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The ‘Mindhunter’ Exit Survey

After a binge watch of Netflix’s latest series, The Ringer staff talks serial killers, David Fincher, and mysterious cans of tuna

Netflix

Last Friday, David Fincher, the executive producer of House of Cards and director behind such methodical murder movies as Se7en and Zodiac, returned to TV with a methodical murder series, Mindhunter. The show takes a straightforward, Fincher-ian look at the early stages of criminal profiling and the study of serial killers. It’s all very upbeat stuff. After powering through Season 1, staff members of The Ringer agreed to be interviewed—to have their minds hunted. Here are their answers.

1. What is your tweet-length review of ‘Mindhunter’?

Andrew Gruttadaro: A reverse Tommy Boy situation but instead of selling brake pads they’re bringing pizza to serial killers.

Miles Surrey: Come for the gripping FBI conversations with serial killers, bang your head against the wall for everything else.

Sean Fennessey:

Kate Halliwell: Like I said Monday: How are you all already finished with this show? Sorry it’s taken me more than a few days to watch a show largely about defiling severed heads. Not what I’d call a quick binge.

K. Austin Collins: Jonathan Groff!

Alison Herman:

Haley O’Shaughnessy: Another period TV show that makes me think profusely chain smoking MIGHT ACTUALLY BE COOL AND PROFESSIONAL, GUYS.

Amanda Dobbins: We need more expensive, mediocre, highly watchable television!

2. What is the best moment of Season 1?

Dobbins: The serial killer is always the showy role in these sorts of shows, but credit to Cameron Britton: his Ed Kemper is the most impressive (and creepy) performance on a show that is unfortunately light on good acting. Also, I like the banter.

Gruttadaro: Off the top of my head, I really love the scene in Episode 5 where Holden and Dr. Carr walk through an airport talking very openly and very loudly about a guy mutilating dead bodies. It’s the perfect encapsulation of a show that can be so oblivious and dumb and yet so entrancing.

O’Shaughnessy: Look, it’s either the beginning, when Holden is an innocent, straight-laced, by-the-book FBI educator, or when Debbie dumps Dark Holden in the end. Tench warned him!

Herman: I'm tempted to say the interviews, but really the methodology debates behind the interviews that turn into veiled personality clashes between the three leads. The scene where Wendy, a queer woman forced into the closet at work by social stigma, calls out Bill's prejudice against cross-dressing as part of his archaic masculinity, which he's currently wrestling with while struggling to connect to his adopted son? Perfection.

Surrey: It has to be Holden and Bill (but mostly Holden) chatting with the real-life serial killer Ed Kemper, played with terrifying accuracy by Cameron Britton. Talking with a steely calmness about murdering women and having sex with their severed heads, while referring to the murders as a “vocation,” is the kind of stuff that gives me nightmares. Holden’s finale scene with Kemper in the hospital room was perhaps the tensest I’ve been watching anything this year.

‘Mindhunter’ Netflix

Fennessey: The motel-cigarette-pack-door-slam montage in Episode 2: a cornucopia of insert shots from director David Fincher, marked by impeccable, meticulous production design, obsessive framing, and crackerjack rhythm. This is movie porn for sadboys.

3. What is your least favorite part of the show?

Dobbins: Please understand: I love Jonathan Groff. I think Jonathan Groff deserves a Netflix show and fancy directors and everything that could possibly come his way. But [whispers] he seems miscast on this show. I don’t even mean to say that the performance is bad—just that an intentionally awkward and unintentionally undeveloped character (he drinks milk! He wants to fight the darkness!) is not the best fit for Groff’s particular brand of charisma. Let him be confident! Let his light shine.

Halliwell: Real human woman Debbie—who is definitely not a sex robot—had not only one of the worst character introductions I’ve ever seen, but is in general a pointless, almost offensively terrible character.

O’Shaughnessy: Everything with Debbie is an instant cringe. Is she a prop, or the main character’s girlfriend? Judging by the director’s history with female characters, apparently she’s both. Holden is a lousy, high school–esque boyfriend, showing bouts of jealousy and shockingly poor communication for a behavioral science expert. Holden is also seemingly unable to listen/act interested in Debbie’s studies unless the subject shows relevancy to his work. And he SHAMES Debbie while she’s in lingerie—“It’s just not you”—because his own issues are getting in his head. 2/10, would not date.

Close second: Dr. Carr’s tuna can scenes.

Surrey: There is another question about the handling of female characters, so I’ll leave my Debbie grievances there. But my biggest non-Debbie issue was the cold opens with the real-life serial killer Dennis Rader (the creepy ADT security guy). Seems a bit pointless since he doesn’t get caught for decades, unless Mindhunter plans to rewrite history.

Fennessey: A genuinely weak pilot, continuing a time-tested tradition of misleading and awkwardly schemed pilots on Netflix series. The Durkheim conversation at the rock bar, in particular, is the kind of good-on-paper, bad-on-screen writing that mars far too much “prestige” TV.

Herman: How committed Netflix seems to be to the utter formlessness of its dramas. Neither the premise nor the full ensemble of the show is in place until well into Episode 3; at just 40 minutes apiece, episodes 5 and 6 are clearly a supersized single story that got cut in half to bring the chapter count to an even 10; the season never develops a sense of momentum or urgency, ending with a development that should have arrived several hours earlier (the hero experiences self-doubt!) and leaving several crucial threads open (what's up with that internal affairs investigation?). There's a certain entitlement that comes with assuming your audience will take the path of least resistance and simply let the next episode play, rather than having to sell viewers on tuning in next week. Here, it manifests in a haphazard structure that feels like it's based on the rough draft of an outline.

Gruttadaro: Anytime Holden is like, “But wait! Maybe I’m like a serial killer.”

4. What is the Fincher-iest moment in ‘Mindhunter’?

Halliwell: You mean other than all the obsessive, misunderstood men having lengthy conversations in dimly-lit rooms?

Fennessey: Those insert montages, certainly, but also the whip-pan car accident in Episode 3, the Boy Scout–and-hard-bitten-detective interplay between Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany, and certainly the armrest-ripping tension of the serial-killer interrogations (ripped right from the Arthur Leigh Allen playbook). Every moment in which Edmund Kemper is on screen holds the potential for a violence that never comes. Fincher knows how to turn the dial on a scene like this better than any living filmmaker.

Gruttadaro: It’s not really a moment, but damn, David Fincher is really good at casting terrifying, large men.

O’Shaughnessy: The setting as a whole is very Fincher-esque—the airlines, the Hertz signs, it’s all very well done.

Collins: Not a moment, but a person: Holden, who combines the best of Fincher’s obsessive investigators with the best of his choir boys who love revelling in societal muck. Mindhunter doesn’t read to me like a Zodiac sequel—these two pieces of art are ultimately interested in different questions. But Holden is absolutely a sequel to Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in that movie—to the point that I keep reimagining Zodiac as a movie starring Jonathan Groff.

Surrey: Meta references to his other work—like an FBI agent saying, “What’s in the box?” and somehow not winking at the camera.

Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany in ‘Mindhunter’ Netflix

5. Finish the sentence: “Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany as a buddy cop duo are…”

Collins: … great? That sums it up.

Dobbins: … perfectly enjoyable, but not all-time great. McCallany is bringing it, though.

Gruttadaro: … my new dads.

Fennessey: … familiar.

Surrey: … just, fine?

O’Shaughnessy: … not necessarily refreshing, as all the wonted pieces of TV cop partners are present—both male, one young and curious, one old and jaded—but they’re still delightful to watch.

6. Why do we love to watch serial killers?

Collins: Because we can’t relate—because people whose lives are premised on murder and torture violate every social norm we know of, which both shakes us up and reaffirms the urgency of those norms.

Herman: The same reason Holden does: they defy logic, or at least we think they do until we realize they're actually a magnified version of our darkest selves—which we can then safely explore without becoming, you know, actual serial killers.

Gruttadaro: Not to get all “let’s grab a drink at the professor bar at Harvard,” but I think it’s because serial killers are easy to grasp, in that they have outlined methods and patterns. They’re not random; random is somehow way scarier.

O’Shaughnessy: The same reason we love the whodunit mysteries, except this is the why, not the who.

Surrey: It’s equal parts horrifying and fascinating to watch someone talk about murdering people like anyone else would nonchalantly tell you about their weekend. Case in point: This interview with the real-life Kemper, which not only affirms how good of a job Britton did, but just how incomprehensibly messed up this man’s psyche is.

Dobbins: ~~ because there’s darkness in all of us, even Jonathan Groff ~~

Fennessey: One of the things I like about this show is that its pleasure is not derived from murder sequences, scenes that depict or dissect murder, or even the hunt for a killer. They're process-driven, sure. But they are also skeptical of their heroes, unafraid to undermine their intelligence. This show isn't about watching serial killers. It's about watching watchers.

7. Discuss the show’s handling of its female characters.

Herman: I would call both “handling” and “characters” a generous overstatement. (Debbie is a lost cause, but couldn’t we have gotten more about Wendy's personal life than a single Boston episode and some tuna cans?)

Fennessey: It’s bad. It’s often bad in Fincher projects. I get the sense he both idealizes women and compartmentalizes them. He prizes strength and smarts, but, with the exception of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, he boxes them into supporting spaces. Mindhunter is a real-life story told in a straightforward way, but the female figures on the periphery feel like constructs, not people. And given that the majority of the victims in the cases portrayed are women, there is an ambient discomfort in that.

Surrey: Comically bad. I wish we spent more time with Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), who could’ve been a de facto third lead to Holden and Bill but was mostly kept on the sidelines. However, if that were Mindhunter’s biggest issue with its female characters, that would be hardly disastrous. I’m still trying to figure out what Fincher and Co. had in mind with Debbie (apologies to Hannah Gross).

Holden’s girlfriend seemingly exists to have sex with him and act as a sounding board for his incessant monologuing. Mercifully, she breaks up with him in the finale; actually, that’s not entirely true, Holden goes full Sherlock and deduces Debbie would dump him before she gets a word in edgewise. At least Kevin James gave Erinn Hayes the decency of killing her offscreen when he ran out of ideas.

O’Shaughnessy: Well, there are two of them, both are white, and one exists (so far) in the show only to show just how far gone Holden is at the end. Not great.

Dobbins: This question implies that Mindhunter handles its male characters well, so …

While we’re on the topic, did anyone else notice that Debbie is named Deborah Mitford—as in Debo Mitford, youngest of six sisters, and the eventual duchess of Devonshire? No? Just me? Please @ me, but only about the Mitfords.

Halliwell: I’ll veer away from complaining about Debbie here and instead focus on Anna Torv, the new love of my life. She is Carrie Coon–meets–Robin Wright–meets–Cate Blanchett in a rockin’ power suit, and I am living for it.

Anna Torv in ‘Mindhunter’ Netflix

Collins: I think there’s a lot more to these roles than they’re getting credit for, but I also agree that they’re not as finely drawn, character-wise, as the two male leads. They’re just as essential to the show’s ideas, however, which matters a lot more to me, in terms of representation, than whether or not the relationships are realistic enough. The problem with minority characters of every stripe isn’t just that they’re often reduced to tropes; tropes are fine, tropes—at their best—are vehicles for incisive ideas. It’s the ideas that often go missing. That’s not happening here.

8a. Where would you rank ‘Mindhunter’ in the pantheon of prestige crime shows?

Fennessey: Behind The Wire but ahead of Fargo.

Gruttadaro: Give me The Wire and True Detective Season 1 over this. I do really like the show, though, so until I change my mind I’ll say Mindhunter is third.

O’Shaughnessy: It checks off the prestige-TV boxes for period pieces—great attention to nostalgic detail, chain-smoking, few women—and it’s true crime?! Has to be upper-to-mid-tier just off that.

Surrey: On a scale of True Detective Season 1 (good!) to True Detective Season 2 (kill it with fire!), this is somewhere in the middle.

Collins: I wouldn’t (because who cares about prestige), but I think it ranks well among current procedurals.

Herman: Every show about the corrosive mental health effects of attempting to empathize with serial killers should have to pay royalties to Bryan Fuller.

8b. What about in the pantheon of “We Love the ’70s” shows?

Surrey: You can watch The Deuce right now!

Herman: Above Vinyl (what isn’t?), below The Deuce.

Dobbins: I like this way more than The Deuce.

Collins: Can American artists just forget the ’70s altogether? Why encourage their redundant nonsense with a ranking?

Fennessey: Behind The Wonder Years but ahead of That ’70s Show.

9. ‘Mindhunter’ has already been renewed for a second season. What do you want from those coming episodes?

Fennessey: Bring on more head-slapping Talking Heads musical cues. I’m just a man.

Gruttadaro: What if—and follow me here—they got better at their jobs?

Surrey: Do the FBI agents eventually talk to Charles Manson? Because I’d love to see a conversation with Charles Manson.

Herman: An actual structure that channels these characters’ insights and conflicts into active problem-solving.

O’Shaughnessy: I’m a sucker for the scenes when they’re interviewing the serial killers and discovering the key indicators of psychopathology that we recognize today. Also, give me less of whatever the hell is going on with the can of tuna in Dr. Carr’s apartment.