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)
In “Episode 2,” Holden and Bill take their dark road show to California. Holden is particularly jazzed to be out in the Golden State. No, not because he wants to work on his tan. He wants to interview a serial killer! Obviously, his first choice is Charles Manson, but there’s no way he’s getting in to see him. Luckily, he gets a lead from a local detectives—Ed Kemper, a.k.a. the aforementioned Co-Ed Killer (Cameron Britton), who murdered several college women, decapitated them, and then had sex with their corpses. Apparently, he’s a very talkative fellow.
Bill thinks visiting Kemper off the books is a bad idea, but Holden throws caution to the wind and goes forward with the interview. (Bill goes golfing instead. Who has the better time in California? You decide!) One of the low-key funniest moments of the episode is when a prison guard makes Holden sign a piece a paper that waives the U.S. government of any liability if he gets injured while there. He’s taken to a room where he comes face-to-face with Ed, a creepily polite guy who is also best friends with every guard in the prison. You want an egg sandwich? Ed will get one of the guards to deliver it to you whether you like it or not. Ed loves cop shows and says that’s how he managed to evade capture for all those years. And like everyone else on this show, Ed notes that Holden is super tense. Britton is also frightening in this role, there’s something menacing lurking just beneath this mannerly exterior.
The biggest and creepiest nugget of information to come out of Holden’s first meeting with Ed is that he views killing as vocation and that it’s hard work. In fact, he refers to his murder spree as his oeuvre. It’s also here that we learn Holden, a relative newcomer to this particular field of criminal justice, has started referring to murderers like Ed as “sequence killers.” Who wants to bet that Holden comes up with the name “serial killers” in the season finale, probably in a scene with his girlfriend Debbie?
These interviews with Ed start getting to Holden and it’s all he can think about. When he grabs breakfast with Debbie after a particular visit, he orders an “Ed Salad Sandwich,” which sounds like the most disgusting thing in the world. Thank God, I didn’t egg salad sandwiches before because I definitely wouldn’t want to after that Freudian slip. Realizing bae needs some help, Debbie gives Holden some tips to make Ed open up.
So, Holden returns to see Ed (again, against Bill’s advice) and tries a few tactics to get Ed to drop his guard, namely by having some uncomfortable sex talk, which leads to Ed describing what it’s like to have intercourse with a neck (Ew!). He actually uses Holden’s own neck as a prop. Eventually, Ed does start to open up about his mother, who worked with co-eds, and how she mistreated him. And here’s where one of the most chilling moments of the episode comes: As the camera dollies forward, Ed coldly shares some upsetting beliefs about women (that I didn’t even bother to write down), never breaking eye contact with us or Holden. Naturally, this leaves Holden quite shaken, but he thinks he’s making progress.
From there, it’s time for a flashy and fun travel montage that eventually ends with the guys back in California helping a Sacramento detective with a recent assault. An elderly woman was beaten within an inch of her life outside of her home and her dog was murdered. The cops don’t have a lead and the woman, who has finally regained consciousness but can’t remember anything except for the fact that her assailant smelled bad. That detail combined with the fact that the neighborhood has a lot of kids suggests to Holden that her attacker may be a teenager, and that his poor hygiene is way of rebelling against his parents. The detective has a teen from the neighborhood he could interview about this, but it’ll be difficult since they’ve brought him in twice already and he has connections. Holden offers to work around that.
Unfortunately, Holden and Bill end up being stuck in California for an extra weekend, and Holden uses this as an opportunity to convince Bill to come see Ed with him so that he can see for himself that he’s not being manipulated. During the meeting, Bill and Holden play some games with Ed, lying about how Bill inspired one of his favorite cop shows. Eventually, Ed does that thing where he nonchalantly and coldly describes doing disturbing things, this time how he murdered his mother.
That encounter convinces Bill that they need to tell Shepard about these little off the books interviews before Shepard finds out from someone else and they get censured. When they get back to Quantico, Shepard calls them into his office to yell at them for the work they were doing on that assault case, so they decide not to tell him about Kemper. However, Holden changes his mind, and so he and Bill tell Shepard what’s up. At first, Shepard shuts them down, but Bill has Holden’s back after meeting Kemper himself (“How do we get ahead of crazy if we don’t know how crazy thinks?”) and that convinces Shepard to let them keep working. However, there are some rules: They can’t tell anyone, they must work out of the basement, and they report only to him. Honestly, the fact that they’re being relegated to the basement of Quantico makes sense since they’re about to head down a very, very dark hole.
Most F—ed Up Moment: The fact that Ed said “There, now you’ve had sex,” to his mother — who had been complaining about the fact that she hadn’t had sex in years because of him — right after he murdered her.
(Click ahead for episode 3)
“Although your project is obviously in the nascent stages, it already feels like a clear successor to The Mask of Sanity, which as you know is quite a compliment,” she tells them, as Holden frantically tries to scribble that esoteric title into his notes. (FYI — The Mask of Sanity: An Attempt to Clarify Some Issues About the So-Called Psychopathic Personality was published in 1941 by psychiatrist Hervey M. Cleckley and is considered a seminal text on the subject matter. He theorizes that psychopaths wear an outward “mask” to mimic “normal” behavior.)
Carr makes clear, though, that they’ll have to dedicate a lot more than those 10 hours a week to formalize the project and make it viable. And even with full-time efforts, a legitimate academic study could take four to five years to complete. Holden is chuffed by the prospect of publishing their findings, while Bill is overwhelmed by the magnitude of the work.
Back at the office, Holden and Bill begin plotting a murderer map, pinpointing the exact locations of incarcerated killers and how they line up with their scheduled road schools. It’s then that they get a call from Carver in Sacramento: There’s been another attack on an old woman and her dog — and this time it was deadly. Holden quickly realizes that the trip will afford them another chance to talk with Kemper (but more on that later as we have a murder that needs solving).
In Sacramento, they begin to narrow their profile: The perp is no kid but likely a man in his late 20s to early 40s, “physically mature, emotionally immature.” And he’s probably white. That description sparks a memory for Carver, who shows the agents an image of a man who was very eager to talk to cops. (Sound like another loquacious killer we know?) The men arrive at Dwight Taylor’s house — or should we say Dwight Taylor’s mom’s house — and find squalid living conditions, an empty dog dish, and blankets strewing the coach where Dwight sleeps.
The agents and Carver take Dwight outside, away from his domineering mother, and they begin their interrogation, sly. They learn that at 20, Dwight got his also 20-year-old girlfriend pregnant and when his mom found out and told the girl’s parents, she was forced to get an abortion. They also learn that Dwight’s mom owns a dog and recently let her very new boyfriend come to live with them. But the most telling bits of evidence are the harsh red scratches up and down Dwight’s arm. He claims they’re from wood; the detectives are pretty sure they’re from a canine.
Cut to the squad room celebrating Taylor’s arrest, with Carver toasting Holden as a modern-day Sherlock Holmes and Bill as his Watson. Holden thanks them in his typical pseudo-intellectual manner: “And for embracing that if we all work together we can venture into the darkest night and shine a light onto the darkness. I’m talking about real darkness—”
“—And thanks for the beer!” Bill (thankfully) interjects, before Holden can offend once again.
With that case closed, the agents are free to pay another visit to our friend Edmund Kemper, the real standout of this series so far (at least for me). He continues to unspool his backstory for the men, and his cool, detached delivery is as chilling yet convivial as ever. (That explanation of why he put his mother’s vocal cords down the garbage disposal — “Because I couldn’t shut her up” — was particularly troubling.) I hope we haven’t seen the last of Kemper; he’s just so entertaining. (If you’re interested in more of the Co-Ed Killer’s story, I’d suggest Last Podcast on the Left’s two-part series. Warning: Plenty of NSFW language.)
On the plane home, Bill says he’s been thinking a lot about what Carr told them and wonders if they should invite her down to Virginia for a day to strategize. Holden can hardly keep his composure.
“It’s a long shot,” Bill warns him. “[Shepard] hates you already.”
“He’s beginning to hate you too,” Holden replies.
“Right, so why half-ass it?”
At home, Holden is contemplative: “I can’t let these guys rub off on me,” he tells girlfriend Debbie. “The way they use sex—“
“—and women,” she cuts in.
Then in a slightly bizarre sequence of events, Holden tries to prove to Debbie just how “kinky” he can be. The payoff of that weird moment comes quickly, when we flash to the FBI offices and Holden’s having certain words, like dildo and fellatio, struck from the list of deviant terms. Our square is becoming more well-rounded, it appears.
The episode closes with Holden and Bill welcoming Carr to headquarters and this winning exchange in reference to President Nixon:
Holden: “How do you get to be the president of the United States if you’re a sociopath?”
Carr: “The question is, how do you get to be president of the United States if you’re not?”
Most F—ed Up Moment: It has to be the aforementioned vocal cords in the garbage disposal bit. Yuck.
(Click ahead for episode 4)
The Behavioral Science Unit’s own Holmes and Watson had been heading back to Quantico after a visit to the Virginia State Penitentiary when they got T-boned on the road. The accident leaves Bill particularly shaken afterwards, and he clumsily admits to Holden that he’s not okay. And not just because he nearly got them both killed because he didn’t seen the idiot driving 100 miles an hour toward them; at home, he’s been unable to figure out why his adopted son, who’s able to speak, just won’t. It’s led to a fracture in his marriage with his wife Nancy, and though he can’t quite articulate it, he’s feeling inadequate and guilty and disappointed — all of which Holden sees when he picks up Bill for their next trip to Richmond.
Ah right, we have to talk the killer of the week. At the Virginia State Penitentiary, Holden and Bill have decided to interview Monte Rissell, a boyish murderer of five women, all of whom he raped before killing in various methods. Rissell seems amused at the prospect of being interviewed at first, and his smarmy, petulant attitude while telling his story — including an adolescence filled with doctors trying to fix his behavior, making his first kill after losing his girlfriend to someone else, and how he perfected his routine over time — triggers something in Bill, who thinks they should be careful not to buy everything Rissell’s selling. After all, the guy likes lying about as much as he loved Big Red soda.
Dr. Carr sees past either assessment. Listening to the recording of the first interview, she points out that it appears Rissell responded to specific “stressors” during his kills. His girlfriend sending him a Dear John letter made him drive all the way to see her with her new “beau,” as Holden puts it, and more importantly, his first victim’s compliance made him angry, so he felt the need to reassert control. The victims’ actions affected when and how Rissell acted in response. It’s a pattern, but not an exact, meticulously arranged one that Kemper would prefer.
More importantly, Rissell has a completely unexpected attitude toward his killings. During their second interview, he speaks of how his life went wrong from the moment he got dragged across the country with his mother and her new husband, who beat him as he grew up. He imagines a life with his father instead, a life in which he would have found his way.
And it hits Holden and Bill: Rissell sees himself as the victim. Bill worries they’re helping him by giving him a shoulder to cry on. Holden reminds him they’re simply using him, but it’s hard to tell if he’s simply lying to himself.
Besides, they have another case to figure out. After road school in a police precinct in Pennsylvania, a local detective named Ocasek approaches the pair for help with an unsettling murder that’s left him and the force rattled. A well-liked 22-year-old babysitter named Beverly had been murdered and grotesquely mutilated after her death, and then left perched out like a mannequin on top of a pile of trash on the edge of town. Ocasek can barely relay the details without choking up; the cop’s never seen anything like this before in their community, and he’s frightened that something like this could have happened there. “I go to church with these people,” he tells Holden and Bill.
They dive straight into the case — Holden a little too eagerly, perhaps — by visiting the crime scene and probing into the alibi of the man who found her corpse, a shady welder who, it turns out, had a thing for the young blonde along with a shaky story of how he came to spot her body. Despite the holes in his story, though, Holden and Bill hit a dead end when they talk to his wife, who admits her husband’s a creep but solidifies his alibi and says he had been with her all night the night Beverly disappeared. At least the two have yet to interrogate Beverly’s fiancé, who left the town to stay with relatives.
Carr would rather they stay out of town, too. She’s peeved they’ve spent so much time on an ongoing investigation instead of interviewing murderers like Rissell full time. (That said, she’s spent some time outside of work, too; a brief scene finds her bonding with Debbie over drinks with Holden and his much smarter girlfriend.) Rissell’s latest testimonial is bearing fruit — at least when it comes to the taxonomy of their project. She notices that Rissell’s storytelling emphasizes his self-pity, which plays to his audience’s sympathy, yet it’s more layered than that, because underneath, Rissell truly believes he’s been victimized in everything he’s done. He’s the type of killer who doesn’t want to admit to finding pleasure in killing; and yet, he does it again and again because the only people who understand that are, well, dead by his hands.
In other words, Rissell’s nothing like Kemper and everything like Kemper. Carr figures out a way to define the two men as case studies for two modes of serial killing: A Rissell type who kills spontaneously is disorganized, while a Kemper type who plans every kill is organized. Low intelligence yields disorganized kills; high intelligence yields organized. And so on and so forth, until the trio exhaust Kemper’s cards.
They’ll have plenty more cards to play with soon enough. At the end of the hour, the three enter Shepard’s office for a meeting, during which an exasperated Shepard reprimands Carr for talking to her peers about the project and then reveals that their project has earned not just one but two grants totaling nearly $400,000. The team is stunned, and as they return to their B.S. basement, they allow themselves some smiles. But don’t count on them looking happy for too long: Now that they’ve got the attention of these organizations, Congress will be interested in their work, and who knows what that’ll entail.
Most F—ed Up Moment: Rissell’s explanation of why he wanted to rape his first victim: “It’s like the idea of doing it pops in your head like a sneeze, you know what I mean?” No, Monte, I don’t.
(Click ahead for episode 5)
When Holden and Bill get back to town, their local compatriot detective Ocasek brings them to question Beverly Jean’s fiancé, Benjamin “Benji” Barnwright (Joseph Cross) — but gives the guy a heads-up they’re coming, since they all go to the same church and it just seemed polite. Between the donuts he’s had time to pick up for them and the waterworks he turns on about Beverly’s death, Benji tells them a bit about childhood (which was difficult after his father abandoned the family and his mother had to work two jobs to support him and his sister) and relationship with Beverly, including the fact that he was a virgin until they slept together.
When Benji starts crying, the men get up and leave. Bill, for one, is unsettled by the open display of emotion and later questions whether it was authentic. He also explains why he thinks Beverly Jean’s killer had to be someone local — why would someone “hunting” for girls, as he puts it, pass through tiny Altoona when there are bigger cities, or places to pick up hitchhikers? And how would an out-of-towner know where the dump was?
During a very brief stop back at Quantico, they link up with Carr, who explains that she’s started working on a list of standardized questions to ask their interview subjects: things like family history and their thought patterns before/during/after their crimes. Up until now, Bill and Holden have been kind of winging it when it comes to how they get these guys to open up, but Carr explains that they need a consistent data set.
This detour doesn’t really do much aside from give Holden and Carr a chance to talk about the Altoona case, and when he explains what happened with Benji, he also comes to the conclusion that the man’s emotional reaction seemed “hostile.” Carr tells him psychopaths are skilled at mimicking human emotions — it’s how they can manipulate people and gain power over their environment. She also raises the point that if Beverly Jean had more sexual experience than Benji, that could have been threatening for him. (The stop back in Virginia also leads to a brief and judgmental moment with Debbie, who rightly refuses to tell Holden how many men she’s had sex with because it’s none of his business.)
Back in Altoona, another man arises as a potential suspect — Frank Janderman (Jesse C. Boyd), the husband of Benji’s sister, Rose. It turns out he was institutionalized as a high schooler after he hit a young woman in the face with a wrench. Talking with Holden, Bill, and Ocasek, he claims that incident wasn’t intentional, but he’s got evident anger issues and was definitely attracted to Beverly Jean — and he calls BS on Benji’s claim that they were engaged.
When the trio later question Rose (Jackie Renee Robinson) at her home, she confirms Benji suspected Beverly Jean might have been “giving him the run around” (a.k.a. seeing other people). She also backs up Frank’s alibi — he told the officers that, aside from picking up dinner for the two of them, he was home watching TV the night Beverly Jean disappeared), but Ocasek suspects she might know more than she lets on and warns her that if she’s hiding things from the cops, it won’t be good.
And it turns out he was right. At the episode’s end, after making Ocasek promise her newborn son will be safe, she tells the police everything she knows. Frank was not home with her the day Beverly Jean disappeared — Benji called him that night and asked him to come over to his house, and then a few hours later Frank called and asked her to come over, too, even though she was heavily pregnant. And he asked her to bring cleaning supplies.
When she got there (having forgotten the cleaning supplies), Frank calmly told her that “something happened.” Benji had gotten “mad” at Beverly Jean and hit her, but that they all needed to stick together and “help him out of this.” Rose went to the bathroom to see her brother and found him sobbing, Beverly Jean dead in the bathtub, covered in blood and not wearing any underwear. While the men disposed of the body, she got the cleaning supplies and cleaned up all the blood in the bathroom. Rose explains that she helped them because “it’s just what I’ve always done.” (Remember, she had to take care of her brother throughout their childhood while their mother worked).
But the biggest question of all remains unanswered: Who killed Beverly Jean? The episode ends with Benji in custody, but Rose can’t say whether her brother or husband committed the crime (I suppose you could argue she does know, or perhaps suspects, and didn’t want to tell the cops, but it seems like she doesn’t know). As for who mutilated Beverly Jean’s dead body, that remains a mystery, too.
Most F—ed Up Moment: Technically we also saw them in episode 4, but I’ve got to go with those crime scene photos of Beverly Jean’s body.
(Click ahead for episode 6)
Shepard has an offer for the esteemed Dr. Carr: a permanent position managing the Behavioral Science Unit’s project, keeping the guys on track. Carr turns him down quickly, citing her life in Boston, but Shepard insists she at least think it over. What could keep her from work this important? “Do you have a husband?” he asks. Carr shakes her head. “No.” Sometimes a truthful answer isn’t the whole story.
That’s certainly the case with Beverly Jean’s murder. In the interrogation, both Benjamin and Frank stubbornly deny responsibility; Benji says he only stabbed his fiancée after she was dead, while Frank indirectly admits to the rape (“He told you that?”) but claims he didn’t kill Beverly or see Benji do it. When Carr, back at Quantico, listens to Rose’s confession on a loop, she realizes the missing piece: Beverly Jean was still alive when Rose got to the house. Rose, Frank, and Benji were in it together.
But convincing the D.A. — or at least convincing the D.A. that he could convince a jury — proves to be a challenge. Holden and Carr pay D.A. Peterson a visit to dissuade him from his plan to go after Benjamin first. Frank is the most dangerous of them all, they insist; Benji never would have committed the murder without Frank’s goading. Peterson seems to get it.
Peterson does not get it. Later in the hour, Bill and Holden hightail it back to Altoona (they’re really getting acquainted with that countryside) after Ocasek calls to let them know that Frank was offered a plea bargain. He’ll spend 5 to 20 years in a state psychiatric hospital; Benjamin will “fry.” Peterson shrugs it off as a good deal overall — the “lowest cost for the highest quality of justice.” On the drive back, Holden wonders what their work is even worth if they can’t communicate it to the people who matter.
This is an hour loaded with communication breakdowns. Bill’s insecurity over his inability to connect with his son comes back to the forefront when, at Nancy’s insistence, he invites Holden to dinner at the Tench house. Holden, Debbie, Bill, and Nancy — who’s sweet, if overeager — share a stilted conversation punctuated by tense asides about how much these people aren’t saying to each other. (“See, it’s possible to talk about things together.”)
After the meal, Nancy admits to Debbie that she worries Brian would have been better off in another home. As for the men, they filter their thoughts on parenthood through their work, debating whether habitual killers are more damaged by their mothers or their fathers. In an interesting echo of something Debbie said to Holden in episode 4, Bill tries to absolve himself of responsibility: “Aren’t all fathers absent in some way?”
While Bill tries to reconcile his job and his personal life, Carr returns home to do the same. And as it turns out, when she dodged Holden’s question about having “half of her life in Boston,” it was out of more than her disinterest in small talk. Carr seems at ease as she strolls through a snowy college campus. (Peterson says Carr teaches at Boston University, but this one looks more like Harvard or Boston College — where Dr. Ann Wolbert Burgess, the woman Carr is based on, is currently a professor of nursing. As impressive as Carr is, it’s worth reading up on Burgess). She makes her way into the cozy professorial office of her older girlfriend, Annaliese (Lena Olin), and kisses her warmly.
Torv and Olin share a history on J.J. Abrams’ shows, and their characters share a love of white blouses; it seems like the perfect match. But Annaliese is dismissive of Carr’s work at the FBI and thinks she’d be better served working toward tenure than spending more time at Quantico. By the time she calls Carr’s side project a “waste of time,” their relationship looks to be headed for a quick implosion.
Sure enough, Carr hits her breaking point when she and Annaliese go out for drinks and intellectual discussion with a couple of friends. Right as Annaliese talks about putting on a performance in public, she grabs Carr’s hand and grips it tightly. Carr excuses herself and never looks back.
In Annaliese’s office, she asked Carr why she would want to work for the Bureau if it meant hiding her sexuality. But it seems Carr’s FBI project matters as much to her as her relationship, and keeping it secret from Annaliese’s colleagues felt as much like denying a part of herself. Moving to Virginia is still a compromise — as she tours a tacky, fully furnished apartment, the realtor asks if she’d be interested in “singles’ events” that probably wouldn’t cater to her — but it’s a choice she’s willing to make.
Carr looks like she hates the apartment. She’ll take it.
Most F—ed Up Moment: The D.A. is willing to let a couple of killers off easy because of a jury’s attention span.
(Click ahead for episode 7)
She’s also devised a standardized list of questions to codify their data, not that Brudos (Happy Anderson) cares about that. Bill gets him talking by going off book, asking about Brudos’ interest in women’s fashion (he gets off on shoe catalogues), but Brudos keeps twisting the truth, claiming all of his confessions were given under coercion. But what really gets under our agents’ skin is Brudos’ suggestion that Kemper told him about them. “Prisons are like knitting circles,” he says. “Word gets around.”
At the door to the prison, Holden worries over Brudos’ suggestion that Kemper called them idiots. “It doesn’t sound like Ed to me,” he frowns. Someone’s too attached to a serial killer.
Holden’s comfort in the world of murderers is starting to concern the people around him. When he and Bill return to Brudos, they go with Carr’s suggestion in the back of their minds: Encourage Brudos to open up by sharing something about themselves, even if it’s fake. The partners don’t seem to hear that last part. When pressed, Bill admits his wife’s real name, and Holden — to Bill’s horror — doesn’t even need prompting to share an actual story from his youth.
Brudos turns chatty when he sees the pair of size-16 women’s heels Holden picked up while shopping with Debbie. Bill and Holden press the killer, again, on his affection for women’s clothing, and he says it was always there, though some in his life (his teacher) were more supportive than others (his mom). After railing against his mother for shaming him, Brudos takes the pair Holden gifted him and retreats to the corner for some quality time.
None of this is what Carr had in mind when she told her colleagues to gain Brudos’ trust, and she dresses them down for their unprofessionalism. Her refusal to be talked down to (“Thank you for illuminating me on male rituals”) is as satisfying as her indignation at Bill and Holden’s closed-mindedness, which she’s bound to find especially upsetting given that there’s an aspect of her life — her sexuality — they don’t know about yet. After reminding the men that “cross-dressing is not an antecedent to homicidal behavior,” Carr drops her mic: “You weren’t speaking his language. You were persecuting him about something that challenges your masculinity.”
Carr is right to rebuke their motive, but Bill might also have a point when he defends their method. “It is not possible to communicate with someone like Brudos and be fake,” he argues. “We can hassle him or we can open up to him, but either option has a cost.”
It’s a cost Bill has been weighing lately. After a tense dinner with Nancy, who wants to take Brian to an expensive music therapist, he returns home to find babysitter Julie shaken. Brian had a brutal crime-scene photo from episode 1’s Ada Jeffries case under his bed, which Bill says the boy must have found in his office.
Nancy scolds Bill for bringing work home. His response is breathtakingly bad (his son is “not much fun”!), but his trauma is real, and he admits some of it in a riled-up rant about the horrors he’s encountered in his job. At the office, Carr picks up on his tension and urges Bill to talk to a therapist, leading him to wish he could tap into Holden’s apparent immunity to all of this darkness.
But Bill was right earlier: It’s cause for concern if this job doesn’t get under your skin. Holden finds himself questioning who he’s becoming after Debbie dons some sexy new lingerie for him — complete with the same exact style of shoe he bought for Brudos. He studies the shoe and hesitates; she asks if he doesn’t like it. No, he loves it. But Holden hesitates again, driving Debbie out of the room when he sighs, “This is just not you.” Is he worried that it’s him?
As that relationship sputters, the newly single Carr looks to form a connection. After eating tuna out of the can (Wendy, no), she goes to the basement to do laundry without pants on, which, given the nature of this show, made me nervous. Given the nature of her life, it should make Carr nervous too, but she’s entirely unfazed, even when she hears what sounds like a cat outside the window. Carr takes to leaving out tuna for the cat and sometimes lingers in the basement with wine to wait for her new friend, treating a mildly creepy scenario like a meet-cute waiting to happen. Here’s hoping her patience is rewarded.
Most F—ed Up Moment: Brudos is a little too cheery about the mechanics of breaking jaws.
(Click ahead for episode 8)
Holden finds himself facing this very debate thanks to a local elementary school principal, Roger Wade (Marc Kudisch), who brings our intrepid FBI agent in to speak to his students about how they can spot future serial killers. Of course, Holden has to explain it without using the words Roger thinks the kids won’t grasp (like “deviant” behavior, “pyromania,” “torturing” small animals, and “mutilation” — which, yeah, let’s not get into those details with young children). While he’s there, a teacher pulls Holden aside and expresses concern about how Roger interacts with students: Apparently, he has a history of tickling their feet in his office and then giving them money. The school board questioned him about it and nothing came of it, she tells Holden, and she went to the police at parents’ requests and nothing happened with that either. So, can he help at all?
Roger’s behavior is unsettling for sure, and teachers and parents he talks to throughout the episode agree it’s inappropriate, but, as one of the local police officers says, it’s not a criminal offense. Could it escalate, though, to something more sinister? That’s what Holden is concerned about.
And you can’t blame him for thinking the worst when you consider he’s interviewing serial killers for a living. A trip back to Oregon, sans Bill (who refused to go), allows him another chat with Jerry Brudos, and a change in interview tactic provides more insight into the man’s mind. Instead of asking Brudos about his victims (the women he still denies killing), Holden asks what the hypothetical killer might have done with those women, might have fantasized about beforehand, and so on, and they cover a lot more ground that way. Which is helpful for the study, obviously, but it also seems to be affecting Holden’s suspicion of Roger. As he asks Bill, “What’s the point of all this if we don’t apply it to the real world?”
Roger, of course, defends his behavior with his students and flat-out refuses to stop tickling them. And when Holden advises him to cut it out, he counters that the “deviant” world the FBI agent lives in for his work is making him paranoid.
The investigation, as it were, gets cut off when the newest member of the Behavioral Science team, Greg Smith (Joe Tuttle), totally narcs on their little school trip to Shepard (their dads are friends), who tells him to stand down because the FBI investigates crimes that actually happened and are not, in his words, the “f—ing thought police.” Bill and Carr also tell Holden he can’t do side trips like this again without talking to them first, because his behavior reflects on all of them and the study as a whole. But when he gets a call asking for his input on whether or not the school board should fire Roger, he insinuates that it might not be a bad idea. When they hang up, you can see the wheels turning in his head — did he get a potential predator out of a school, or did he just potentially cost an innocent man his job?
So yeah, not a great episode to be Holden. And his personal life isn’t faring well either. Debbie seems to have less patience with him these days, and she took a ride home from school with a classmate named Patrick instead of asking her boyfriend to pick her up. Holden tries to be a good boyfriend and goes to her immersive class project, where people have to interact in a dark space, freeing them from having to “perform” a persona. But when someone opens a door and light enters the room, he sees Debbie and Patrick together looking pretty cozy. Something tells me it might be time for these two to take a break.
Most F—ed Up Moment: Brudos “speculating” about the unnamed “killer” and his motivations for murdering his victims
(Click ahead for episode 9)
Meanwhile, Holden and Bill are in their car outside a charmingly ’70s-era Dairy Queen, discussing their upcoming interview with notorious serial killer Richard Speck (Jack Erdie). “It’s like meeting a movie star,” Holden says, gazing wistfully over newspaper clippings he assembled when he was young. “Holden and his first criminal crush,” Bill says, possibly with the recognition that Holden might just be getting a little too excited. (Imagine how excited Holden would be by 2017’s glut of murder podcasts and documentaries.)
Holden continues to wax poetic, revealing that this interview might be less about their investigations and more to satisfy his own fanboy attitudes towards serial killers. “Maybe he’ll give you an autograph,” Bill says sarcastically. Holden’s eyebrows knot together. “That would be inappropriate right?” It is the funniest line Jonathan Groff has delivered in the eight-plus hours of this show so far.
Holden’s mild non-personality personality is no doubt a deliberate choice on Groff’s part: Holden is supposed to be a buttoned-up narc-type, gradually peeling away the well-ironed shirt-and-tie façade to reveal a prurient fascination and possible kinship with the most evil human beings in the world as a way to mirror the FBI’s increased understanding of psychologically profiling their behaviors.
The partners get the basic rundown on Richard Speck as they walk through his maximum-security prison in Joliet, Illinois, in full view of the prisoners, even though they requested that their interview be kept discrete so that the other prisoners wouldn’t see Speck as a snitch for talking to federal agents. The guards dismiss their concerns, and then, finally, in walks the notorious murderer: swearing and swaggering and cradling a bird in his palms.
Holden begins with the classic, pre-written rundown of their interview, and Speck is less than engaged, at least until Holden mentions that their research will be completely anonymous. Speck wants people to know his name. “Everybody knows your name,” Holden replies with something akin to reverence. It’s also with reverence that he gingerly lifts Speck’s sleeve to reveal his “legendary” tattoo: “Born to raise hell.”
It’s only a few moments later that Holden’s behavior lapses into fully uncomfortable territory when discussing Speck’s murder of eight nurses — Holden asks Speck what gave him the right to take “eight ripe c–ts” out of the world. “You’re crazy,” Speck, a mass murderer, says to Holden, speaking for all of us. Later, Holden brings up Speck’s suicide attempt, which Speck denies over and over again. “You know why those c–ts died?” Speck asks. And then, with perfect macabre timing, he flings his bird into a fan, causing it to splatter. “’Cause it just wasn’t their f—ing night.”
On the plane ride back to Quantico, Bill tells Holden that he might want to consider losing the tape recording of that interview, or at least the first few minutes of it. Holden isn’t ashamed and says he said what he did just to get Speck talking. “That excuse is wearing thin,” Bill says. Holden maintains that his decorum in the interview was fine, at least until he’s back in their basement office and sees the transcript, typed out by Greg. Holden recommends that Greg keep some things off the permanent record, and Greg complies, citing audio failure.
At night, passing a laundromat, Holden sees Debbie inside and enters. While the camera remains outside the storefront, keeping their conversation muted, it’s obvious that they’re back together; a scene later, they’re in Holden’s apartment talking about Debbie’s grad school. Debbie reminds me of Rooney Mara’s character from The Social Network: the fast-talking girlfriend who’s smart but not smarter than her boyfriend, who seems to operate from a place of empathy but whose inner life we never quite get to see. It’s not just the physical appearance — although with the same long, dark hair in the same desaturated, cool-toned David Fincher world, their appearances are strikingly similar. When Debbie gets angry at Holden for dismissing her studies as “stuff” that he barely cares about, she might as well have been getting angry because he said girls at BU don’t need to study.
Debbie’s character comes on display when the wife of Roger Wade, the foot-tickling principal, comes to confront Holden in the hallway of his apartment. Mrs. Wade accuses him of ruining their lives, regaling him with the saga of what has befallen Roger since he was fired from the school district. Holden cowers (although objectively, he didn’t do anything wrong. A principal tickling elementary school children’s feet and paying them in nickels is very creepy, and he should not have been doing it). Debbie invites the woman inside, but she balks and shames Holden one more time before leaving. It feels as though we are supposed to empathize with her, but as a viewer, I am still staunchly anti-foot-tickling principal.
Back at Quantico, the boys discuss the results of the Speck interview with Carr, which leads them into a discussion of how these killers should be categorized, with terminology to complement the “organized/disorganized” dichotomy. “Serial killer?” Bill suggests. “Let’s see if it sticks,” Carr says. And we’ve officially filled our quota for “that moment in the period piece where characters acknowledge the modern thing that viewers already know.”
Their expertise on killers is challenged in a real-life case study when the body of a 12-year-old girl is found in Georgia. Holden challenges Greg with a Socratic interrogation about the case, and they deduce that the killer was young, had probably seen the young girl come off the bus and knew her schedule, had planned to rape her but hadn’t planned to murder her. It’s Bill who sees the ultimate clue that will bring Lisa’s murderer to justice: The trees on her street had been recently trimmed away from power lines. A work crew would have been there for a week or so, watching her come home from school on the bus every day.
Back in Joliet, Speck has officially filed a complaint against the FBI, first for causing him to be jumped by their lack of discretion in meeting with him, and then specifically because Agent Ford “f—ed with his head.” And then, just in case the viewer hasn’t quite understood the subtext there, Holden’s boss rephrases it and repeats it. “We’ve all suffered Agent Ford’s head-f—ing.” A benefit of the binge-watching model is that parallel to Kemper — the killer who literally f—ed his mother’s decapitated head — is much fresher than it might have been in a week-to-week show.
And so Bill, Holden, and Greg are called in to a meeting with the Office of Professional Responsibility. The questions are standard, and although they balk slightly when Greg says that the tape of the Speck interview was recorded over and destroyed, the truth of the matter is revealed as soon as the meeting’s recorder is turned off: They don’t care at all about Speck or his complaint. “Richard Speck, what a s— stain, huh?” And why would they care about him? He murdered eight women.
It’s not until Bill, Holden, and Greg return to the basement office that the consequences of Holden’s lie reveal themselves. Carr listened to the tape. And she showed their supervisor. The five of them argue about what the right thing to do is: Wendy wants to come clean, the rest seem to agree that nothing valuable will come of it, Greg continues to be a sweaty mess. Finally, Bill is yet again the one with the most common sense. He says they should just burn the tape and let it end right there. Holden gets a slap on the wrist and is told not to behave that way in another interview again. All seems relatively well settled, until the episode’s final scenes, which reveal Greg mailing the tape to the Board. A terrible decision, objectively, but whatever he has to do to sleep at night.
Most F—ed Up Moment: Speck throwing a bird into a whirling fan. Or Holden saying the phrase “eight ripe c–ts.” Ugh.
(Click ahead for the finale)
The episode begins with a reminder of the show’s most interesting relationship: Holden and Ed Kemper. Since their interview, Kemper has been sending Holden cards and notes entreating him to come back and talk to him again, very much in the style of me after three glasses of wine texting a guy who’s ghosted me.
But Holden has more pressing matters to think about: the case of Lisa, the 12-year-old girl raped and murdered after being dropped off by the school bus near her home in Texas. Based on Bill’s observations about the trimmed tree line near the power lines, the police are almost certain they’ve found the perpetrator — but he’s passed a lie detector test. But criminals, especially criminals who have recently passed lie detector tests, are overconfident. And so is Holden. So Holden and Bill arrange a voluntary meeting with the suspect to try to get a confession out of him.
Holden begins by building a set for the interrogation — blank sheets of paper in a folder to make it look like they’ve done hours of research, Lisa’s majorette outfit from the evidence room, and, most importantly, the rock that was used to kill her. Who cares if she didn’t have her majorette baton on her person at the time of the murder? The point isn’t honesty; it’s theater. And so Holden sends a police officer to go out and buy a baton and rub it in the dirt to make it look used. “All this an FBI thing?” a police officer asks. “It’s, uh, his thing,” Bill replies.
In the interview, Holden falls almost immediately back on a familiar, uncomfortable tactic: attempting to speak the subject’s language, to make him feel understood and important. This time, though, when Holden begins talking about how Lisa definitely looked older than 12 and waxing poetic on his personal preference for no pubic hair, Holden takes out the tape and stops recording.
“By the time a woman has hair on her p—y, you’d think she’d be able to decide who gets a piece of it,” Holden says, searching the suspect’s face for agreement. He continues: “You gotta make it with that young p—y before it turns into mom.” The line is almost an exact echo of something Kemper said to Holden in episode 2. In the previous episode, Holden was warned against interviews where his boss wouldn’t be able to “tell the difference between one of my agents and an incarcerated low-life.” Turns out, it was just foreshadowing.
Holden’s technique works: As soon as he lifts Lisa’s yellow jacket and reveals the rock beneath, the perpetrator is sweating. The confession is inevitable, and we skip to the victory celebration at the bar later that night: Holden crowing to the police officer about his unusual methodology.
Holden is proud of what he did, using the things he’s learned from criminals to bring a child rapist and murderer to justice. But as he’s relaying the story to his girlfriend, she’s back in full Rooney-Mara-in-The-Social-Network mode. “Like Perry Mason?” Debbie asks about his work. “But Perry Mason never got off on it.” Her bitter Fincher-girl resentment is off the charts.
Carr is also displeased with Holden’s methods, especially when a newspaper reports on the confession thanks to insights from the police officer Holden drunkenly spilled his heart out to. The story reads like coercion, and Georgia is a death penalty state. “I had hoped we could complete our research before we see it used to this end,” Carr says. She immediately books a flight to Georgia to attempt to convince the district attorney to ask for a less severe sentence. Holden accompanies her, but there’s nothing they can do: Execution is the will of the people in Georgia and the man Holden got to confess raped and murdered a child. Their work has officially left the academic realm and entered practice.
When Holden returns from Georgia, Debbie is sitting on the porch, drinking a glass of wine and looking at Holden with sadness. She says she thinks back to the first time they met. “You were so sweet and curious,” Debbie says.
“I’m still…curious,” Holden replies. No man who can so comfortably repeat the words of Ed Kemper can possibly be thought of as sweet.
Holden senses his girlfriend’s iciness and evaluates her the way he would a criminal: Her arms are crossed, she didn’t invite him inside, she offered him a glass of wine but didn’t think to bring him out a glass of his own. The conclusion surprises him as he says it: She’s breaking up with him. And before she even has to say a word, they’re broken up.
And Holden’s relationships at work begin to fracture, too. Because Greg sent in the un-redacted tape of the Speck interview to the Office of Professional Responsibility, Holden is summoned into an office and officially disciplined. But Holden is remorseless: He admits everything he’s done and takes full responsibility.
“You’re developing a pattern of behavior that will not sustain you here,” one of the board members says. That phrase — pattern of behavior — is another that links Holden to the serial killers he loves empathizing with so much. Holden stands to leave, refusing to apologize for his work or accommodate their rules of decorum, even after the board tells him that Bill shares their concerns. One of the men tells him that leaving now would be a mistake.
“The only mistake I made was ever doubting myself,” Holden says. Feeling betrayed by both Bill and Greg, and now newly single, he’s off to California to see Ed Kemper in a hospital. Kemper finally figured out that a suicide attempt would be the way to ensure Holden would come back to see him.
Kemper, it turns out, read the newspaper story about Holden’s miraculous confession gathering. “You said we were friends,” Kemper says.
“In the context of our work together, sure,” says Holden, presumably terrified at this point by the chilling realization that he might understand this killer more than he did his own girlfriend or partner.
In the show’s most terrifying sequence, Kemper begins a slow intimidation of Holden. Kemper peels off his bandages and reveals the healing would on his wrist, sliced open with the metal casing of a ballpoint pen. Although he’s chained to the bed, Kemper is able to rise with a clanging thump. Holden doesn’t move as Kemper gets closer and closer.
“The only way I could have those girls was to kill them,” Kemper said. “And it worked. They became my spirit wives; they’re still with me….” He comes even closer, and Holden realizes there is no way to call for help. “I could kill you now,” Kemper says. “Then you’d be with me in spirit.”
Holden is shaking, almost crying, but he doesn’t move. “Why are you here, Holden?” Kemper asks. And Holden delivers the best line of the entire season: “I don’t know.”
Kemper lunges forward for a hug and Holden flings himself away. His once perfectly pressed shirt is wrinkled and unbuttoned. He collapses on the floor of the hospital hallway, suffering from a profound panic attack. He descends into unconsciousness as a nurse approaches to take care of him.
And then we get our final shot of the season, in which the mustachioed security guard, whose story never intersected with Holden’s or Bill’s, is throwing drawings of frightened, naked, tied-up women into a fire, revealing him to be the notorious BTK Killer. It’s either a tease for a second season or a reminder that creating terminology and conducting interviews can only take you so far. For all of Bill and Holden’s work, there is still an active serial killer out there, and he’ll be active for nearly two decades more. Eventually though, the BTK Killer was caught. Maybe the ambiguous, quiet ending is just a reminder of how many other men are out there, completely detached from the central story line, never to interact with the FBI in any way — never to be caught.
Most F—ed Up Moment: “Funny thing. In the ICU there’s no system to alert the guards.”