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The Slow, Tight Grip of Mindhunter and Why It Was the Best Thing on TV Last Year

The folks at ScreenPrism have done a great deep dive into why Mindhunter’s slow release is so effective – because what you fear is not what they show you. It’s what they tell you. They call it breaking all of the rules because most screenwriting teachers and instructors who teach film will always say “show, don’t tell.” That is how you’re lured in, the same way the main character in the series, is lured into a world that ultimately threatens to consume him. That ending, that tight grip of near strangulation by the end, could not have been had if the series showed you the killings — that’s because, like a python slowly wraps itself around its prey, the element of ultimate surprise depends on having complete control.

I don’t think I saw a better performance on TV last year than Cameron Britton as Ed Kemper. A youtuber did a side by side comparison here and it’s chilling to watch. Britton, though, doesn’t just impersonate Kemper – because that would be like standing up a block of wood and watching it talk – serial killers all have one thing in common: the lights are on but nobody’s home. Rather, Britton, who should be up for Emmy consideration if people are paying attention, brings more context and emotion to Kemper to help guide the story where it needs to go. And this is what the ScreenPrism creators have done here:

Mindhunter is the antithesis to shows like Criminal Minds, which elevate serial killers to supernatural gods almost. The truth is they are the dullest people you’ve ever met, so dull in fact that no one notices them. Just look at the Golden State killer who committed rapes and murders in Sacramento and still manages to live there, among its residents, completely unnoticed. If there is any unifying detail they all have it’s that crushing ordinary-ness of them. The juxtaposition of that and their crimes is what makes Mindhunter the right way — I think — to SHOW what they really are. While you’re watching them talk, hiding who they are as they’ve become so good at doing, you have no choice but to imagine what they’ve done, to imagine how they must have looked at the moment they abducted, then did horrific things to their victims. You imagine the blood splatter on their faces. You imagine what they looked like while raping or killing. Those who show us what they think that looks like? It never really comes off 100%.

As for David Fincher, he’s done both. In Zodiac we see the brutality – even if done behind a masked man. We see the knives entering flesh, the bullets tearing them apart. And funnily enough, what you’ve heard about the Zodiac – that he shot people in cars – never had the same kind of power as seeing the way they were murdered in the film. Conversely, with Se7en, we’re never shown the violence, just the aftermath. We don’t see the giant metal cock ripping the woman apart from the inside – we just see the guy who had it strapped to him, shaking and near collapse begging them to take it off of him. We don’t see the woman’s nose being cut off her face, we just see her laying there after it already happened but most importantly, and most effectively, we never see poor Gwyneth Paltrow being raped, then having her head cut off and put in a box. We know it happens but we never see it. Mindhunter plays around with both of these concepts – serial killers and their crimes crawling around in our heads.

Mindhunter, Black Mirror and The Crown seem to be strong Emmy contenders this year but it’s hard to say where the voters will go. The Emmys are almost always like a record stuck in one place. They go for the same stuff every year and breaking into that is not easy. It’s one of the reasons the Emmys are not as interesting to cover as the Oscars (for me anyway) – but it’s hard to deny how great the offerings are becoming in this new golden age of streaming. The Emmys just have to figure out how to keep up.