I can’t think of a scarier show title than “Mindhunter.” “Hunter?” Sounds murdery! Then we throw, “minds” into the mix, and I get the sense it’s going to be a psychological thriller that makes me feel uneasy about the nature of consciousness and reality! I’m not so sure that’s what I want to watch in the tub before bed. But then I found out America’s ultimate sweetie* Jonathan Groff (Hamilton, Frozen, Looking) was the star and thought, “If Johnny can do it, I can too.” So I hunted the show down on Netflix, and watched it.
Mindhunter combines our cultural obsession with MURDER with our mild interest in how smart people originally came up with psychological frameworks. In that sense, it’s kind of like crossing Making a Murderer with Masters of Sex. Like Masters of Sex, it focuses on a more culturally naive time, and the people who mainstreamed our rhetoric for “deviant behavior.” (Full disclosure: I didn’t finish Masters of Sex.)
Jonathan plays Holden Ford, an FBI agent/teacher who starts to suspect he doesn’t understand criminal psychology enough to successfully teach people how to deescalate violence. He considers going back to school, but instead decides to bed a sociology student (Debbie, played by Hannah Gross) and interview the scariest murderers he can find, in person.
The pilot didn’t quite have me convinced. Holden’s dialog with Debbie when he meets her in a bar just doesn’t sound like how people talk. At one point he tells her, “You’ve got me all wrong.” Do people actually say things like that? I was also worried that the premise itself wasn’t that interesting. I’m not terribly curious about the career adversity that white guys faced trying to introduce new concepts into their professional field. So sue me!
But then Holden interviews his first murderer, the co-ed killer Edmund Kemper, played by Cameron Britton.
Certain topics are so taboo that dialog has to not just deliver lines, but negotiate its own existence. It has to be so charming, so convincing and so compelling that we allow ourselves to engage with topics we really would prefer to ignore or suppress. I would argue that the opening scene in Inglourious Basterds is actually Christoph Waltz negotiating the whole movie into existence. For us to buy the film’s premise, we basically need to be talked into it.
I got a similar feeling from Holden’s interviews with murderers. It’s the kind of dialog that makes you stop in your tracks and stare, and sometimes rewind to make sure you heard right. The dialog has to be airtight and electric, or the whole premise of the piece collapses. Once I got through that first scene, I was hooked. The actors who play serial killers, especially Britton and Happy Anderson as Jerry Brudos, elevate the show, and Groff rises to the occasion.
In a particularly well-written scene, Debbie surprises Holden after he’s just had a disturbing encounter with Brudos and a woman’s high heel. As Debbie pins Holden down wearing a sexy getup and heels, his hand grazes her shoe and we are rapt. Will he be turned on by her high heels, inspired by Brudos’ sexual inclinations, or turned off? Do we really know who this character is? Does he know who he is, or has he been changed in a way he can’t recognize?
Mindhunter‘s main trick is successfully transferring the psychological complexities of the killers onto the lives of the FBI team getting to know them. Suddenly they start seeing each other, their families and themselves differently. Is Holden really shining light on darkness, as he says, or bringing a little bit of that darkness into his life? It’s a bit of both, and it’s quite compelling.
*Listen to this delightful interview between Jonathan and the infallible Terry Gross.