Mindhunter is one of those shows whose issues are all the more glaring because it obviously thinks it’s moved past them, mostly by barely addressing them in the first place. It’s an old mistake that Hollywood often makes, wherein mentioning issues is considered equivalent to addressing them.
The Netflix series is based on a book by FBI agent John Douglas, who has become legendary both in the media and law enforcement circles due to his pioneering work in profiling, especially among those who are among our greastest sources of both fascination and fear: serial killers. Mindhunter is where Douglas describes his life and his techniques, and just how his work and the terms he coined became part of not only law enforcement techniques, but our pop culture.
Douglas himself helped write the series, and has long been involved in not only several high profile cases, but has been the model for many fictional characters, such as Jack Crawford in The Silence of the Lambs. If the series does not quite do him justice in all his complexity and work, it is no fault of his.
Nor is it the fault of the talented involved. The Douglas surrogate this is time is Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), who we first see as a young, idealistic, hostage negotiator who can be annoying in his eagerness to change the world. It puts him on a track similar to the rest of his generation, even if the path he chooses is jarringly out of step with is peers in the anti-establishment 70s. And Debbie (Hannah Gross), his eventual girlfriend, is more interesting than this type of role usually is.
One of the most frustrating things about what Mindhunter gets wrong is that it gets so much right. Fincher’s direction is reliably incredible, the performances are amazing, and the show has a more low-key, realistic tone that focuses on dialogue and what these people actually do, which is provide support and advice to local law enforcement who need it. They don’t actually go out and catch criminals. The fact that pretty much all of its characters are white men is disappointing, but can easily be explained by the fact that it’s about police in the 70s. Its female characters are not just wives or mothers, and the cop wife is depicted in a far more refreshingly nuanced fashion. Holden’s girlfriend Debbie is also studying sociology, and is not only a sounding board for many of his theories, but also a major reason for how they develop. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), originally a college professor who joins their team, is a lesbian, although her desire to be more open with her colleagues is barely addressed, nor does she get a real love interest of her own. It’s frustrating to see such a missed opportunity to explore a relatively new perspective on how a job like this can affect someone’s personal life.
All of Mindhunter‘s flaws basically come from the fact that Douglas never suffered from what is so essential to art, namely conflict. He seemed relatively content to allow his wife to pick up the slack for the time he didn’t spend at home, relatively unencumbered by the more recent belief that fathers should contribute to more domestic duties as well as work ones. He was doing important work, and while the work made him a bit more unable to take more everyday concerns seriously, he mostly brushed it off and tried to spend time with his family when he could. And that was that.
Perhaps that’s why the conflict that does come up rings so false. The department Holden essentially founds is investigated because he uses inappropriate profanity to get a killer to open up. Sure, Douglas used language like that, but the FBI never cared, and it feels far more like the show’s overly moralistic judgment than anything else. It’s also hard to see why another major source of division, such as Holden helping to get a school principal fired for tickling kids’ feet and giving them money afterward, should be such a major sticking point. Even if it’s harmless, it’s unsettling enough to be justification for erring on the side of caution. The effect is that it can somewhat cancel out all the careful character building that is meticulously developed throughout.
Even more ludicrous is the fact that the show builds up Holden’s relationship with actual serial killer Ed Kemper (played with astounding skill by Cameron Britton). It’s hard to see how a such a smart, intelligent professional with years of experience analyzing people would let things go that far beyond developing a degree of sympathy and letting his ego develop to the size it did. To the show’s credit, it does not glamorize them, even if many of them are intelligent. They committed these crimes because they were unable to connect to others, mostly due to years of abuse.
The book details other, more serious issues that are far more interesting, such as the sluggish response and infighting among police institutions that led to more deaths, disbelief and skepticism regarding his methodology, and his complex personal and political beliefs. How he actually did react to the relative mundanity of life at home was often far more saddening and fascinating. But Mindhunter would rather give us the same old tired conflicts than explore what would really disturb them, the fact that someone could do this for years, be somewhat cold to his family, but almost nearly kill himself trying to help others catch killers, is far more confusing, or maybe just boring. Since the show has already been renewed for a second season, hopefully it’ll be able to address its flaws more as it will most likely head into the 80s.