Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
  2. TV
28 November 2019

Mindhunter’s second series is nuanced, intelligent television

By Pippa Bailey

I have googled “series 2 Mindhunter release date” at least once a month since the first series aired in October 2017. Given the Netflix show’s gruesome subject matter, I realise I should probably feel queasier about that compulsion than I do, but I already spend too much time tortuously self-examining and, anyway, the show is just that – compulsive. 

Mindhunter’s executive producer and frequent director David Fincher is the man behind acclaimed films such as Fight Club, Se7en and Zodiac, and the executive producer of the Netflix series House of Cards; this is Serious Television. Set in the late 1970s, it follows a new criminal profiling unit of the FBI that goes behind bars to interview convicted violent offenders, many of them serial killers, in an attempt to understand their psychology. Wide-eyed, clean-cut agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), gruff but lovable agent Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) and sharp criminal psychologist Dr Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) form the uneasy trio sitting across the table from uncuffed killers. It’s grisly, but left me unable to look away. 

The second series, released on Netflix last week, inevitably feels grimier – as the team sinks deeper into the pit they have dug for themselves, the sheer number of killers they interview grows – and so, too, does the awful variety of their methods, delusions and neuroses. This year’s alumni include “Son of Sam” David Berkowitz – the serial killer’s swollen, waxy face seems made for prosthetics – and Charles Manson, portrayed by Damon Herriman (who has carved out a weird cult-leader niche for himself: he also takes on the Manson mantle in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood).

But where the first season’s cast of convicted killers changed week by week (save for the unsettling exchanges between Co-ed Killer Ed Kemper, played by Cameron Britton, and the enthralled Agent Ford), two ongoing cases become the backbone of the entire second series, preventing episode arcs from becoming bluntly formulaic. The unit is drawn into the cold case of the Kansas “BTK Killer” (so-called for his Bind, Torture, Kill method) and the Atlanta child murders, where Ford’s interventions in a racially charged manhunt prove controversial. (The real-life John Douglas, on whose groundbreaking work Mindhunter is loosely based, was reprimanded by the Bureau for his public comments on the case.)

They do all this with the approval of new FBI assistant director and yes-man Ted Gunn (Michael Cerveris), whose too-good-to-be-true enthusiasm and hairless head register as Bond-villain sinister; I would not be surprised to find a white fluffy cat prowling around his office. Indeed, the cumulative effect of it all is to make the viewer twitchy about every character. “Why do I feel suspicious about him?” asks my boyfriend of a harried, entirely innocent cop in episode three.

The subplots are more intricate than the first season’s: a romance slightly softens the steely Carr, while a crime that hits a little too close to home for Tench and his overly-permed wife Nancy plays out against a pitch-perfect portrait of backyard barbecues and suburban hysteria. Ford is adjusting having had a breakdown after receiving a hug from Kemper. And while his panic attacks may feel textbook and un-nuanced, the impact of Ford’s macabre work on his mental health is an important and inevitable turn for the narrative to take.

The muted aesthetic that defined the first series persists: the show’s creators have an apparent aversion to primary colours – everything is brown and green and beige – and scenes are either set in shadowy, secluded rooms or in bleach-white sunlight. Mindhunter’s form is muted, too. In contrast to the common or garden crime shows which depend on shock, gore and mutilated female bodies for their appeal, Mindhunter’s murders are depicted primarily through the words of the agents investigating them – and of the men who committed them. Such dialogue is undoubtedly nasty, but the overall result is a more nuanced, intelligent approach; for a show that’s all about the ultimate act of exploitation, Mindhunter feels as un-exploitative as possible. It makes for a darker thriller, too: forced to fill in the gaps in their imagination, the viewer is made complicit – and it will be news to no one that the imagined is far creepier than the seen.

Yes, there’s dread and horror (and, afterwards, the feeling that someone is hiding behind your shower curtain), but Mindhunter is also restrained and dogged by bureaucracy and procedure. And if you are going to spend your weekend guiltily luxuriating in a show about the depths of human depravity, you might as well make it a stylish one. Now, I’ll get back to googling “series 3 Mindhunter release date”.

Content from our partners
What you need to know about private markets
Work isn't working: how to boost the nation's health and happiness
The dementia crisis: a call for action