I’m generally fascinated by true crime – I was a huge fan of Seriel, Making a Murderer, The Jinx and, perhaps to a slightly lesser extent, The Staircase and I’m always on the lookout for the next true crime documentary to watch. I’m also fascinated by psycopathy and Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath test is one of my favourite examples of investigative journalism. Somehow though, I’ve never really read, watched or listened to much about seriel killers. Nor about the FBI.
David Fincher and Charlize Theron’s new series, Mindhunter, in spite of being a fictional series (specifically a crime drama), is based on fact and explores the beginnings of the FBI working to understand the behvaiour of seriel killers. As one of the characters, Holden Ford quips early on in the series, “how can we get ahead of crazy if we don’t know how crazy thinks?”
Before 1977 the phrase “seriel killer” didn’t really exist. Not that seriel killers didn’t exist, just that no one had explored the pattern of behaviour that let to seriel killings. The standard response was to lock them up, call them crazy and just not think about it any more. When the FBI launched their Behavioural Science Unit, that slowly started to change.
Holden Ford (played by Jonathan Groff) is based on FBI agent John E Douglas, who, incidentally, co-wrote the book, Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Seriel Crime Unit along with Mark Olshaker. Holden’s partner, Bill Tench (played by Holt McCallany) is based on FBI agent Robert K Ressler. The two have an classic dynamic, with Holden the very clever, very motivated and slightly weird younger agent, Bill the older, more experienced and more cynical older agent. It could feel like a stale, trope-y crime drama but it doesn’t, perhaps because of the subject material and how seriously it’s taken. Together, mostly driven by Holden, they get the FBI’s Behavioural Science Unit started.
This all begins when Holden handles a situation in which an unwell person who’s off his medication comes to believe that his is invisable, takes hostages and ends up shooting himself in the head. Holden’s superiors feel this is a good outcome because only the hostage taker died, Holden thinks no one should have died at all. After auditing a psychology class, Holden later decides to visit the seriel killer Ed Kemper to try to understand what motivates a person to kill.
Kemper is terrifying and probably the best acting in the series is done by Cameron Britton who plays him. It’s really Kemper’s character who sets off the rest of the series, leading Holden to reach out to academic psychologist Dr Wendy Carr (played by Anna Torv and based on Dr Ann Wolbert Burgess), who helps him to understand more psychology, but also to reach out to more seriel killers to gain their perspective. Dr Carr wants the agents to collect data in a rigourous academic fashion, interviewing the seriel killers with a standardised questionnaire. The agents struggle to make this work, and sometimes don’t even try, but do manage to collect some good data anyway.
Meanwhile, Bill is struggling with his wife Nancy (played by Stacey Roca) and their adopted kid, who seems to have autism, although that’s never made fully clear. Holden is developing a new relationship with postgraduate student Debbie Mitford (played by Hnnah Gross) who is one of the more fun characters and really stands a chance of helping Holden out if he’ll let her. All relationships are strained by the nature of the work and Holden is kind of an idiot, developing a minor crush on Dr Carr who is gay but hasn’t mentioned it yet.
It’s interesting, because the people involved are doing real, challenging work that no one really knows how to do yet. In most lines of work that would be hard enough, but when part of it involves talking to men who will calmly and casually talk about the murders they committed, without any indication of remorse, it’s unsurprising that the characters struggle.
The series is dark, compelling, chilling and weirdly, sometimes even funny. It certainly doesn’t pull punches when looking at the FBI and the flaws that existed within it in the 1970s (not that such flaws have all been fixed, of course). The season finale had me hiding behind a pillow while I watched and now I can’t wait for season two.