In praise of Mindhunter's tickle episode
If you watch only one episode of Mindhunter, watch episode 8. It’s the weirdest episode of the delightful first season, an hour of television I can’t stop thinking about. It’s almost a standalone, but it opens up the Netflix drama’s possibilities — while also cheerfully deconstructing its whole apparent mission.
When I reviewed the first two episodes, I described the subject matter as “the supernova-birth of modern evil,” and that’s what the series appears to be, for much of its very fun first season. Set in the late ’70s, Mindhunter finds FBI Agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) struggling to understand the motivations behind unmotivated mass murder. Manson, Son of Sam: Where do such creatures come from, and how do we stop them?
It’s a tantalizing question — and an entertaining story structure. Holden’s a fictional character, but his quest leads him to real-life imprisoned maniacs, chatty and demonic. Can they help him catch other killers? You recognize the setup, because so much other popular fiction derived from Mindhunter‘s source material. Thomas Harris grooved onto some key concepts of the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences team when he wrote Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs — and you can extend that influence through decades of serial killer fiction. Mindhunter‘s produced and partially directed by David Fincher, whose Se7en and Zodiac explored similar territory.
And there is no obvious cultural boundary demarcating which viewers enjoy maniac-murder stories. It crosses all demographics. There were the chipper ghost-maniac dinners in American Horror Story: Hotel, and there are the moralizing copbots investigating weekly sexmurders on Criminal Minds, and even The Blacklist is basically Silence of the Lambs but less gross but more hats, and years later, your cousin still won’t stop talking about Dexter. Serial Killer Pop feels like a uniquely American genre. The story requires a big vast country with state lines to flee across, and an entertainment-news complex that can turn villains into antiheroes, and the lax gun laws sure don’t hurt. Superheroes properly began in America, too, and the trendiest serial killers are either bizarro inversions of comic book protagonists or their precise mirror image. People with secret lives, abnormal humans among us. (Coming soon: The Punisher, superhero serial killer, two for the price of one!)
Viewed in that lineage, Mindhunter is a clever and cerebral riff on a well-trodden genre. Holden and his partner Bill Tench (the great Holt McCallany) are a familiar buddy-cop pair — young and excitable, gruff and no-bull. They never pull out their guns, but god, can they talk! Mindhunter‘s a very good TV show, but it feels pitched to a generation that loves podcasts. Their interrogations feel choreographed, thrilling and almost dancerly. They catch bad guys, eventually.
Episode 8 is something else. Holden’s visiting a local elementary school for career week, trying to explain “early intervention” to kids. Principal Roger Wade (Marc Kudisch) is excited that Holden is there. Actually, one of the early ironies of this episode is that Wade is a bigger booster for Holden than almost anyone else on the series. (Even his girlfriend thinks he’s a weirdo; elsewhere in the episode, she’ll describe some core truth of his inner being as “sad.”) But the principal has a problem with Holden’s language. He can’t have someone talking about hurting animals. The kids will have nightmares, the parents will complain! Can’t Holden moderate his language?
Holden has a problem with moderation. And, as we’re starting to see, he’s dismissive of anyone who tries to limit him. (The Fincher character Holden most resembles is the Mark Zuckerberg of The Social Network: looks naive and innocent, is actually a bold disruptor with zero respect for authority figures.) Isn’t the point, Holden asks, to teach these children how to defend themselves? “We need to prepare them for the world, yes,” the principal tells Holden. “But we also need to protect them.” Holden so badly wants to teach the children about the lofty concepts he’s been sorting through. (Holden likes Dostoevsky.) But Wade knows his audience, or maybe he knows the power of symbols. “Show them your badge,” he advises. “They’ll be thrilled.”
Holden does his best with the kids. But they get confused. Maybe it’s because the principal’s censorship has rendered Holden’s advice meaningless. Maybe it’s because “the possibility that immoral childhood behavior can escalate into adult violence” is a concept beyond the ken of all fourth graders.
But Holden shows the kids his badge; they love that. Principal Wade congratulates him on a job well done. And then the teacher approaches him: “I’ve heard about some behavior,” she says, “that I’d classify as disturbing.” She looks past Holden down the hall, and Holden sees Wade standing with a little girl:
This shot lasts a few seconds, hits like a locomotive, could be the scariest image of the episode, or it could be nothing. What do you make of it? A middle-aged man holding a little girl’s hands, maybe too tightly? He is an authority figure, clearly, almost twice her size. Is she scared of him, or just respectful? There’s that perfect doubling, the reflection of the principal in the mirror: Is that a clue, or just a trick of the light?
The teacher tells her story. Principal Wade, it seems, is a tickler. Kids will go to his office, and he will tickle their feet, and then he gives them a nickel, and they leave. Here in 2017, this can only sound wildly malicious, the stuff of Stranger Danger dark fantasies come to life. A few generations of Americans have been raised now on what you might call a healthy skepticism for authority figures. So we watch Wade — with his glasses and his cluck-clucking over bad words — and his very normality reads freakish. Full credit to Kudisch, whose performance makes this episode. His quietly firm tone makes him sound like a kind educator — but we’ve seen what Holden has seen, know madman murderers can be oddly genial, too. (“I am teaching happiness,” the principal says. What a nice man! What a monster!)
The episode that flows from this conversation is an explicit departure from what appears to be Mindhunter‘s mission. Holden’s partners keep on telling him to focus, almost biding their time until this episode ends. You wonder if these conversations are winking reflections of writers’ room chatter. Bill wants Holden to focus on the matter at hand: “We’re trying to save women from being pulled into vans and cut to pieces,” he explains, “Not crucify some schoolmarm who hasn’t done anything.”
But Holden sees their mission as much broader, almost existential. “Our goal is to be preventative,” he says. Absolutely no one in this episode thinks that the principal has actually crossed a line. Tickling kids’ feet would be fireable today, but so would a wide variety of basic structural aspects of teaching circa four decades years ago. Another buried joke in this very darkly funny episode is that every adult onscreen grew up in an era when corporal punishment was common education practice. If the principal was slapping kids’ wrists with a ruler, there might be no concern at all.
Could he cross the line, though? Is his behavior the beginning of something? Holden actually does talk to a serial killer in this episode, malevolent shoe fetishist Jerry Brudos (Happy Anderson.) Brudos is playing a little game with Holden. He won’t quite admit to committing any murders — but he’ll certainly speculate about what that fella who did commit the murders was thinking. They get to talking about power, the FBI man and the convict. They discuss the allure of an escape from the drudgery of the everyday. “Maybe his real life was out of control,” Brudos says, musing about “the killer” but really describing himself. “But his fantasy life was—”
“A place where he could feel powerful,” Holden says, finishing the madman’s sentence for him.
Holden returns to the school, again and again. He speaks to another teacher, who thinks Wade is smug. (But his school is the best in the county, so good that property rates have skyrocketed: Does he have a right to be smug?) Another teacher likes him, though. “He turns punishment into play,” she explains, which sounds nice but reads Clive Barker-y. Holden visits with the parents of a boy who was tickled, and their explanation of what happened has the slight Rashomon quality that so many married-couple stories have. Their son was fighting, says the wife. He was kicking mud, not fighting, corrects the husband. The woman is concerned about the basic perversion: “A middle-aged man touching your child’s feet!” The man seems fixated on the nickel. Was their kid traumatized? “Quite the opposite,” says the husband, before further noting that they considered a lawsuit.
Set aside the whole central ambiguity of the episode, and there’s an obvious problem. The parents have told the principal to stop tickling, and he will not. “My covenant is not with you,” he told the parents. “It’s with your son.” There have been reports among teachers, whispers to the school board and to the superintendent and to the police. Holden feels powerless, but his new colleague Gregg (Joe Tuttle) has an easy solution. Why don’t we tell him to stop? “We’re the f—ing FBI,” Gregg deadpans.
The key scene of the episode is as grand a showdown as Mindhunter has conjured up in its first season. Holden strolls in, an FBI man in a local elementary school, either a vision of heroic government power or a nightmare of government overreach. Holden asks the principal to stop tickling. “It’s a trivial activity,” he explains. “Simply stopping will satisfy everyone.”
“It is not trivial,” says the principal. “Don’t make me sound like some stranger in a raincoat.” The episode builds up the idea that Wade has a methodology, something an infogeek like Holden would surely appreciate. He has clearly thought through all of his activities, knows the atmospheric and psychological effects his actions can have on children. Perhaps, the defense would declare, that is why he’s been so successful; perhaps, says the prosecution, that makes his crime more unforgivable.
And he turns this whole strange, passionate investigation back onto the investigator. “You are uncomfortable, Agent Ford. Why is that? ‘Deviant.’ ‘Torture.’ ‘Mutilation.’ That is your world, and it has made you paranoid.”
A lawman comes too close to evil, becomes like the criminals he is chasing. This is another entertaining story structure, the stuff of Michael Mann films and the more willfully strange Hannibal Lecter stories. It’s also, I gather, the main fan-theory interpretation of Mindhunter: that Holden radiates the profile of the men he’s profiling, by golly he’s becoming a killer!
That’s the simplest read on the show, I think, and the least interesting. The more obvious but troubling possibility is that Holden is starting to act weirder because we all get weirder after too much of this stuff, so willing to see the possibility of the grotesque that we become oddly blind. Holden could be patient zero for the experience of serial killer entertainment. In one season, he experiences, like, four Se7ens and half a weird-book-ending-of-Hannibal. He seems to enjoy talking to the murderers; or anyhow, he’s less affected than his partner. Liking murderers is weird in fact, but a basic element of fiction. Nobody watches Criminal Minds because they enjoy when cops investigate securities fraud.
Does this knowledge make Holden sharper, more alive to the hidden grotesque possibilities of the everyday? Or does it blind him, making the normal seem abnormal? Holden’s boss, Shepard (Cotter Smith), demands that he end this witch hunt, because the FBI does not get involved “until a crime is committed.” This same boss is as crusty and old-fashioned as a Fed can be, but you notice how Holden’s actions reorient our perspective of the character. “Who are you?” his boss asks. “The f—ing thought police?” That sounds like something one of Mindhunter‘s hippie academics would say, but it’s a reference a crusty old FBI boss would recall from a popular book of his youth. Wasn’t Holden supposed to be the trendy young disruptor? Why is his awful know-nothing authority figure quoting 1984 to him?
Another colleague, learned psych professor Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), expresses outright confusion. “I can’t imagine why you would go after a respected school principal with no history of abuse,” she says. So Holden is having trouble at work. And his girlfriend is growing distant. His real life is out of control. Does he have a fantasy life to escape to? Is that what his conversations with the madmen are, a chance to step into a darker world where there are no rules? Soon enough, Holden is throwing out the c-word, describing one madman’s victims as “eight ripe c—s.” Is he trying to get the killer to open up? Does he get a little thrill out of saying something so awful? You wonder how Holden would react to comment boards.
So episode 8 is an explicit allegory, one of those open-ended short stories English teachers use to thrill freshmen, “The Lady or the Tiger?” Watch it once and imagine the principal’s a perv; watch it again and wonder if he’s a Frank Capra character trapped in a Black Mirror episode. Is Holden punching up against a nasty authority figure, or punching down from his lofty perch? Is he crazy for theorizing Wade could become a molester? Is it crazy to theorize that Holden could become a serial killer? The school board seeks his insight: Could this man who has only done good become an evil man? Holden can’t say, but he can’t not say. He has no evidence, but he has his intuition, and wars have been started with less.