One of These Backstories is Not Like the Other
Where Holden’s character falls apart a bit is on the home front. The opening episode establishes the character and his relationship with Debbie too quickly. He goes to a bar. He looks at a girl. They don’t have much chemistry, let alone a lot in common, and yet they get pretty serious pretty fast.
Looking back, it feels like the writers knew they’d need a sounding board for Holden when he’s off the clock, so they cooked up a girlfriend who would illustrate his “square” personality while challenging his ideas. A whip-smart hippie who’s studying sociology, Debbie is drawn to Holden because he’s nice, curious, and open-minded. That she says as much early on is a red flag that maybe these two aren’t the most believable couple, since they have to explain to themselves (and the audience) why they want to be with one another.
How their relationship plays out is by far the most predictable element of “Mindhunter,” down to Debbie cheating on him after mentioning another man’s name more than once. Though no one should be happy to see these two kids fall apart, it would be surprising if anyone was torn up about it: Debbie is one of those fiercely independent characters who tells you she’s independent and shows it, but is still there to serve Holden’s story. She never gets an arc of her own, and her genuine lack of development nags after spending an entire season watching her support someone else.
She’s even used to draw out plot points for Tench, which leads us to the one backstory that works in Season 1: Bill Tench. Holden’s arc is only affected by what happens at work; he’s in denial about the interviews having an effect on him, so we just watch those effects play out at home, unremarked upon. Sure, he’s got a girlfriend, but — as he says in the season finale — he just wants her to “shut up” and “listen.”
Tench, meanwhile, understands that the job is getting to him. Go back to the quote at the top of this review: When he’s trapped inside the head of a serial killer for too long, he flips out. We get a small peek at the tension within his marriage when Debbie and Holden come over for dinner, but the most vulnerable and moving sequence of the season comes when Tench tries to take his wife out on a date.
First, he’s disparaged at work by Wendy. She accuses him of being antagonistic during an interview because he feels emasculated by a cross-dressing killer. Pivot to his night out with his wife, Nancy (Stacey Rocca), where she tells him their adopted kid needs professional help. Tench, drinking heavily, tries to deny the necessity, but it becomes harrowingly evident when they get home and the babysitter tells them their son found and kept one of Tench’s crime scene photos.
What’s key here is that Tench takes responsibility for the mistake. He’s honest with Nancy, and he’s honest with himself. When she tells him their son is “trying to get closer to you” by digging through his desk, the pain is evident in Tench’s face. He wants to be closer to his kid, but it’s hard. “He’s not beyond hope,” Nancy says. “Well, maybe I am,” Tench replies.
From there, the root of the problem is exposed. Tench throws photos in front of Nancy, explaining the horrors of his work. Nancy, meanwhile, knows this has always been the issue and patiently waits for her husband to get it all out. She’s been waiting for him to tell her about his work, and now the moment has arrived. All she has to do is stare, walk up, and embrace him. He apologizes, but even more importantly, he doesn’t go back to the interviews when he gets to work; not right away.
Tench recognizes he needs a break from that mentality, and doesn’t back down when Holden mocks him for being a coward. Tench knows why he’s not going, and Holden’s misunderstanding of his partner’s motivations only further emphasizes how blind the young agent is to his predicament.
All this is not to say Tench’s plotline is stronger because he’s able to recognize the toll of his job. It’s important these separate characters illustrate different consequences of the same profession. Tench’s arc is better simply because it’s unique. He may be the standard-issue “tough guy” cop character while on the job, but he’s sensitive at home. His two worlds inform each other, and the writers handle the transitions between the two well. Holden is the same guy all the time. His arc necessitates as much to a certain degree, but his relationship story just isn’t as compelling, endearing, or believable.
The Black Comedy of the ‘Mind’
Finally, it’s unlikely anyone could survive a “Mindhunter” binge if not for the show’s intermittent comedic strokes. So to close things out on a high note, here’s a list of favorite funny beats. Please add your own in the comments section.
- As mentioned in IndieWire’s spoiler-free review, the Talking Heads song, “Psycho Killer” kicking in at the end of Episode 2 is one of the more blatant — and effective — jokes of the series.
- The exchange that ends Episode 3 is as meta as “Mindhunter” gets. When Holden and Wendy walk out of FBI Headquarters, he asks her about the class she’s teaching. “I’m teaching a class on the intersection of sociology and fame. […] Their celebrity becomes the only thing they need to sustain their ego,” she says. Tench remarks that Nixon was a sociopath, and Holden says, “How do you get to be president of the United States if you’re a sociopath?” Wendy smiles and says, “The question is how do you get to be president of the United States if you’re not?” The test certainly holds up today.
- Tench has a few solid zingers mocking Holden, including, “If only you could shine a light on the darkness, you could illuminate my keys…”
- Though ultimately a piteous moment, when Holden first notices Debbie’s high-heels, it’s pretty funny. Having Exile’s “I Wanna Kiss You All Over” playing in the background certainly helps elevate the humor, as well.
- Tench repeatedly calling Holden “Sherlock” or otherwise mocking his perceived intelligence is a subtle running joke, perhaps best utilized in Episode 8. After Wendy and Tench finish interviewing a prospective candidate, Holden walks in, looks at the man leaving, and says, “He’s black.” “Nothing gets past you,” Tench replies. Oh, Tench, you old so-and-so.
Um, But What About Kansas?
Nearly every episode of “Mindhunter” opened with a brief glimpse into the life of a bespectacled but unnamed man in Kansas. Splitting his time between Wichita and Park City, the ADT home security installer is seen scouting out homes and street corners. He’s got a gun and makes meticulous plans involving a thick, padded coat and thin, tight gloves. He ties knots while he watches TV. He appears to be married.
But nothing ever happens with this man. The series ends on a shot of him burning drawings of women tied up and gagged. Honestly, without this guy, “Mindhunter” might be able to wrap up after one season. It could have been a cautionary origin story explaining how criminal profiling came to be while nodding to the personal cost paid by these agents.
With that ending, though, Season 2 has to happen. Someone has to catch this guy, and Holden might be the only one who can do it. That is, if he can ever stop lying to himself.
“Mindhunter” Season 1 is streaming now exclusively on Netflix.