Last Friday, Netflix released season two of its critically acclaimed crime thriller “Mindhunter.” The Joe Penhall-created series follows a team of FBI agents as they study serial killers — a term they coin in season one — to document their behavior and develop a protocol for profiling potential suspects in murder sprees.
The Behavioral Science Unit — as the team is officially known — conducts interviews with various real-life killers, from Ed Kemper to Charles Manson. The first season focused largely on the unit’s beginnings, including the initial interviews and the early developments in psychological profiling techniques. Season two of the show focuses more heavily on the application of the techniques developed previously to active cases.
Namely, the second season follows the story of the Atlanta Child Murders of 1979 to 1981. The murders — based on the real life murders of at least 28 children throughout Metro Atlanta — frustrate the members of the unit for months as they navigate tense local politics while attempting to catch a terrifying killer. The narrative is fascinating, and depictions of the crimes in film and television are so rare that the season might be worth watching just for the story it tells.
The season’s strengths do not stop there, however. The Behavioral Science Unit is led by Jonathan Groff (“Hamilton”) as Holden Ford, Holt McCallany (“Sully”) as Bill Tench and Anna Torv (“Fringe”) as Dr. Wendy Carr. This core leading cast was the force which lifted season one to greatness, and in season two they only improve upon their performances.
Groff brings Agent Ford’s increasing frustration with the FBI’s crushing bureaucracy to life as his character realizes just how difficult applying the unit’s techniques to actual cases will be. While Groff receives the least help from the writers — his character does not really have a deep personal conflict to deal with in this season — his performance gives Agent Ford a consistent identity and ensures that his character remains genuine, and more importantly, interesting.
The writers give McCallany much more to work with. His character struggles with a crumbling marriage and an increasingly complicated relationship with his young adopted son while also taking on more and more responsibility at the FBI. Still, McCallany is a reliable vessel for the emotions which the writers build into his character, and that deserves praise.
Like McCallany, Anna Torv benefits from a well-written chacter with a compelling internal struggle. In Dr. Carr’s case, this internal struggle is between two competing identities: her professional identity as a “normal” FBI agent and her private identity as a closeted lesbian. Still, Torv brings commendable sincerity to her character’s struggle to understand herself.
Where the acting of the leading cast makes season two of “Mindhunter” compelling, the suspense which permeates the season makes it impossible to put away. At every turn, the viewer is left wondering what the unit — and the killer — will do next.
The crimes are fascinating, and the portrayals of the killers are so unnerving and sinister that at the end of every episode the viewer cannot help but click on the next in the hope that the unit might finally catch the villain and make the killings stop.
The show, and season two in particular, is also thematically self-aware. While season one focused on abstract sociological questions of why killers do what they do, season two moves into more topical social commentary, addressing the intersection of race, politics and crime-fighting in the context of the Atlanta Child Murders.
The agents in the Behavioral Science Unit believe, based upon their profiling technique, that the suspect the police should be looking for is a young black male. Still, the police, facing pressure from Atlanta’s political leaders, are hesitant to publicly devote resources to the hunt for such a suspect because the black community largely believes that the killings are the work of the Klan.
While this is an interesting portrayal of racial politics in early 1980s Atlanta, it is also a missed opportunity for the show to ask deeper questions. The series strongly suggests that the killer is, as the unit believes, a young black man.
While this reflects the true historical conclusions which the cities’ leaders reached at the time, even today doubt remains as to the identity of the perpetrator of the real-life murders.
The show could have made an even more powerful statement about the race-conscious politics of the city by suggesting that the perpetrator of at least some of the murders really was a white Klan member, as many of the victims’ families believe.
By portraying the killer as unambiguously black, the show presents a simplistic version of the history of the case. The plot implies that Atlanta’s residents are too caught up in their own racial bias to understand that the killer could have been black, while their leaders — and the white FBI agents — see the true situation clearly, unaffected by their own biases.
If the killer in the show was white, or if it was suggested that some of the murders had been committed by the Klan, the writers could have acknowledged that politicians, like concerned citizens, are subject to racial biases. Additionally, this would lend a human fallability to the agents in the Behavioral Science Unit, and in particular to the sometimes robotic character of Holden Ford.
To be fair, the writers never directly show the suspect who is eventually arrested for the killings. Still, by portraying the character in the same unnerving, sinister light in which they portray the serial killers of season one, they imply that he is in fact guilty.
While the writers miss an opportunity in their handling of the race of the perpetrator of the Atlanta Child Murders, there is no doubt that “Mindhunter” is on a plane above the killer-worshipping daytime television shows which obsess over killers’ intellect and attractiveness to get cheap thrills out of their viewers.
The criminals in “Mindhunter” are unmistakably sinister, and watching the interviews with them can often feel downright uncomfortable.
While the show explores the murderers’ motivations and personalities, it never crosses the line into glorifying them. This mature, nuanced approach to the subject is refreshing in a field full of often disturbingly sympathetic depictions of serial killers.
There are a lot of reasons to watch “Mindhunter,” but one is enough all on its own: the show is downright enthralling. Once the viewer gets his first taste of the series, he cannot help but want more and more.
The show is thrilling, chilling and shocking all at once, and the characters, from the central agents to the supporting cast of serial killer interviewees, are relatable exactly when they need to be and off-putting at exactly the right points.
“Mindhunter” has fantastic writing, even better acting and intriguing themes to go along with a captivating subject. It is well worth a watch.