You might think, given the 13 whole seasons of Criminal Minds already in existence, that the last thing we need in 2017 is another serial-killer-drama. But Netflix drama Mindhunter somehow manages not to feel like a hackneyed re-hash of the oldest premise in the book, and instead seems almost like something new.
Mindhunter is set in 1977 before the term ‘serial killer’ had ever been used, and it charts the progress of young FBI agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), as he attempts to understand the minds of men who commit multiple murders. He’s soon joined by his partner Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) and a psychology professor, Wendy Carr (Anna Torv). Together they work to create from scratch to understand the motivations behind humanity’s most despicable acts, while simultaneously justifying the value of their work to an incredulous FBI establishment.
It’s certainly not immediately gripping – the whole first episode is slow and listless, despite some stylish direction from David Fincher, and the second is barely an improvement.
Mindhunter consistently relies on dialogue over action; its biggest set pieces are not car chases but rather extended interrogation scenes. And in a television landscape where murders are almost universally solved within the hour, Mindhunter actively resists the procedural framework. Cases are introduced sparingly, always spanning more than one episode, and never tying up neatly as the credits roll. At times this results in pacing that feels a little odd, but overall the offbeat timing works well.
Instead, Mindhunter remains laser-focused on the titular subjects – our merry band, constructing the discipline of profiling before our very eyes. This is where the show’s dialogue-heavy style comes into its own, drawing us into their research where chance developments that are being pieced together into a science. It pulls us effectively into the office drama that becomes the show’s climax, as Ford, Tench, and Carr balance the competing priorities of saving lives and seeking the deeper answers that lie beneath mere case-solving.
There’s almost a subtlety about the way the show ties together the various strands of the personal and the professional; this is a common trope, but the two usually find themselves neatly bound up together in a passionate monologue or a handy voiceover. Instead, Mindhunter leaves the viewer to draw their own conclusions from Tench’s struggles to relate to his young son or Ford’s sexual exploration with his girlfriend Debbie (Hannah Gross). Eschewing the hyper-personal that has become so popular in workplace dramas, the show places these storylines as tangential, so that while they’re trying to make sense of the serial killers, the audience is often left trying to make sense of the profilers themselves.
The show leaves the best irony until the end, waiting until the final episodes to provide a payoff that felt unexpectedly bold. For while Jonathan Groff’s Holden Ford starts off the series as pleasant, inquisitive, and often nervous, by the end he is arrogant, dismissive of his colleagues, and perpetually ready to go off-book and take charge of situations far beyond his pay-grade. It was a terrifying realisation as the show neared its close, that I’d been watching someone I almost empathised with turn into someone I vehemently disliked.
Groff’s performance is impressive; his awkward earnestness draws viewers into the slow early episodes, but as the pace speeds up the more unbearable he becomes, swaggering and grandstanding. We thought we were finding out how serial killers are created, but instead we were privy to the creation of a different type of monster: the Gregory House/Sherlock Holmes archetype, arrogant, obsessive male genius who thinks his inevitable correctness justifies any ethically dubious behaviour.
Just like the serial killers he studies, Holden finds that the further you get down a path the harder it is to admit failure or even uncertainty, and the easier it is to just keep going, falling deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole.