Executive producer and director David Fincher crafts a 10-episode origin story for the modern serial killer with Netflix’s new drama Mindhunter, starring Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany as a pair of FBI agents on the forefront of ’70s criminal psychology. We’re recapping the entire season, so follow along page by page. (Just maybe don’t eat first.)
Gather around kids and let Netflix tell you about the craze that swept the nation in the ’70s: serial killers! That’s basically the premise of Mindhunter, which, based on the series premiere, feels like a prequel for the many, many serial killer procedurals we know and digest: Criminal Minds, Hannibal, Law & Order, and more. This show is basically explaining where all of those psychological terms we hear tossed around on those shows came from. It’s an interesting idea, but the premiere is rather slow and we don’t even get to see our two lead FBI agents actually interview serial killers. Instead, the hour is more concerned with them realizing how ill-equipped they are to confront this terrifying phenomena.
We begin in Braddock, Pennsylvania, where the local police are trying to negotiate with Cody Miller, a man who has taken several hostages and is demanding to speak to his wife. Boyish Midwestern Special Agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), who actually teaches hostage negotiation tactics at Quantico, arrives on the scene and tries to diffuse the situation by applying a lighter touch. Whereas the local officer is making demands of Cody, Holden simply tries talking to him. Alas, his efforts are for naught, and Cody blows his own head off with a shotgun when it seems like his wife won’t be coming. Sure, this seems like a win (the hostages survived), but for Holden, it isn’t because his preferred outcome is one without any body bags, criminal or hostage. The episode will go on to reiterate that multiple times, but this entire interaction reveals a few things about Holden: He’s compassionate, empathetic, and really interested in what’s going on in people’s minds.
The next day, Holden heads to the Academy and learns that he’s being assigned to teach full time, which isn’t what he was interested in doing. On his way out of his class, he overhears another agent giving a lecture about the Son of Sam and the new breed of murderers popping up around the country, whose motives aren’t immediately clear, which piques his interest. So, he grabs a drink with the lecturer, and the two of them get to theorizing this new kind of criminality. Is it a response to the political turmoil of the era? “The world barely makes sense, so it follows that crime doesn’t either,” Holden suggests. In the end, who knows?
After his drinking buddy departs, Holden’s attention is stolen by a woman who approaches the bar: Debbie (Hannah Gross), an obvious Manic Pixie Dream Girl who’s studying sociology. Their wild night includes: Debbie teasing Holden about being so uptight; the two of them discussing deviancy theory, which is definitely how most people flirt while at a loud rock concert; and Debbie convincing Holden to smoke pot for the first time (jokes!).
Holden decides he wants to go back to school to learn about the new developments in criminology. His boss agrees to pay for him to audit some classes but he has to also recruit new agents while he’s on campus. It’s the ’70s, so everyone at UVA is immediately suspicious of the fed lurking around their classrooms, and his attempts at recruiting one of his professors ultimately fails. One of the classes he audits does raise one interesting point: Are criminals born or made?
When Holden returns to the academy, he decides to try something new with his class: He puts them through a role-play hostage situation, which some modern folk, like me, might find somewhat uncomfortable. One of the white students (in this all white male class) decides he’s going to role-play as a black hostage taker, which involves him and another student exchanging “jive talk” and throwing around derogatory words. Holden’s supervisor Shepard (Cotter Smith) watches this all go down and tells Holden that he’ll need to get this new teaching method approved by the Behavioral Science division before he can implement it.
And, thus Holden finally comes face to face with the show’s other co-lead, Special Agent Bill Tench (Holt McCallany). As part of the B.S.* unit, Bill travels the country teaching classes to local police. It’s an opportunity for the police to learn what the FBI knows and for the FBI to get a sense of what these people are encountering on the ground. Bill picks up on Holden’s inquisitiveness about these new motive-less killers and invites Holden to join him in the trenches.
*(In hindsight, this abbreviation, which I don’t think the show actually uses, is pretty apt given the fact Shepard literally tells Holden that the bureau doesn’t take psychologists seriously as agents)
So, Holden and Bill hit the road like Sam and Dean Winchester (except there’s more talking about monsters than actually confronting them or taking them down), and their first stop is Iowa. There, they give a lecture about how motive has become elusive in 1977 and how it’s now incumbent on them to channel their Freud-in-Beyond the Pleasure Principle and look past what they assume are the obvious impulses. Naturally, Ford gets too intellectual about all of this and ends up rubbing most of the cops the wrong way, especially once he suggests that Charles Manson might not have been born a murderer but became one after a rough childhood, which included being institutionalized.
That night, Frank McGraw, one of the detectives in the meeting who objected to Holden’s presentation, apologizes for going off during the class and actually asks Holden and Bill to help him with a current case he’s working on: A woman who worked at the local church and her child were bound, brutally murdered and sexually assaulted, and he has no idea how to figure this case out. This is exactly the kind of case Holden and Bill have been talking about. Unfortunately, more questions leads to more questions, and Holden realizes that they simply aren’t equipped to tackle anything like this. He makes the mistake of saying to the frustrated Frank, which pisses both Frank and Bill off.
As they drive out of town, Bill gives Holden one piece of advice: Call his girlfriend the next time he needs to “flip your s—t.” This seems like the makings of a beautiful partnership.
Most F—ed Up Moment: When Cody Miller blows his head off in the cold open
— Chancellor Agard
(Click ahead for episode 2)