable.
For starters, “Big Ed”’s tremendous size makes him stand out among both nondescript killer-next-door types and more traditionally charismatic murderers alike. He’s both soft-spoken and accommodating, at least where law-enforcement figures like Holden are concerned; add that to his dorky glasses and mustache and he’d read like a gentle giant if you didn’t know what he’d done. Sometimes he’ll refer to his killings (which include the shooting deaths of his grandparents as a teen, and the murder of several random young women plus his own mother upon his release from a mental institution years later) as his “oeuvre,” with an clear sense of pride. Other times he’ll state flatly that his only hope is lobotomization (“like Frances Farmer”) or “death by torture,” but even those morbid pronouncements sound like bragging.
The thing is, he can be self-aggrandizing, self-pitying, deluded, and lucid; in some cases, it feels like he’s all four at once. Take his response when Holden balks at his suggestion that more than 35 “sequence killers” may be operating in North America at that very moment: “Well, Holden, I’m not an expert, I’m not an authority, I’m just an extremely accomplished murderer who spent my adult life successfully evading capture, till I gave myself up ’cause I despaired of ever getting caught.”
Moreover, Ed’s affect is cheerful in a grotesque variety of situations, from fixing his guest coffee (“Milk?” “Thank you.” “You got it.”), to expressing surprised delight when he hears what Ford wants to discuss (“I’ll be honest: I don’t get many visitors. When I do, do you think they wanna talk about this shit? Fuck no!”), to going into gruesome detail about what orifices are most accommodating to the male member, whether or not they’re attached to the rest of the body involved at the time. It’s implied, though not stated outright, that he absorbed some of this gallows-humor/just-us-guys vibe from the cops he’s befriend over the years, whose job he so desperately wanted.
Obviously, this cheerfulness is shot through with a resentful, sexualized misogyny so strong and corrosive it could peel paint of the jailhouse walls. Keep him going enough and he’ll make a case for it with the cold, faux logical voice of a redpilled Redditor. “Women are born with this little hole between their legs which every man on earth just wants to stick something into, and they’re weaker than men so they learn strategies,” he tells Holden in one of his more chilling riffs. “They deploy their minds, and their sex, and they intuitively learn to humiliate.” He picks the thread back up when Ford finally convinces Bill to come to one of his visits: “If a woman humiliates her little boy, he will become hostile and violent and debased, period.” As Ed sees it, beating his mother to death, decapitating her, and violating her severed head is just payback. With an adenoidal voice and beady eyes hidden behind those thick reflective frames, Britton delivers these lines with effortless menace. (Say what you will about David Fincher as a director, but he knows his way around sociopaths.)
If only anything else on the episode worked so well. Surrounding the dark dynamite of the Kemper scenes are more cringeworthy interactions, both sexual and social, between Holden and Debbie, his comically overqualified girlfriend. There’s a jokey oral-sex scene between the two of them that would work great in Girls, a show about young women putting up with shittier partners than they probably deserve; in an episode about Ed fucking Kemper, though? Yeesh. Indeed, Holden regales Ed with tales of Debbie’s sexual adventurousness to win him over, which leaves an especially bad taste in your mouth when you realize the show hoped to win us over with it, too. The less said about the scene in which Debbie directly equates flirting techniques with ways a cop can manipulate a perp during interrogations, the better. It’s like something Kemper himself would come up with.
And when Bill finally convinces Holden to come clean with Shepard, their superior at the Bureau about their highly unauthorized visits to Kemper—they try to sell it as helpful to a separate investigation that a perplexed, casually racist Sacramento cop called them in for help with, a bit of moonlighting for which they’d already been reprimanded—the results are pure wasted time. Shepard laces into them like every grumpy captain dealing with every loose cannon in every by-the-numbers cop drama ever, with the added handicap of being demonstrably wrong about the usefulness of their work. Worse still, he reverses himself before the scene is over, making the losing-side-of-history histrionics we’d just spent a few minutes watching even more pointless. It’s the kind of scene that’s included because that’s the kind of scene shows like this include, no more and no less. It’s the narrative equivalent of styrofoam packing peanuts.
And now it’s time to elevate a personal pet peeve into a full-fledged indictment of this show as a whole: Mindhunter has some of the laziest pop music cues I’ve heard on TV in the past two years, and the competition is ludicrously stiff. In the spirit of scientific inquiry embodied by Holden and Bill, I’ll assert that this musical malpractice falls into two categories. First you’ve got the “hey, remember everyone, this is the Seventies” songs, which serve no purpose other than to be recognizable songs from the time period. The idea, I suppose, is that you’ve got to put music into this scene, so it might as well be the audio equivalent of wide ties and leisure suits. I mean, you come up with a reason why Mindhunter chose to soundtrack its heroes’ debate over whether or not to interview Charles Manson with “A Fifth of Beethoven.”
The second and arguably more pernicious category is actually a subset of the first. Here, the music choice is every bit as over-the-top obvious, but it also comments on the action with all the subtlety of a hammer to the skull. For example, Bill and Holden are flying all over the place and the days are blending one into the next? Enter the Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like an Eagle,” in which time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future. But the real you-gotta-be-kidding-me musical moment comes right at the end, as the dynamic duo take their first trip to the subterranean room where they’ll study the behavior of psychos and killers to the tune of, and I honestly can’t believe I’m writing this, Talking Head’s “Psycho Killer.” My first grader has told me knock-knock jokes more sophisticated.
It’s not just that this sleepy, half-hearted soundtracking is bad in and of itself, though it is. It’s also a worrisome portent for the show’s quality as a whole. Simply put, how can you trust a drama about serial killers that uses “Psycho Killer” to close an episode? A series that does that will also disappoint you in other ways—by having its countercultural, collegiate female lead fall in love with her male counterpart despite him being a Federal agent five years her senior whose conversational and cunnilingus skills alike are woefully wanting. The word I’m looking for, I think, is myopia. Like Holden, it’s so focused on the main event that everything else falls by the wayside.
- The ADT security technician in the cold open is none other than Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer—a stickler for rules and regulations when he wasn’t busy torturing families to death.
- His scene, in which he forces a fellow employee to return the empty cardboard husk of a roll of electrical tape before he’ll issue him a new one, serves as a neat overture for the way Kemper politely but firmly bullies Holden into having an egg salad sandwich with him. The experience is so subtly unsettling for Ford that at lunch with Debbie later in the episode, he orders “an Ed salad sandwich,” needing her to remind him he doesn’t even like the things.
- “How do we get ahead of crazy if we don’t know how crazy thinks?” That’s a rock-solid mission statement from Ford, so much so that Shepard’s sudden reversal during their big argument over his investigation almost feels justified. Almost.
- “What’s next, Charles Manson? When’s he booked for?” “…We were thinking June.”