Season 1 of Netflix’s “Mindhunter” begins and ends with an confounding pair of bookends: The series’ opening sequence closes with a hostage-taker shooting himself in the head, while the ending view we get of Agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) shows him in a cold sweat on the floor of a prison hospital. Among the many questions of human behavior the show addresses in its opening batch of episodes, maybe the biggest is how one man can be so calm in the wake of watching a horrific suicide and be so affected by a single hug.
The answer might lie in the season-long effort to reframe the way audiences think about violence on a crime show. Apart from that grisly opening, we don’t actually see any on-screen killings, only descriptions filtered through a photograph or someone’s firsthand account. As Ford, Bill Tanch (Holt McCallany), and Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) gather their information from some of recent American history’s greatest monsters, their perceptions of the consequences are fundamentally different from the people in most TV detective shows, where on-screen bodies can pile up quickly.
As a result, this emphasis on psychology puts a tension between theory and practice. In some of the later interrogations, when Ford gets a little too involved with what he’s doing, the people around him are more disturbed by him than they are by the actual predators. Even if Ford isn’t killing and dismembering people, veering away from that impartiality feels more like a violation because it’s far closer to what they were studying than if they were dealing with crime scenes.
For all of the shortcomings of “Mindhunter” in its opening episode dialogue clunkfest and its treatment of female characters throughout, one thing that it excels at is evoking a parallel show in the viewer’s mind that’s completely different from the one we see on screen. Conditioned by previous serial killer shows and horrific archival footage from true crime documentaries, many audiences have been to sensitized to what it means to commit these horrific acts of violence and can fill in the gaps for themselves.
Armed with that knowledge, “Mindhunter” writer/creator Joe Penhall crafted many of these investigations to avoid the “Law & Order” crime scene dead body or the autopsy room dissection. Ford and Tench never even go to a morgue. The same self-preservation that the characters used to avoid getting caught overstepping their FBI bounds helps keep the show planted firmly in the realm of the mental, rather than the physical.
This comes to a point halfway through the season, in the fifth episode of “Mindhunter.” When Ford and Tench revisit the bathroom where a literal bloodbath took place, all shots of the tub and the grout and the floor are completely devoid of evidence. There’s no hallucination where Ford goes into a mind palace and imagines what the place might have looked like on the night in question. Those sequences were supremely affecting on a series like “Hannibal” because it connected with a greater idea of violence as a killer’s artistic expression. Here, there’s a commitment to keeping the violence imagined that places an even greater weight on how the prosecutors and behavioral scientists piece together those details secondhand.
For the Tench half of the central duo, it’s what makes the rare glimpses into his home life effective as well. In his big fight with Nancy, as he goes through the laundry list of cases that the unit has investigated, the descriptions and photographs he gives is everything he’s experienced, short of looking into a killer’s eyes. It’s easy for her to understand how this may be taking a toll on him because 95 percent of his work is psychological, an arms race between inquisitive minds and fundamentally twisted ones.
It’s also what makes the various linguistic challenges of the show feel more important. If we actually saw these murders happen, then discussions of what words to use with children or in inter-office communication would seem quaint by comparison. But because words are mostly what these investigators have, it makes those fights feel more substantive. This team may have evidence in the form of the occasional murder weapon, but their tools are social categorization and equipping law enforcement with the terminology to help identify potential subjects. They inhabit the theoretical and keep the physical at a distance, precisely so future investigators don’t have to.
“The people we work with have done things that you don’t even want to imagine,” warns Tench, even as the show knows that’s what it’s already been doing for the better part of the season. If you’re watching “Mindhunter,” most of what you’re doing is imagining. When Gregg Smith (Joe Tuttle) joins the team, that same careful bit of withholding tracks to what he hears on his headphones. To think about what might have put him over the edge, the audience has to once again revisit the details of the case that only exist in their heads and fill in gaps of knowledge that force them to think like a killer.
In fact, aside from a bruise, the only major bit of on-screen violence that we see (outside of those photographs) is the cut on Kemper’s arm in the waning minutes of the season. Aside from Debbie’s curiously purchased high heels, that’s the biggest indication for Ford that what he’s inhabiting has real consequences. When a killer can reach out and touch him, it’s a tangible reminder of those who weren’t able to leave that encounter unscathed.
Even in the opening credits sequence, with the meticulous setup of the interview equipment interspersed with the briefest flashes of these murders. There’s just enough to see what lies beyond that divide, but only getting the tiniest glimpses is somehow more frightening than the real thing. The ending glimpse of Park City, Kansas preys upon that idea as well. Teased out throughout the whole first season, the lack of a cathartic moment feeds off the same idea of not seeing anything. Though a Season 2 is on the way, that cliffhanger of singed pinup sketches is more than just a hint of what’s to come. It’s a reminder that when tragedy strikes on “Mindhunter,” the worst parts exist purely in your imagination.
“Mindhunter” Season 1 is currently streaming on Netflix.