Well this is odd. I was convinced I had written a review of season 1 but I can’t find one on my blog. The link and summary to that review would go around about here: [empty space].
Mindhunter is a difficult show to summarise. It is not hard to provide a straight-forward description: The show follows the formation of the FBI’s Behavioural Science Unit and the development of psychological profiles of serial killers by following two agents (Holden Ford & Bill Tench) and a professor of psychology (Wendy Carr) as they investigate murderers across the USA in the 1970s and 80s. That description is deeply misleading.
The show definitely rests on the aesthetics and dynamics of other serial killer stories (or fringe unit stuck in an FBI basement such as the X-Files) but otherwise ditches much of what you might expect. Very few cases get solved. In the first season, no serial killers are caught and the second season, well…it would be a spoiler to say but the figure doesn’t leap quickly above zero. Some crimes are solved but often by regular police work and the role of psychological insights or interview techniques is questionable.
Nor is this ineffectual or ambiguous nature of the profiling being developed unintentional. The show repeatedly explores the extent to which the team may be fooling themselves or finding their own expectations thrown back at them. The three core characters (brilliantly played by Jonathon Groff, Holt McCallany and Anna Torv) each have their own epistemological style: Ford is convinced of his own brilliance and his intuitions, Tench is more sceptical and Carr more concerned with consistent methodology. The idea of characters with cognitive styles isn’t new to law enforcement shows (e.g. Mulder versus Scully) but Mindhunter offers far more nuance.
Season 1 focused primarily on Holden Ford [“It’s funny in Australia”], the apparently straight laced but intellectual curious and inquisitive young agent who has the initial idea of interviewing convicted serial killers to learn more about their motivations. Season 2 provides more insights into Wendy Carr’s character but the primary focus is on Bill Tench and the impact of his work on his family. Apparently there are five seasons planned.
The violence of the show is notable. There is very little on screen violence. However, there are frequent and vivid descriptions of deeply disturbing crimes. Season 2 in particular deals with child murder, the details of which are very distressing. The show does centre killers as characters but does also look at the emotional and personal aspect of victims and the people around them. The effect is one of tension through out and the use of sinister music makes often mundane scene feel like they are building up to a jump-scare when actually the show doesn’t use them.
Disturbing is the best adjective to use. Very well acted and often unsympathetic towards its central characters. It’s very much not what you might expect from a show about serial killers. There are some similarities with David Fincher’s film Zodiac in how it treats the subject matter of serial murder. Fincher (along with Charlize Theron) is a producer of the show but Mindhunter is even less of a conventional serial killer narrative than Zodiac.