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26 October 2017updated 03 Aug 2021 7:13am

Netflix’s Mindhunter is nothing if not suspenseful

For all its virtues, this show is nasty in many of the same ways as the BBC’s The Fall.

By Rachel Cooke

I want very much to stick with Mindhunter, the current Netflix series of choice, and one that is both produced and partially directed by David Fincher (The Social Network, Gone Girl). It looks great and is nothing if not suspenseful, and its stars – especially Cameron Britton and Holt McCallany – have turned in fantastic performances.

My desire to do so also makes me deeply uneasy. Now I’m halfway through, it’s pretty clear that, for all its virtues, this show is nasty in many of the same ways that the BBC’s The Fall was nasty, for which reason watching it makes me feel complicit. Yes, most of the gore is either off-screen, or confined to a snatched glimpse of a crime scene photo. But words can be as queasily powerful as images. Listen, towards the end of episode two, to Ed Kemper (Britton), the “Coed Killer”, describing exactly how and why he defiled his mother’s head after he had cut it off, and tell me you don’t agree.

Fincher is no stranger to the serial killer – nor even, to be particular about this, to the Seventies serial killer (the series is set in 1977). He directed Zodiac, after all. This time, though, something more high-minded is supposed to be going on: Mindhunter comes with a whiff of the library, having been based on the book of the same name co-written by John E Douglas, the FBI agent who was the inspiration for Jack Crawford in the Hannibal Lecter series, and who, following his pioneering conversations with various noted killers, helped establish the practice of criminal profiling.

By Fincher’s telling, his show’s stately progression (it’s in ten parts, and more series are planned) will dispel the myths surrounding serial killers and thus all of their glamour. Do I buy this? No, not really. To go back to Kemper: even as he seems pathetic – when we meet him, his only pleasure is the egg-salad sandwiches on offer at the prison canteen – he has a horrible charisma. It’s this that makes the scenes in which he and our young hero (and John E Douglas’s proxy) Agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) sit together and talk so unbearably tense.

Ford is an innocent. But he is also on a gruesome quest: the only way to get ahead of evil, he believes, is to understand it, hence his determination to meet Kemper (who, like all the monsters he will encounter, is not a fictional character). Far warier is his old-school colleague Bill Tench (McCallany), who is less convinced that it’s possible to learn anything from so manipulative a figure (the term “serial killer” has yet to be invented; Holt still refers to Kemper and his ilk as “sequential killers”).

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I like the sparring between these two: at the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, Virginia, they spend rather too much scratchy time together, their project being clandestine at first. Less convincing is Ford’s relationship with his student girlfriend, Debbie (Hannah Gross). She’s smart, feminist and exhaustingly demanding in bed, which might be one way Mindhunter’s writer and creator, Joe Penhall, has tried to give women some agency in his narrative (another is with the arrival in Holt’s unit of a female psychologist). But there’s also something disquieting about the proximity of their bedroom scenes to the accounts of male violence that form the series’ spine.

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Someone should devote a PhD thesis to discussing the aching nostalgia detectable in shows such as this, with its Starsky & Hutch filter and its retro fonts (the words “Wichita, Kansas” – or wherever – appear in huge white letters whenever the location shifts). What, I wonder, does it tell us?

But now I must move on, backwards and eastwards to the England of 1603, where Catholics are everywhere persecuted. I write, of course, of Ronan Bennett’s Gunpowder (BBC One, Saturdays, 9.10pm), starring Kit Harington as Robert Catesby, one of the gunpowder plotters, and Mark Gatiss as Lord Robert Cecil, the king’s hunchbacked Catholic-hunter-in-chief. It is a little bit rum. Here are priest holes, hideous executions and… a king who has an extremely hot boyfriend. Luckily, it’s also gripping – and would be, I think, even if (yeah, I read you, Ronan) we didn’t live in such divided and tumultuous times ourselves. 

This article appears in the 25 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Poor Britannia