For a show that deals with horrific murders and the serial killers who perpetrate them, the first season of Netflix’s Mindhunter makes for surprisingly effective competence porn. Counterintuitively: It helps that the series prefers to tell, rather than show. Where other serial killer dramas don’t hesitate to make grisly violence the main attraction, Mindhunter is all about the aftermath—asking, from the confines of an interrogation room, what compels someone to commit unspeakable acts of brutality and sadism, oftentimes against people they don’t even know.
Based (somewhat loosely) on the activities of real-life FBI agents responsible for creating criminal profiles through interviews with captive killers, there is a cold, clinical comfort in Mindhunter’s approach to serial killers. The show is so adherent to David Fincher’s style that it is almost a parody. As agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) unpack the psychological baggage of their interviewees and sharpen their process, they get closer to understanding the methods behind a serial killer’s madness. It’s one thing to acknowledge that monsters may live among us, but there’s some solace in the fact that these interviews are bridging the gap between the unknown and what can be ascertained from a killer’s motives, even if the logic seems incomprehensible. (Peruse the perverse details of Ed Kemper’s murders at your own risk.) It’s engrossing subject material, and with Fincher as an executive producer, recurring director, and aesthetic reference point, Mindhunter’s strength as a brainy, detail-oriented procedural more than outweighed its weaknesses in, well, just about everything else. (Namely: anything pertaining to its agents’ thinly developed personal lives, and general treatment of female characters.)
Heading into the second season, there were plenty of areas in which Mindhunter could improve, but its foundation—the chilling conversations between the agents and a killer mundanely describing beheading someone the same way you’d talk about picking up groceries after work—was among the best in the genre. And with the series beginning at the inception of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit and the coinage of the term “serial killer,” Mindhunter has literal decades of material to work with.
The second season, which debuted Friday, picks up right where the first season left off, and with the BSU gaining some positive momentum. The unit gets a new boss with a vested interest in the team and their practices, granting Holden, Bill, and psychologist Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) the freedom and resources to expand their work—even setting up an opportunity to interview Charles Manson, as well as David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam killer. What the team continues gathering from these interviews becomes even more urgent when a spate of child murders in Atlanta comes to the bureau’s attention—providing Holden and Bill the opportunity to put their methods to the test and catch an active and tragically prolific serial killer.
Anyone with a cursory knowledge of the Atlanta child murders, in which at least 25 black children were killed from 1979 to 1981, will know the agents don’t arrive at any easy conclusions. Technically, all of the cases remain unsolved—and though low-level music scout Wayne Williams was convicted for the murders of two adults that followed the killer’s pattern, the uncertainty that he was responsible for all the other killings remains a point of intrigue. (The children’s cases were officially reopened this year.) In the series, while Williams does fit Holden’s generic profile of the killer—a black man in his late 20s or early 30s without steady employment—there’s no evidence that he had a disturbed childhood, a shared feature that connected many of the killers the unit previously interviewed in prison. And in ignoring possible involvement by the KKK, Holden risks eschewing tangible evidence in favor of sticking to his profile, a decision that has as much to do with his hubris as the BSU’s established methodology—to say nothing of the complicated racial dynamics in a Southern city when an FBI agent is hell-bent on pinning brutal crimes against a black man instead of the Klan.
Ambiguity is at the heart of Mindhunter’s second season, which emphasizes the limits of the FBI’s seemingly infallible methods. After all, what Holden and Bill have learned about serial killers are from subjects who were captured. The series makes it clear that regardless of how sophisticated the bureau’s practices become, human nature will always invite some degree of uncertainty. (Something that’s a lot easier to swallow when trying to get a read on first dates—not so much when dealing with highly proficient and sadistic murderers on the prowl.) That theme also figures into the characters’ personal lives this season, as Bill deals with a crisis at home after his adopted son Brian witnesses a handful of older boys inadvertently kill a toddler. The incident wracks Bill’s domestic life since Brian’s own complicity in the toddler’s death and how the trauma of the incident affects him is never fully understood.
Given Fincher’s imprint—he also helmed the first three episodes—the perpetual uncertainty that Mindhunter creates throughout the second season evokes the director’s masterpiece, Zodiac. The film’s encyclopedic detail of the Zodiac Killer and how the murders manifested into a nationwide phenomenon with no definitive answers underlined how some cases are never meant to be solved, even if the clues are unpacked and deciphered to infinity. Like Zodiac, Mindhunter’s second season embraces a world where enduring mysteries don’t always have satisfying conclusions.
Were Mindhunter renewed for another season—let’s make it happen, Netflix—it’s certainly possible that future cases will invite a lot more clarity than the notoriously ambiguous Atlanta child murders. But regardless of what the series gives Holden, Ford, and Dr. Carr to tackle next, the limits of their methodology will remain a recurring theme. Once again, Mindhunter featured brief vignettes of the BTK Killer, Dennis Rader, who was responsible for 10 murders across three decades. As the show presents him, he’s gainfully employed and married—things Holden and Ford don’t yet believe serial killers are capable of being, instead generalizing them as alienated individuals. Mindhunter has chosen to focus on Rader beginning in the ’70s, even though he won’t be captured until 2005. Unless the show plans to rewrite history—or anticipates a massive time jump—these vignettes could comprise several seasons’ worth of material without Rader ever getting close to the FBI’s radar. It’s a terrifying reminder that, for as many serial killers sit behind bars, there’s an unknowable number that could be living right next door.