mindhunter season 2 review new

Note: This Mindhunter season 2 review contains spoilers. 

“How do we get ahead of crazy if we don’t know how crazy thinks?” asked FBI Agent Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) in season 1 of Mindhunter, the superb serial killer drama that might just be the best thing on Netflix. The answer to that question in that first season involved Tench and fellow agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) talking with, and studying, killers to try to gain insight into their methodology. The move seemed controversial at first, but Tench and Ford made real progress. Through their talks with notorious murderers, it appeared light was waiting at the end of the tunnel. In Mindhunter season 2, however, Ford and Tench are reminded that that light can always be snuffed out by darkness. Sometimes there’s just no way to get ahead of crazy.

Mindhunter season 1 established the rules. Mindhunter season 2 proceeds to break them. No matter how much hard work Ford, Tench and their colleague Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) devote to understanding psychopaths there will always be outliers. Like BTK – the terrifying serial killer who evaded capture for over 30 years. As in the first season, season 2 gives us glimpses of the killer (played by Sonny Valicenti) as he goes about his everyday life, his twisted impulses rearing their ugly heads and threatening to expose his secrets. At one point, Tench, while discussing BTK, bluntly says: “This guy doesn’t go to church.” It’s a darkly comedic line for those who know the truth: the real BTK, Dennis Rader, was not only a frequent church-goer, he was actually the president of his church council. Tench’s tossed-off line is just one of several moments that underscores the limits of criminal profiling.

The other big storyline highlighting these limitations involves the notorious Atlanta Child Murders. Between 1979 and 1981, at least  28 children, adolescents, and adults were murdered in Atlanta. Were these crimes the work of one killer? A man named Wayne Williams was eventually arrested and charged with two of the murders, and the general assumption – at least from law enforcement and public officials eager to close the case – was that Williams committed the rest of the murders, too. But doubts linger. And those doubts are underscored this season as Ford butts heads with nearly everyone as he strives to prove his hypothesis. Williams doesn’t show up as a character until the end of the season, and when he does, Ford is almost ecstatic to see that the suspect perfectly fits his profile. But others aren’t so sure. The victims of the Atlanta Child Killer were African American, and the black community is convinced that the Ku Klux Klan has something to do with it – a theory Ford doesn’t consider at all plausible. He’s a man so cocky and confident in his abilities that anyone else’s theory of the crime is almost ludicrous. But as the season draws to a close, and Williams is in custody, doubt finally begins to seep in. Maybe he got it wrong?

Groff is at his best when he’s playing up Ford’s flaws. At the start of the season, he’s a broken man, suffering from panic attacks – a condition the rest of season 2 oddly forgets about. The actor has a gift for seeming both confident and insecure at the same exact moment, making Ford both insufferable and sympathetic in the same breath. It’s a tough balancing act, but Groff nails it.

But Mindhunter season 2 really belongs to McCallany, who’s Bill Tench has the biggest personal plotline. Tench’s adopted son witnesses the murder of an infant from the neighborhood and takes part in a ghoulish post-mortem act: tying the dead baby to a cross, with the presumption that doing so will bring the corpse back from the dead. It’s a horrifying development, and Tench and his wife Nancy (Stacey Roca) are completely blindsided, unable to fully cope with what’s going on. It doesn’t help that Bill has to constantly jet off across the country for work, leaving Nancy home alone with their troubled son. McCallany plays Tench as a thoughtful, even introspective man who buries his emotions in a gruff exterior. Chain-smoking and knocking back liquor, to the outside world he appears to be a tough-as-nails, no-bullshit guy. But inside, he’s silently screaming, and McCallany does remarkable work bringing out the confusion and uncertainty in Tench’s eyes.

Torv’s Wendy Carr has an extended storyline this season as well, as she strikes up a relationship with a local bartender. The romance subplot is a little too anemic, to the point where one gets the sense that the Mindhunter writers aren’t interested in it at all. A pity, since Torv is fantastic with the limited material she has to work with. More interesting than her love life are moments where Wendy gets to interview killers, using her own sexual orientation to draw some of them out.

Those conversations with killers were a main attraction of the first season, to the point where the show started to feel like serial killer bingo. Season 2 has plenty as well, and even breaks out the big guns: Charles Manson, played brilliantly by Damon Herriman (who also played Manson, briefly, in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). Mindhunter‘s portrait of Manson might be the best in all of popular entertainment. The infamous cult leader has always been portrayed as a scary boogeyman, but Mindhunter takes him down a few pegs, revealing him to be a rambling loon who didn’t want to get his hands dirty, forcing others to carry out his whims. That makes him a powerful manipulator, but when Ford and Tench sit down with him, they see him for the fraud and huckster he really is. Herriman only gets one scene in the entire season, but he makes it count, playing Manson as a twitchy, babbling creep.

But Mindhunter season 2 eventually does away with the interviews and shifts its focus to victims. An early scene, in which Tench interviews one of the few BTK survivors, is haunting in its execution. The victim’s mental anguish is highlighted by the way director David Fincher keeps the character completely out-of-focus, tucked away in the shadows of the backseat of a car. Later, the relatives of the Atlanta victims take center stage, wrought with grief over their loss and anger at a racist system that has all but ignored them.

Fincher helms the first three episodes, and as you might expect, they’re visually stunning. Fincher excels at camera placement – a master at drawing the viewer’s eye. But the rest of the season is almost equally well-directed, with Andrew Dominik and Carl Franklin taking over for the remaining episodes. All three filmmakers are backed-up by the gloomy, ominous cinematography, which can make even a bright sunny day seem dark and depressing. One can safely assume a fair amount of color correcting has been employed here, and other TV shows should take note: this is how you create a dark color palette while also keeping everything on the screen crisp and clear.

One might argue that Mindhunter is too dark, visually. But that darkness is essential to the show’s DNA. Especially this season, which continuously reminds viewers that no matter how hard Tench and Ford work to get ahead of crazy, they’ll never be able to fully succeed. No matter how much light the characters try to shine on all that darkness, the darkness always creeps back in.

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