Psycho-killers, interviewed

Mindhunter probes the darkest recess of the twisted mind

Jonathan Groff, right, in a scene from Mindhunter.

The series didn't drop with as much ballyhoo as most Netflix new releases; instead it creepy-crawled into the algorithm of fans with chilly stealth last Friday. Mindhunter Season 2, created by Joe Penhall with several episodes directed by David Fincher, is a cerebral remedy to Netflix's glut of story-driven series and formulaic cliffhangers. Mindhunter takes almost a geeky pride in its dialogue-heavy exploration of the most vicious minds in the anthology of American true crime, the procession of ultra-violent serial murderers, pathological rapists and sadistic torturers, and in the way it isn't fixated on solving any particular cases (as is expected from a detective show) but taking time to study the methodological eccentricity of each crime and the increasingly dark obsession of the detectives, sucked ever more inextricably into the transgressive vortex.

  • Mindhunter
  • Starring Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany, Anna Torv
  • Created by Joe Penhall
  • Season 2 now streaming on Netflix

In short, Mindhunter, especially in the new nine-episode Season 2, is a long-form psycho-killer that resembles Zodiac (2007), a measured, painstaking crime drama directed by Fincher who, of course, gravitated towards grisly murders since the Brad Pitt-starring Seven (1995).

Set in the late 1970s, Mindhunter follow FBI agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) as they're setting up the nascent Behavioural Science Unit and trying to convince conservative policymakers that deep psychology and analytical profiling are as important in solving violent crimes as traditional police legwork. Joined by scholar Dr Wendy Carr (Ann Torv), the team set out to interview the most notorious serial killers who have been arrested and locked up, from Ed "The Coed Killer" Kemper to Richard Speck and Darrel Gene Devier -- all of them perpetrators of homicidal crimes that test the border between insanity and inhumanity (Kemper raped, killed and decapitated his victims, then raped those heads). Mindhunter is based on the books written by real-life FBI agents who pioneered the practice of behavioural science, and the killers featured in the series are also based on true crime history that terrorised mid-century America.

In the first half of the new season, Ford and Tench sit down with more mass murderers, torturers and rapists, including demonic killer Son of Sam and cult leader Charles Manson (who's making a comeback into pop culture also with Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood). In a move unusual to TV cop shows, the new episodes revel even more in pedagogical conversation and long scenes of two or three people talking about psycho-sexual impulses, dark motives, subconscious urges, with the criminals -- cocky, boastful or just plain mad -- recounting disturbing details of their crimes while Ford, Tench and sometimes Dr Carr toss out provocative questions in their faces.

These scenes of bizarre, chilly tete-a-tete, shot with precise formalism by Erik Messerschmidt, make up an intriguing cerebral experience -- an oral catalogue of morbid fascination typical of serial killer movies, only that Mindhunter's matter-of-fact, almost scholastic tone makes it all the more disturbing. Like Virgil guiding visitors to hell -- even more so this season -- the FBI agents lead us down the unlit tunnel of those horrid minds, and it's the guides themselves who often come back haunted and unsettled.

When the new season begins, Ford and Tench start an investigation to nab the BTK (Bind, Torture, Kill) strangler. Then in the final three episodes, which works more like a traditional police procedural, the two agents are sent to work on the Atlanta child abduction case, in which 29 black kids were murdered or disappeared (an infamous true crime in 1979). That underlines this season's expansion into racially motivated crimes. Meanwhile, Dr Carr's sexuality adds a complication to her professorial objectivity when it comes to analysing homosexual criminals. Then the most disturbing subplot involves Tench's adopted son and the hanging question that defines the show: are psychopaths and serial murderers born that way, or are they made into one?

To the impatient hooked on Netflix's formula of binge-watchable storytelling and end-of-EP's tease, Mindhunter is a strange, frustrating beast. It prowls, and rarely pounces. It doesn't care much about closure or climax. Rather, it hypnotises you with the unspeakable horror committed by human beings -- not by showing it, because the series doesn't show any murder, but by asking us to relive it with the killers themselves. Compared to, say, the much-praised original season of True Detective (by HBO, starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson), which is also about two detectives obsessed with solving gruesome crimes, Mindhunter is ingenious in the way it refuses to sensationalise its horrid subject matter and doesn't rely on cultish motives (witchcraft, Satanic rites, etc). Solving murders is a procedural bore, but as Ford and Tench can testify, it's a necessary path to understanding the darkest nook of the human mind.