Mindhunter review

(In our Spoiler Reviews, we take a deep dive into a new release and get to the heart of what makes it tick…and every story point is up for discussion. In this entry: Netflix’s new serial killer drama Mindhunter.)

“The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” -William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

The term “serial killer” is a relatively new invention. Yes, people have committed multiple murderers throughout history, but no one began to really classify, or even begin to try to understand, these types of violent crimes until the the 1970s. You may not be familiar with the name John Douglas, but I guarantee you are familiar with his work. From Douglas sprang the very concept of criminal profiling. His work has served as the inspiration for a steady stream of movies and TV shows. The character of FBI agent Jack Crawford, played most prominently by Scott Glenn in The Silence of the Lambs and Laurence Fishburne on the TV series Hannibal, was based directly on Douglas.

Now, the early days of Douglas’ career are given the full dramatization treatment with Mindhunter, a new Netflix series created by playwright Joe Penhall, with David Fincher and Charlize Theron both serving as executive producers. With Mindhunter, Netflix has produced their best show in recent memory, and arguably one of the best shows in their ever-growing catalogue.

Mindhunter Netflix

A New Breed of Killer

While showrunners have recently fallen back on the pithy response that they treat their shows as series-length films, this concept applies quite nicely to Mindhunter. Whether or not you think that’s a good thing depends on you. If you’re looking for something with episodes that stand alone, Mindhunter is not for you. This is a heavily serialized show, with each episode informing the next; each moment serving as one piece in an ever-expanding puzzle. It is to Mindhunter’s credit that the show’s writers find a way to make all of this come together quite nicely without the series ever feeling as if it’s spinning its wheels. Most (in fact, almost all) Netflix series have a tendency to overstay their welcome. Mindhunter is the first Netflix show in recent memory that I actually wanted much more of.

At the center of Mindhunter is Special Agent Holden Ford, our fictional stand-in for John Douglas. As played by Hamilton’s Jonathan Groff, Ford is one of the most refreshing main characters of a police/FBI procedural show in recent memory for one main reason: he’s kind of a dork. For decades now, films and TV series that focus on law enforcement have saw fit to give us the tough, troubled main character. He’s usually grizzled, and hard drinking, and kind of a dick to everyone he encounters, but gosh darn it, he gets the job done.

That’s not the case with Mindhunter. Holden Ford is an idealistic dweeb; a straight-laced guy who parts his hair the same way every day and wears a suit even when he’s off duty. He’s naive in some ways, but not so much so that he seems clueless. Instead, he just seems like an ordinary, even slightly boring guy.

When we first meet Holden, he’s trying to disarm a hostage situation using the time-honored techniques the FBI has taught him. It doesn’t go well – the hostage taker blows his own head off. No hostages die, but the situation leaves Holden rattled, feeling as if the work he’s doing as a hostage negotiator is useless. It’s 1977, and David Berkowitz, AKA the Son of Sam, has just been apprehended. It’s the dawn of a new breed of killer; a killer whose motives aren’t entirely understood by the FBI. The bureau is used to dealing with murderers who kill in fits of jealous rage, or for profit. Murderers like Berkowitz seem to be driven by compulsion.

Holden wants to dig deeper. He wants to start trying to understand what could create the type of killer like Son of Sam. Berkowitz may be the latest multiple murderer caught, but he’s definitely not the first. What’s driving these men? Is it the shift in culture? The aftermath of the Vietnam War? The aftermath of Watergate? There’s been a seismic shift in the country, and the world seems to no longer make sense.

This curiosity about killers leads Holden to Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), a member of the FBI’s Behavioral Science unit. The two strike up a friendship that leads them out on the road to help educate local law enforcement about the FBI’s tactics. These road trips give Holden an idea: he wants to start going to prisons across the country and interviewing murderers. The idea seems ludicrous to Holden’s FBI superiors. Their job is to lock these criminals up, not get to know them. But Holden believes that there’s a fountain of untapped potential here; that perhaps if they could study and understand what drives these multiple murderers that they may be able to prevent future crimes.

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