Imagine a time, not so long ago, when the phrase “serial killer” did not yet exist. When criminal psychology was underdeveloped, and the voracious obsession with true crime had not yet taken hold. In the 1970s, America experienced something like an epidemic; bodies were piling up, killers were striking far and wide, and we hadn’t amassed the tools to quell the rampage. It turns out, the first step to preventing a serial killer’s wrath is to understand their inner-workings. That’s the basic premise of Netflix’s crime drama Mindhunter, created by Jon Penhall and executive produced by David Fincher, who also directed four episodes. The series offers a partially fictionalized account of the early days of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, where the term “serial killer” was first derived, and where agents and psychologists attempted to map the minds of the country’s most notorious criminals.
The first season of Mindhunter, released in 2017, received widespread critical acclaim, landing on several “best of the year” lists. The series returns for a second outing on August 16, so to prepare, we put together this breakdown of the first season to get you up to speed. (Warning: Full spoilers for Mindhunter season one below.)
Mindhunter opens in 1977 and follows FBI agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff). In the series’ opening moments, Ford saves a young woman from a hostage situation, but fails to prevent her captor’s suicide. Nonetheless, the negotiation is considered a success, and Ford starts teaching classes on criminology at the bureau. Around this time, he also meets Debbie (Hannah Gross), a sociology grad student, and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), a fellow FBI agent and head of the Behavioral Science department. Debbie deepens Ford’s fascination with the killers he’s studying, which informs the work he does on the road with Tench. As they travel to police stations across the country teaching local cops about the bureau, Ford becomes obsessive and, in the eyes of Tench and the FBI, a little bit radical. Though his relationship with Tench is tense, it’s also successful, leading the two of them down paths that bring them closer to the answers they seek. Many of those answers come from the “Coed Killer” Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton), a man imprisoned for murdering, among others, his grandparents and mother. His frank, methodical way of discussing his crimes helps Ford and Tench map certain patterns—like violence against pets and mommy issues—in regard to other criminals they’re studying.
As Ford and Tench continue to work on different murder cases across the country, they recruit Boston University psychology professor Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) to their cause. Wendy is a closeted lesbian, which adds to her initial resistance to move to Virginia and work more closely on the project. But she eventually fully comes aboard, and together the team creates the Behavioral Science Unit, to more intently study serial killers.
The true story
Holden Ford is based on real-life FBI agent John Douglas, author of the book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit. The show is loosely based on his experience within the very real Behavioral Science Unit, where he worked with fellow agent Robert Ressler (the basis for Bill Tench) to compile a centralized database of serial offenders. Like Ford and Tench, Douglas and Ressler traveled to prisons across the country, gathering data about killers: their motives, how they carried out their crimes, how they did the evidence, and so on. Ressler is actually responsible for coining the term “serial killer” when studying the Son of Sam case. (“Son of Sam” killer David Berkowitz will make an appearance in season two of Mindhunter.)
Like Ford and Tench, Wendy Carr is also loosely based on a real person: Dr. Ann Wolbert Burgess, a psychiatric clinical nurse practitioner and professor at Boston College. In real life, Burgess consulted with the FBI on sexual crimes, and worked with both Douglas and Ressler; she even persuaded them to publish their findings on serial killers. There were many liberties taken with her characterization for the show; for instance, she’s not a lesbian and she consulted from Boston instead of moving to Quantico like Carr. But Burgess told Pacific Standard magazine back in 2017 that much of the show is accurate to real life, especially the Ed Kemper case.
Speaking of Kemper, he’s a real person. So are all of the killers Ford and Tench profile from prison in the series. Kemper’s real backstory is kept in tact on the show, as well. He really did murder his grandparents (when he was 15 years old) along with five college students, and his mother. Britton’s performance is hauntingly true to life, and most of his lines are derived from real things Kemper said. You can see that firsthand in this side-by-side video comparison from YouTube Thomas Flight.
One of the more curious aspects of Mindhunter is in its mysterious framing device. Many episodes begin or end with scenes of a strange man who is never identified in the text of the show. We know that he’s an ADT serviceman who lives in Wichita, and that he has a fascination with knots and rope, but no insight is given into who he is. However, true crime aficionados will recognize this man as Dennis Rader, otherwise known as the BTK Killer, a famous serial killer who bound, tortured, and killed (hence the acronym “BTK”) ten people in Wichita between 1974 and 1991. We don’t know yet how he’ll factor into the show going forward, but the trailers for season two show him having a larger role. The real Rader wasn’t caught until 2005, and season two is set in 1979, so this one may be a slow burn.
Throughout the season, Ford and Tench solve small-town murder cases using the information gleaned from the famed killers they’ve profiled. This leads to many professional breakthroughs, but all the while, the work takes a major toll on Ford’s mental health and personal relationships. He breaks up with Debbie and gets in hot water with the Office of Professional Responsibility when they catch wind of his interview with Speck, wherein Ford got a little too into the conversation. He used disturbing language that threw Speck for a loop, so much so that he filed a complaint accusing Ford of “f***ing with his head.”
By season’s end, we learn that the OPR got a copy of the Speck interview and are investigating Ford. They interview Tench, who expresses his initial hesitation with bringing Ford into the Behavioral Science fray. Meanwhile, Ford gets a call from Kemper’s doctor informing him that Kemper tried to kill himself when Ford didn’t answer letters he sent to him. Ford flies to visit Kemper, and the visit ends strangely, with Kemper telling Ford that he could kill him if he really wanted to. This interaction is the final straw for a mentally fragile Ford, who collapses in the hall and has a panic attack. The season ends back in Wichita, on an image of Rader burning a series of sadistic drawings.
So what does this mean for season two? Since it picks up a few years later, we’ll likely learn the outcome of the OPR investigation. It’s possible Ford and Tench will be on the outs after Tench’s interview, and Ford himself will be dealing with the aftereffects of his breakdown. We know the next season will deal with the Atlanta Child Murders, and also feature more real-life serial killers, like Charles Manson and David Berkowitz.
Mindhunter returns to Netflix on August 16.
Feature Image: Netflix