We all find serial killers fascinating, and the odder their motivations and crimes are, the better. A quote from Fight Club, a film principally about psychosis induced by immersing one’s self in a materialistic life, explains this intrigue, ‘only when we lose everything, are we free to do anything’. A psychotic’s freedom: the absolute hedonism it takes, to commit murder – satiating a lethal compulsion or complex – is alluring as it’s so elusive for most of us. We’re simply too rational, have too much to lose, to marry fleeting homicidal desires with acts of murder. Many us are left with insubstantial substitutes; binge eating, having a cry wank or buying shit on Amazon, just to make ourselves feel worthwhile.
Mindhunter provides a guilt-free vicariousness, without getting bogged down in esoteric terminology, chin stroking intellectualism or trite judgementalism. This simplification of a complex subject is aided by pulpy embellishments – you get fuck off retro lettering telling you where events are occurring. Setting the drama in the late seventies, at the inception of the FBI’s profiling of homicidal crimes, helps too. Those in the field were making it up as they went in spartan offices and dive bars punctuated by plumes of ciggie smoke, stale farts, body odour, cold beer and reheated grub.
Witnessing analysis actively permeating an embryonic profiling model, solving crimes, all whilst the three characters at the drama’s centre navigate the FBI’s bureaucratic charter, is rewarding. You’re pulling for them to succeed because you don’t want them to stop learning, because you won’t stop learning about them. Watching their agendas and motivations for their involvement in the project being openly scrutinised by each other is satisfying as is the friction when they debate how their findings, a euphemism for theorising, should be applied. There’s Holden, whose square, FBI suit phenotype masks an abnormal capability to empathise with homicidal impulses and a propensity for experimentalism. He’s also motivated by egotistical earnestness ‘I want to be an expert’ and ‘the biggest mistake I ever made was doubting myself’ that makes him an increasingly unsympathetic figure. His cohort Bill is equally sure of what’s right, and is agnostic of Holden’s interrogation techniques. He sports a flat top, chain smokes, and in contrast to Holden appears wiser and more practical, chiefly because he sees profiling as a way to strengthen judicial process. Finally, there’s the academic psychologist, Wendy, whose expertise and ability to coldly detach from the subjects, analysing their crimes, and to subtlety refine Holden and Bill’s thoughts, makes her their ideal foil.
While the title, Mindhunter, is, well, a bit shit, the show itself is elevated by the sense of dread that persistently lurks. It’s subdued by the narrative moving at a steady and serene pace, appropriately mirroring the logistical day-to-day mundanity of the ‘roadschool’ work the agents are doing. There’s no car chases or re-enactments of the kills. In fact the most visually alarming event ends the first sequence of the opening episode. This gives the interview scenes with the killers central billing, they’re a departure from procedural routine and Holden, Wendy and Bill’s theorising in their safe academic cubicle. Even if minimal insights (the impulse killers tend to be squalid simpletons) are gleaned, you’re engrossed as you sense anything can happen when a psychopath’s ego is being indulged or challenged by Holden’s methods; a cut throat, suicide, denial, defensive ambivalence, excessive self-pity, self-congratulatory reconstructions of a crime’s meticulousness, throwing a juvenile bird into a fan or ejaculating into a shoe, say.
The killers themselves are suitably diverse, but Cameron Britton’s turn as Edmund Kemper takes some topping, and as such he’s (thankfully) likely to recur often in season two. Kemper’s introspection, eloquence and menacing calm, particularly when analysing his own pathology, is a straight lift from Brian Cox’s Hannibal Lecter. This portrayal of Kemper as a Lecter-lite becomes a comical juxtaposition, because Kemper’s so large, both in stature and waist, sports a wispy porn moustache and hilariously thick glasses. It’s as though an extra from The Trailer Park Boys indulged in necrophilia and dismembered ten people. If it seems preposterous, then it probably is, but then so are sane people. Indeed, the oddity of Kemper’s eagerness to comply and be assessed is matched by Holden’s fawning over Kemper’s candidness and jovial manner.
The show has its weaknesses, the attempt to add depth to the central characters by detailing the minutiae of their personal and sex lives is a bit hackneyed. It adds a layer of fat to what would otherwise be lean episodes. What’s wrong with maintaining the mystery of Bill’s family problems, what Holden gets up to, or revealing Wendy’s sexuality? Conversations between Holden and his girlfriend are interesting because they share a common interest in psychology, but the drama and the narrative thread would be enhanced without most of this filler.
Fortunately these detours are fleeting as this show is healthily obsessed with challenging the validity of its chosen subject. A later episode posits the morality of using common serial killer triggers to help determine, justify even, whether peculiar character traits could mutate into something more malicious. Is tickling kiddie’s feet and paying them for the privilege a precursor to deviant behaviour? Is it deviant behaviour? Or has mining the varied geneses of homicidal intent warped Holden and made him unnaturally suspicious of any benign quirkiness? Forty years later there still isn’t an answer. Theory isn’t evidence, or proof, and there should be no such thing as a thought crime, yet we’re living with the legacy of this kind of research – in ‘grey area’ cases we tend to assume guilt and ostracise. Nonetheless, watching killer’s psyches being peeled like an onion, a process which reveals just as much about the profilers, isn’t half compelling.