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Netflix’s MINDHUNTER Is a Chilling Glimpse Into the Minds of Famous Serial Killers

Netflix’s MINDHUNTER Is a Chilling Glimpse Into the Minds of Famous Serial Killers

The last thing you would expect from a TV series is a successful reinvention of a classic format, but Netflix’s Mindhunter manages to bring something entirely new to the typical police procedural genre. The thrilling series tells the origin of the FBI team that first studied serial killer psychology and subsequently invented the term “serial killer.” If you enjoy David Fincher’s 2007 film Zodiac, don’t require your crime shows to have actual murders, and love learning about real life serial killers, then Mindhunter is the procedural for you!

The new drama executive produced by Fincher and actress Charlize Theron (who does not appear in the series) is set in the late ’70s and follows the FBI team that started the process we now know as criminal profiling. If you’ve ever seen an episode of Criminal Minds and wondered how the Feds figured out how to get inside the head of these sick killers, wonder no more because this show has all the answers.

Playwright Joe Penhall adapted the series from a non-fiction book co-written by John E. Douglas, the dude who helped invent criminal profiling. While Douglas doesn’t appear as a character in the series–the two main cops are fictional creations–it is most definitely based on the important work he did in his time with the FBI. Even though some of the characters are fictional, the series includes real life serial killers such as Ed Kemper and Richard Speck.

Mindhunter centers on a team comprised of two male FBI agents and a female psychology professor as they begin to piece together a familiar pattern that many serial killers are now known to follow: harm to animals at a young age, bedwetting, and an insatiable anger towards women–and in most cases also their own mothers. Together this team develops the tools and tricks used by current day FBI investigators when profiling an Unknown Subject (Unsub for short) to determine possible suspects and motives.

Over the course of the 10 episode first season, viewers are only shown a couple of acts of violence and a few breif glimpses of crime scenes, mostly via black and white photographs. That’s not to say things don’t get graphic, they do, just not via the on-screen visuals. The violence is depicted in the form of frank, often stomach churning, discussions between the Feds and several convicted killers.

Jonathan Groff‘s FBI agent Holden Ford travels around the country with his partner Bill (Holt McCallany) educating law enforcement about the psychology of criminals. The series depicts these early days of “road school” as a frustrating affair for all parties involved. The local cops don’t like to be talked down to by the fancy Feds, and the FBI Agents grow increasingly frustrated with the response they get from the locals. Then, while they’re on the road, Holden gets it in his head that they should visit with Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton), who has already been captured and is behind bars. Holden thinks there is a lot to be learned from Kemper–described to the agents as a “talkative” psycho–but his partner Bill isn’t convinced it’s a worthy endeavor.

There’s an overall foreboding tone and a sense of urgency to the proceedings for the first half of the season; that’s partially fueled by the fact that the agents are initially keeping this whole thing a secret from their boss. Later, after they’ve solved a few murders in various towns across the country, the project is suddenly made official and Anna Torv’s Dr. Wendy Carr joins the team.

All of the actors that portray real life killers give pitch perfect performances that will leave you chilled to the bone. Britton’s Kemper was a personal favorite, not because of how scary he was but because of how charming he appears. You actually want to hang out with this lovable giant until he reminds you that he had sex with his mother’s severed head.

Mindhunter works because it flawlessly weaves the personal lives of the agents into the smaller, more intimate procedural moments and isn’t afraid to allow the main characters to change. Holden in particular makes a larger and more satisfying emotional journey in the first 10 episodes than Gil Grissom did in 12 seasons of C.S.I. Holden’s partner’s backstory unravels at a much slower pace, but that just leaves the writers more places to go in the inevitable second season.

There is one, pretty major, issue I had with the first season. It fails to successfully flesh out any of the female characters. Dr. Carr, for example, is grossly underused. We’re told or shown that she’s a brilliant closeted lesbian who is willing to fight for what she believes in, but she isn’t given even half the screen time as her male counterparts. Then there’s Holden’s girlfriend who is a quick-witted, woke grad student with no reservations when it comes to sex. She’s playful and open, but is also oddly aloof at times. The problem is that none of it goes anywhere that pays off for her.

Hopefully, now that the premise and main cast are fully established, the showrunners are able to spend more time in the second season developing their female characters. In order for this show to succeed going forward, the writers have to realize that the lack of solid female characters on their series is only made worse when you account for the fact that all of the victims of violence on the show are women.

Mindhunter is a beautifully shot and powerfully performed semi-educational thriller. The drama deserves your time because of the historical importance of the discovery it depicts. I’ll give the series a chance to discover more of its own female characters in future installments. Mindhunter gets four out of five severed limbs.

Share your thoughts on Mindhunter in the comments.

Images: Netflix

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