[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Mindhunter” Season 2, including the ending.]
While fully utilizing David Fincher’s icy aesthetic and featuring just enough creepy prison visits to satiate expectations, “Mindhunter” makes a lot of savvy changes in Season 2. Most noticeable (and necessary) is a protagonist switch, as Holt McCallany’s endearing buzzcut of a cop, Bill Tench, takes center stage over the single-minded know-it-all Holden Ford, played with a curiosity-invoking detachment by Jonathon Groff. That early shift sets up more to come, as the research-based behavioral analysis seen in Season 1 gets pushed into early field testing in Season 2. The BTK Killer (Sonny Valicenti) looms over the series yet again — like a big bad in training who, instead of lifting weights or recruiting an army, practices autoerotic asphyxiation in a doll mask — but these nine episodes examine how public scrutiny and systemic political issues can tarnish noble intentions.
Or, in a nutshell, “Mindhunter” Season 2 is about how white cops’ racial blindspots legitimized racial profiling on a national level. And, despite seeing another story of black tragedy told from a white perspective, it’s very, very good.
How Holden Changes From Troublesome Lead to Critical Support
The season starts with a bit of an unnecessary fake-out. After an unsettling encounter with Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton), Holden is first shown waking up in a hospital, his hands and feet restrained as doctors rush in to put him back under sedation. It appears his panic attack is more than a panic attack — like it could be a full-on nervous breakdown, or worse — but then it turns out to be just a series of panic attacks. “Mindhunter” never really comes back to this after the first few episodes, though one could argue Holden’s journey in Season 2 is the same as Season 1, sans the dramatic breakdown: He stubbornly implements his policy, follows it through to a “successful” close, and then is forced to reckon with the moral collapse of what he’s done.
So how did he end up making the same mistakes all over again? Well, this time, the system has his back! Instead of hiding his work from the suspicious upper echelons of the FBI, Holden’s behavioral analysis is buoyed by a new director. Ted Gunn (Michael Cerveris) comes over from D.C.’s public affairs division and sees the sexy intrigue in Holden and Tench’s work as a way to give the FBI an image makeover; if these advanced methods can catch multiple murderers (aka serial killers), then the FBI could be called in to assist on a slew of high-profile cases and gain national recognition as the most powerful, state-of-the-art law enforcement in the country.
At first, Holden and Tench are all for the increased resources and exposure. It’s what Holden has been pushing for since the start, but soon the added red tape and public scrutiny starts to weigh on him. While Tench is off glad-handing government power players, regaling them with stories of interviewing Charles Manson (Damon Herriman), Holden is trying to apply their psychological profiling to catch the Atlanta Child Murderer. After being recruited to help by a desperate hotel clerk, Tanya Clifton (Sierra McClain), Holden meets a group of mothers who are leading their own investigation into their children’s killings or disappearances because the local police won’t listen.
Holden, being the stand-up opportunist he is, sees the connections between the dozen-or-so children and seizes it as chance to do some good in the real world. He and Tench are deployed to Atlanta, working alongside a local police force to put an end to the growing body count, but there’s a lot of media attention on this case. That means the mayor is watching, the police chief doesn’t want to give up control, and the local cops across several counties have to come together to support several leaders with differing ideas.
The Atlanta Child Murders
Courtesy of Netflix
Now, a lot of the problems in this scenario (based on the 1979-1981 Atlanta Child Murders) should sound familiar to modern audiences: a predominantly white police force clashing with a predominantly black community. Sure, the mayor and police chief are black, but this is Georgia in the late ’70s, and no one should be surprised to hear that some officers not only have ties to the Ku Klux Klan, but are active members. So a rightly frustrated and scared African-American population doesn’t want to hear about Holden’s research that contends the killer is a black man between 20-30 years old — the cops in town are already out to get black men and letting the KKK run rampant.
Holden (being Holden) doesn’t really care about the sensitivity of public discourse. He wants to catch the killer, and everything he learns says the killer is a black man. In a smart, insular critique of his blindspots, the holes in Holden’s theory are routinely poked at by black cops and citizens. Agent Jim Barney (Albert Jones), who gets an expanded role in Season 2, tells Holden why the results of field experiments with black kids in inner-city Baltimore aren’t necessarily relevant to black kids in suburban Atlanta — Holden just sees black kids, but Jim sees different people.
Though Fincher directs the first three episodes and Andrew Dominik takes on two more, Carl Franklin (“Devil in a Blue Dress,” “The Leftovers”) handles the last four and drives home the white police force’s embarrassing behavior with a slew of haunting imagery. Most notably, there’s a scene where Holden becomes obsessed with the idea that the killer will return to the scene of his crimes if enough attention is given to those sites. He decides to plant two tall, white crosses along a memorial parade route and asks the mothers who organized it to stop at each cross for a moment of silence. But when the process of ordering the crosses gets tied up in red tape, Holden has to race through the parade, carrying a bright white cross on his back while the silent marchers watch his exhaustive efforts with disinterest. By the time he gets a cross to the top of the church steps, the walkers have almost caught up to him, and their leader, Camille Bell (June Carryl), just stops and stares at the foolish white savior disrespecting the pure, healing intentions of her march.