Mindhunter is one of the best arguments for this era not just being another golden age of television but something bigger — a freshly unearthed natural resource in an expanse of desert. The desert is the corporatized landscape of branded entertainment passing itself off as actual films. They’re fun rides. They’re fantasy explorations. They’re celebrations of the technology and advances in visual effects. They’re an escape from the struggles of modern life where we can watch alter egos get to be a heroes for a couple of hours. But they’re not really movies. Not MOVIE movies. Not movies that involve original storytelling.
Friday, Netflix dropped Mindhunter’s eagerly awaited second season with the first three episodes directed by David Fincher. This is a slow burn journey into dread, just as the first season was – a python’s tightening coil of a narrative, building to an eventual crushing conclusion. Bittersweet is the name of the game in this kind of deep dive into depravity. Win or lose.
Mindhunter’s second season starts where the first season left off. The protagonist Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) found himself caught in a crisis of conscience after dancing too close to the devil and becoming something akin to an actual friend to notorious serial killer Ed Kemper. We find him now trying to deal with ongoing panic attacks in an era where men were expected to be men and never show weakness with, say, mental health problems. A new FBI chief (Michael Cerversis) likes Holden’s fire but worries about his risky methods.
The central core of fascinating characters are all back alongside Ford — Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) — joined now by a new agent, Jim Barney (Albert Jones). The smoky signature look is also back with cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, virtually its own supporting player in the series, along with the pivotal soundtrack to pinpoint time and place, all interwoven woven with the sinister exploits of the BTK killer that keep coming back to remind us this guy is still out there all this time.
It’s a big cast, with sweeping location shoots — the kind Big Hollywood used to invest in but has long since given up mostly for green screen. We are fully immersed into the world of the late 70s and early 80s, told to us by fashion and song choices, as the FBI crime unit chases and studies the worst of the worst.
The main thrust of the second season is hunting the killer of black children in Atlanta in the late 70s. The Atlanta Child Murders came to represent how differently law enforcement treated the murders of black kids compared to white kids (but of course, and still a continuing tragedy in itself). The added layer here is the ongoing conflict in the South between the racist white traditions that persistently dominate and the black culture rising up to challenge it. In this case, Atlanta’s authorities were tangled deep in this conflict while trying to solve the murders of kids who kept disappearing and turning up dead.
Without the help of law enforcement or FBI, mothers of the children formed their own task force and eventually enlisted the help of Holden Ford. The scenes between Ford and the mothers are the most enriching and moving part of Mindhunter Season 2 as they address systemic issues involving race and murder. This was not going to be a case of the KKK killing black children, though, because this was a case of a lone serial killer who could not stop. To date, the case of the dead children has never been solved officially.
Along the way we meet two other notorious killers, David Berkowitz a.k.a. Son of Sam (erstwhile comedic actor Oliver Copper, delving into his dark side but funny as hell), and Charles Manson, played by Damon Herriman, fresh off his visit to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Both of them are portrayed with the kind of specificity to detail Fincher is known for. Trust me on this one: there is no way these guys are going to show as less than 100% of who and what they were — not on Fincher’s watch. This is true especially of Charles Manson who shows up as the tiny terror that he was, a mass of dirty brown shag framing a face that hung itself with his too-round crazy eyes. Herriman has him down to every detail — how he stood, how he sat, how he gesticulated. To heighten the Manson episode we are treated to Manson’s actual singing — afflicted with the ordinary — played at the end of the episode.
Where season one was more closely focused on the horrific crimes and criminals that would shape the FBI profiling unit that Holden Ford and Bill Tench help to create, season two is much more personal — at least with regard to Tench, whose personal life is one of the most compelling aspects of this season, as well as Wendy Carr, who is navigating dating and trying to have a relationship as a gay woman in a profession that is rife with lusty men who can’t accept that — and worse, are trying to get her into bed at every turn.
Mindhunter season two deals in much more weighty social issues than the first season, and this is wholly appropriate to the times of cultural upheaval that roiled the late 60s and 70s – when serial killers were popping up everywhere. The BTK killer continues to be seen throughout both seasons undetected. But the FBI unit is on his trail as of Season 2. His crimes span 1974-1991 so we’ve a ways to go yet before good old Dennis Rader is finally caught.
I don’t know about you but I could not just watch one episode per sitting. I had to binge the whole thing in one go and will probably dive back in for a second watch in the next day or so. Why, because it is just top-quality and if there ever was a time that top-quality was necessary it is right now.
By the end of both seasons of Mindhunter we’ve come out the other side of looking at the darkest corners of the human experience. Ford, Tench and Carr must find ways of living their normal lives while chasing the worst of humanity — trying to stay grounded in decency as they crawl into the heads of monsters. We follow them on their journies, peering over the shoulder and hoping they’ll be there to protect us if ever we’re touched by evil.
Mindhunter is without a doubt one of the best things any movie-lover can see, either streaming or the big screen. Art is where you find it. Great filmmaking needs the right kind of oasis to thrive. It makes no difference what size screen it lands on. The rest I will leave to you to discover.