As someone who would identify as far-left, anti-authoritarian and perhaps even anti-state, the FBI is, for the most part, representative of everything wrong with government.
However, I would be hard pressed to argue that the Bureau is entirely evil; catching serial killers, for example, seems to be a fairly noble pursuit.
Such is the topic of Netflix’s new series Mindhunter, which is about the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit (now broken up into several different programs, including the Behavioral Analysis Unit) that began formulating a scientific method for classifying criminals during the 1970s.
The show focuses particularly on the study of serial killers, featuring famed human-nightmares Ed Kemper and Jerry Brudos.
Two federal agents, Bill Tench and Holden Ford — one a grizzled veteran, the other a fresh-faced wunderkind — embark on a mission to redefine criminality, looking past the simple facts of crime and into the minds of the perpetrators.
This, of course, involves studying lots of incredibly gruesome crimes, which the show illustrates in lurid detail.
Mindhunter taps into a strange aspect of the American social psyche that draws “normal” people to serial killers.
Serial killers are, it would seem, the closest reality can get to horror movie villains. Indeed, most of cinema’s most iconic murderers are loosely based on or inspired by real serial killers.
So what is it that we find so interesting about these people who are so terrifying?
Is it the humanness of their evil? Their apparent normality? The almost incomprehensible brutality of their crimes?
Who knows, but whatever it is, Mindhunter does an amazing job of capitalizing on that appeal.
The show, which is set in the late 1970s, is produced in part by director David Fincher. Fincher also directed four of the 10 episodes in season one, the only season released so far.
Fincher has credentials in the genre; he directed the 2007 film Zodiac (the setting of which is contemporary to Mindhunter), arguably one of the greatest serial-killer thrillers and a wonderful Ted Cruz bio-pic.
The influences of the film on Mindhunter are apparent; tension is cultivated in blandly lit and foreboding settings, and the horror is far more psychological than visceral.
Fincher and show creator Joe Penhall are more interested in developing the mysterious reasoning of the murderous mind than they are in showing the viewer any sort of violence; the fear is almost entirely cerebral.
Tench and Ford, played by Holt McCallany and Jonathan Groff, are the fictional analogues of FBI agents John Douglas and Robert Ressler.
They work alongside psychologist Dr. Wendy Carr, who is based on Ann Burgess, a current Boston College professor described by Bustle as a “pioneer in the field of forensic nursing.” Carr is played by Anna Torv.
Carr, Tench and Ford are all compelling characters. Torv is particularly strong as Carr, who redefines how the FBI thinks about criminals, but the real stars of the show are its villains.
Mindhunter centers its plot largely around the three heroes, but critical to the story are the murderers they interview.
In the first season, there are four: Ed Kemper, Monte Ralph Rissell, Richard Speck and Jerry Brudos. Of the four, Ed Kemper is uniquely terrifying.
Kemper, played by Cameron Britton, was known in the 1960s and 70s as “The Co-Ed Killer.” In total he was responsible for 10 murders, which included his mother and grandparents as victims.
Kemper was a physically imposing person, standing nearly seven feet and weighing in at over 200 pounds. Britton is a frighteningly close physical match to the real-life serial killer.
Britton’s Kemper is dry-witted and intelligent; he might even be likable. Indeed, Ford is drawn to the seemingly affable man-child, right up until he starts to describe his heinous crimes with nothing like remorse.
It’s hard to call Kemper the best character in the show, but he is by far the best-acted. Kemper can’t possibly be a good character because he isn’t one; he’s a real person, who committed real murders, which makes Britton’s rendition of him all the more frightening.
In a way, enjoying Mindhunter makes me feel kind of dirty, because really, the show’s premise is contingent on how fucked up its subjects are.
On the other hand, it is a genuinely interesting topic. This is not the average shoot-em-up crime drama — during the entire first season, there is only one on-screen death — yet Mindhunter is incredibly exciting.
Each moment is thick with the drama inherent to the plot and the viewer is always conscious of the stakes.
According to Uproxx, the show has already been renewed for a second season, which will be centered around the Atlanta Child Murders of 1979-1981.
There is also talk that a mysterious and foreboding character, a nameless ADT security man, could feature in future seasons.
Not to give any spoilers, but this nameless character, who is no more than a minor character in the first season, will likely turn out to be one of the series’ most frightening subjects.