A serial killer is like a television show in that they are both defined by installments. Without a certain sequence—of murders and episodes, respectively—neither would be what they are. Mindhunter, David Fincher’s new show about the FBI’s discovery of serial killers, is on Netflix, so the episodes are designed to propel you through the whole ten-episode season, rather than urge you to tune in next week. As such, the series is less about the content of the crime itself, less inclined to dwell on who did the killing and why, than about the formal psychology of hunting criminals. Murder is not its principal subject, nor is the mind of the serial killer. Instead, the narrative pulse taking us from episode to episode is located in the heart of the investigators themselves.
Mindhunter is set in 1977. When we first meet the young protagonist Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), he has been teaching hostage de-escalation methods to young FBI recruits. He then teams up with the veteran Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) to teach behavioral science techniques to police departments across America, a buddy-cop endeavor they call “road school.” Together, they help local investigators stumped by violent murder cases with seemingly inexplicable characteristics—mutilated dogs, necrophilia—while stretching their remit to interview incarcerated serial killers to gain insight into the same type of mystery. The killers are based on actual killers like Edmund Kemper, who in the series is played with sensitivity and loathsomeness by Cameron Britton.
Although Mindhunter nominally explores the early stage of psychology’s incorporation into American criminology, the mystery at its core is Holden Ford himself. He only wears suits and is of totally average Caucasian appearance. His modest, socially awkward demeanor is belied by an unshakeable conviction that approaches the pathological. Ford believes he has special access to other people’s minds, specifically those of serial killers, and is willing to identify closely with those killers to facilitate that access—for example, by asking a murderer why he took “eight ripe cunts” out of this world. Ford also makes sense as a fairly likeable star of a mainstream television show. The relationship between these two identities—near-sociopathic self-belief and total ordinariness—is Mindhunter’s key animating tension.
The show incorporates some women beside the murder victims, who are almost all female. Ford and Tench meet psychologist Professor Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), who lends their operation some intellectual credibility and helps them formalize their edgy work into a research project, complete with funding. The show’s secondary plot follows Ford’s romance with a sociology graduate student named Debbie Mitford (Hannah Gross), who is impressed then alienated by her boyfriend’s coldblooded approach to the human heart.
Bias is a central issue in Mindhunter, although the theme focuses around gender rather than race or class. This would seem to follow naturally from the subject matter, since serial killers are overwhelmingly men. But bias reveals itself in less gory ways. Carr is subjected to sexist interactions that either fetishize her strict and capable persona or demean her abilities. In episode 10, Ford says to her, “Follow my lead, I’m used to talking to law enforcement.” She is not given much subplot of her own, except a brief background into her lesbian relationship and a very suggestive story around a cat. She tends to the cat with tuna, but it then disappears, as if to hint that some animal-torturing future killer is living in Carr’s new apartment building. It’s tantalizing, and one can’t help but wish for more of Anna Torv, who is by far the show’s best actor.
Mindhunter’s exploration of sexism takes on an academic dimension in its portrayal of Ford’s relationship with Debbie. He is jealous of her research partners. He makes her listen to his work woes, while not taking much of an interest in her work. When she humiliates him for not being familiar with Durkheim, he gives the strong impression of enjoying her aura of intellectual power rather than actually intending to read Durkheim in the future. The relationship plays out like a parable about gender in the 1970s, between two people who think they are fully aware of human behavior but in fact conceive of it in very different ways. Ulimately, he attempts to profile her using behavioral science. Her knowledge of sociology, as well as her ability to simply be a human being, give her the upper hand.
Still, Holden believes in his power to taxonomize. He and Tench are interviewing serial killers so that they can get a psychological read on them, which law enforcement had not previously attempted in a scientific way. They aim to sort killers into different types—organized versus disorganized, for example, or serial versus not serial—so that they might catch criminals more quickly or stop them from killing at all.
The show is, in other words, also about offender profiling. This law enforcement technique involves using the case evidence to build a portrait of a likely offender. It can incorporate observing patterns in behavior and linking cases together that otherwise seem disparate. The practice intersects with racial profiling, which is essentially a version of criminal profiling in which the racist bias of law enforcement results in discrimination. Research has shown offender profiling to be of very limited validity, but it is a popular idea in part because we love the idea of psychology shining a light on the unknowable. It also makes for great entertainment—the genius prevents violence through thought alone! It is no coincidence that one detective in the road school compares Holden to Sherlock Holmes.
But the human mind is too complicated, too mysterious, to map out in its entirety. In the end, Ford makes missteps because of his hubris. (When an internal inquiry questions his techniques, inverting the relationship of the investigator to the investigated, he walks out muttering, “The only mistake I made was ever doubting myself.”) The most that he—and by implication Mindhunter itself—can say is: “I don’t know.” The result is a story about the unreliability of telling stories, and the bias that creeps into the very systems designed to outwit bias.