Mindhunter’s Fascinating Mundanity
Rarely is there a drama series on TV (or I guess, now, The Web) that bases itself solely on dialogue the way Mindhunter does. Granted, there are slower series like Better Call Saul that are more character than event-driven, but Mindhunter doesn’t feature a single overt action scene, yet the stakes seem to be higher, even if we know the end result.
Being based on facts is often a hard sell for fiction. Take too many liberties, and you might just make the story too cute to be true (see Bohemian Rhapsody), stay too close to the real deal and you’ll be better off making a documentary. Recently, we’ve seen an influx of shows based on facts, including Mindhunter and Chernobyl (which is on my to-watch list ever since it came out) that seem to have mastered the art of getting things right, using the reality they’re based on to create an artistic interpretation that just… works.
In Mindhunter’s case, the genius move was definitely separating the characters in the FBI from their real-life counterparts. While who the leads were based on is pretty clear, this little decision enables the writers to play with the characters, add some much-needed conflict & depth that wouldn’t be possible if this was a simple biographical movie about John E. Douglas. Some of the best moments of the show stem from this decision to inject a little bit of fiction into gruesome reality.
SPOILERS AHEAD FOR BOTH SEASON 1 & 2
The show’s first season was an exploration of Jonathan Groff’s Holden Ford. His skills as an interrogator, his arrogance, his seemingly unshakeable sense of morality. This eventually leads him into Ed Kemper’s arms and a subsequent panic attack. For a split second, Holden barrier breaks and he realizes, that for the past months he’s been empathizing with killers.
However, despite the Chekhov’s gun of his panic disorder being on full display throughout Season 2, Holden has improved. Slowly but surely learning to work within the system and dropping most of his loose-cannon act in favour of a stubborn “I-told-you-so” attitude.
Strangely enough, Holden’s relative stability is what makes him more of an afterthought in the season. The background character who keeps being a smartass. Ford’s arc is, pardon the pun, temporarily on hold, while the two older characters are revealed to be just as, if not more broken than Ford.
Bill’s arc is absolutely fascinating, and Holt McCallany absolutely nails the role. As he’s faced with his son’s participation in a gruesome accidental homicide, the agent is now left to wonder — did he do something wrong? Is his son broken? Is he going to find a dead body in the freezer one day? These doubts cast a shadow on everything he does and affect his performance in the field. While always being a bit less enthusiastic than Holden, Bill now seemingly doesn’t want his profiles to be true. If they are true, what does it mean for his son?
Wendy’s story meanwhile, is the source of this season’s romantic plot, however, one that seems to highlight that she can’t run away from the twisted world she wants to get away from. While her romance with Kay, a local bartender seems to be perfect, she is left to feel that the person she’s falling in love with is just as duplicitous as the psychopaths she’s studying. Is changing the way we are excused if we’re doing it for a seemingly noble reason?
The fascinating thing is that almost everything described above plays out in dialogue. We never get to see Bill’s son at the homicide scene. We only hear Kay’s sudden shift from honest non-conformism to happy-go-lucky mom nodding along to her ex-husband. The only action sequence all season is a scene where Holden has to sprint to plant a memorial cross that’s supposed to bait the killer in before a grieving march gets to its planned location. Yet, in the 9 episodes, I felt constant tension. Unlike most crime dramas, there were no flashbacks, no fetishised reconstructions of violence, no triumphant arrests.
The tension comes from the fact that we can actually experience a gruesome historical reality through the eyes of the characters in it. Fincher and co. strip down the ever-romanticized detective genre to its tedious bones, and thus remove the wall that we create to remove serial killers from reality. On a social level, they do seem like stories, after all. Boogeymen. Almost all of them have nicknames, either self-assigned or given by us. Zodiac, Black Dahlia Avenger, Son of Sam, the Killer Clown, the Milwaukee Cannibal. This helps us forget that behind those names are real people… after all, it’s better if they stay as bedtime stories.
Mindhunter takes away that opportunity. That’s why it’s so important it’s based on facts. We see eerie reconstructions of conversations with people who have done horrible deeds, and suddenly, we see them as just that — people. By stripping away the usual fanfare of a crime story, Fincher reveals that the monster under your bed is more real than you think, and worse more he makes you feel kind of bad for it, and in a way, ask yourself the question would you be any better if you were in that monster’s shoes.
Fincher once said that he sees moviegoers as perverts. A little scene from the second season’s first episode serves to remind us of that. As people at a barbecue organized by the Tenches find out that Bill talks to serial killers on the regular, rather than be terrified, they’re instantly drawn to the topic. Similarly, a few episodes down the line, FBI agents are fascinated by Bill’s gruesome “war stories”, yet become quickly disinterested when Holden introduces the theory behind them. When deconstructed, the evil becomes mundane… or perhaps too real?
The magic of Mindhunter is that it gets us interested in the mundane parts. It expands our perversion past the classic “whodunnit” and into “what makes them do it.” It shows aftermaths. It shows the dirty work. It revels in the tedium, and somehow it manages to keep us at the edge of our seats throughout. Aided by amazing period-appropriate details (just had to mention this, nobody reconstructs the past quite like David Fincher), it deconstructs evil men and questions whether they’d ever really had a choice, and when the bad guy is finally caught, there is no satisfaction, but rather, a dreadful feeling of “that man could’ve been so much more, but instead he chose to murder people.”
David Fincher contributed to our view of the serial killer as a force of unstoppable chaos when he created Se7en. Kevin Spacey’s character there was almost to a tee a religiously-obsessed boogeyman. Over 20 years later, he shows us the more terrifying image of a serial killer. One that perhaps, some people feel like they could’ve seen in the mirror, had their life taken a few wrong turns. Just like Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Room 101, Mindhunter’s relative mundanity reveals the deepest of our fears — that of the evil that might just be lurking inside us.