This set-up allows for disturbing cases to regularly slide in front of Holden and Tench, but they’re never the lead investigators. It’s not their job to track down the killers. They just share observations and theories with local law enforcement while gathering intelligence on the ghastly crimes before moving on to the next town.
It’s easy to see how this could create a problem: Without the pursuit, where’s the climax? How will viewers react to repeated glimpses at grisly, confounding cases without ever learning how they turn out? In “Zodiac,” Fincher proved himself more than capable of telling a thrilling story without a tangible payoff, and he’s at it again here. The audience’s investment parallels Holden’s, and when he sparks to an idea in Episode 2, that’s when “Mindhunter” takes off; primarily through its charged interrogation scenes.
As shown in the trailer, Holden eventually decides he wants to talk to convicted serial killers, and there’s a nervous energy coursing through the observation of psychotic men — the tension comes from the peculiar nature of the discussion as much as the subject of it. And Holden’s first subject is the aforementioned “guy who has sex with decapitated heads”; a giant, talkative, psychopath. Sure, Holden may feel threatened by his physically imposing interviewee, but he’s excited, too. And the viewers are excited to be there; to hear it; to be exposed to conversations so unsettling, so vile, and yet also so simply compelling.
“Mindhunter” doesn’t always get away with its constant chatter. The dialogue-heavy first two hours can slip into repetition, even when it sounds sleek. Fincher directs efficiently, but he’s not pulling out all the cinematic stops to dress-up a lot of shot, reverse-shot framings. He’s letting it play out with his typically clean-cut, cold camera moves. If not for the location titles’ pulp comic fonts and aesthetically pleasing ’70s period dressing, someone spotting “Mindhunter” sans context might think they’d stumbled into a “House of Cards” episode.
As it stands, “Mindhunter” has set itself a unique and difficult mission: Rather than raise the mystique of serial killers, it wants to lower them to everyone else’s level. In terms of drama, it’s much easier to manufacture the opposite: Horror movies and thrillers thrive on building up the terrifying nature of psychopaths, while this series does the opposite. These men might seem like a whole other species, but they’re not; they’re human beings, just like us.
It may seem like such comparisons are too widely acknowledged in 2017 to be taboo, let alone topical, there’s more than just the time period that makes “Mindhunter’s” story relevant again. Penhall’s series studies one of the first government-run analytical exercises that could blame the system itself for individual’s crimes. Resistance is evident within the FBI, as Holden and Tench encounter men afraid of taking any responsibility for the criminals they’re capturing. Everything from the prison industrial complex to mental health programs to psychoanalysis in general is on the table.
“Mindhunter” wants to eradicate the concept of “other” using a figure everyone instinctually wants to distance themselves from: a murderer. This isn’t your typical good vs. evil, cops vs. robbers procedural. If anything, it’s trying to eliminate those conceptions. Sometimes it’s funny. Often it’s chilling. But however you take it, at least “Mindhunter” is working a fresh angle.
“Mindhunter” premieres Friday, October 13 exclusively on Netflix.