The protagonists of Mindhunter, the David Fincher–affiliated Netflix drama about the genesis of FBI criminal profiling, begin every interview with a series of disclaimers. Their conversations with serial killers—a term invented by the characters in the first season of the show—are for internal use only; they can’t be used against the subjects in parole hearings or a court of law. These Miranda-like caveats are crucial to the Behavioral Science Unit’s process. So before we begin here, it only seems fair to offer a disclaimer of my own: When Mindhunter first premiered in the fall of 2017, I couldn’t stand it.
My objections to the series included the usual TV critic gripes with late-stage prestige projects, from a lack of consistent structure to overlong episodes. Mostly, however, they boiled down to a single original sin, a flaw in Mindhunter’s foundation that colored every narrative choice thereafter. Mindhunter was a story about violence against women, much of it sexual, that did not seem capable of portraying women as fully realized people. This was a sin of both commission and omission. The first female character of consequence introduced to viewers was Debbie (Hannah Gross), the college-student girlfriend of awkward, intense, maverick-y Special Agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff). Debbie became a notorious sticking point even among Mindhunter’s fans, a clichéd amalgam of horizon-broadening (in the pilot, she takes Holden, at the time a hostage negotiator, to see Dog Day Afternoon) and, later, nagging (in the finale, their breakup is ultimate proof Holden’s work has taken him too far through the looking glass). As frustrating as Debbie could be, however, she frustrated in predictable ways, filling many of the substandard roles foisted on underdeveloped female love interests.
More disappointing was the treatment of Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), the academic recruited to give Holden’s instincts some scientific rigor. Carr wasn’t even introduced until Mindhunter’s third episode, a strange pacing decision that left the show’s central trio, rounded out by gruff veteran G-man Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), uncemented for almost a third of the first season. A lesbian choosing to enter federal law enforcement on the cusp of the Reagan administration, Wendy exchanged a committed partnership in Boston for a more fulfilling professional life in Quantico. This painful tradeoff, which essentially forces Wendy to reenter the closet, was explored in a promising episode, only for the character’s entire late-season arc to consist of caring for a stray cat in her apartment building, a near parody of storytelling about a single, professional woman in her 30s. Fincher told Torv the cat’s sudden disappearance was meant to imply “a birth of a new sociopath that we don’t quite know about,” transforming Wendy from a character with agency into a mere witness to someone else’s dysfunction.
The combined effect of these characterizations was to handicap Mindhunter’s own core project. While ostensibly trying to comment on the depravity of criminals like “Co-ed Killer” Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton), Mindhunter actually channeled a part of their worldview in its use of Debbie and Wendy as little more than means to an end. But in its second season, which landed on Netflix late last week, Debbie is no longer a part of the ensemble, while Carr occupies a much more prominent place within it. And it’s no coincidence that a much savvier use of Mindhunter’s sole female lead results in a significantly improved season.
Wendy’s increased role comes directly at the expense of Holden’s. At the end of the season premiere, Holden is reprimanded by his retiring boss, who’s really being pushed out due to his subordinate’s mistakes. The blistering monologue almost acts as a meta apology on behalf of the character’s shortcomings: “You arrogant, self-serving twerp. … You vainglorious little shit. I’m being forced out because somebody has to take the fall for your insubordination, reckless lack of judgment, and titanic vanity.” Having itemized why Holden can be a difficult figure to hang a show on, the rest of Mindhunter’s second season spends almost no time on his personal life, perhaps because he doesn’t seem to have one. His impulsiveness and inflated self-confidence become largely a mechanism for moving the plot forward, turning Holden into a tool to be managed, often with hilariously bitchy condescension by de facto grown-ups Wendy and Bill.
Bill’s story line this season continues to focus on his troubled relationship with his adopted son, catalyzed by a horrific tragedy that could have come from one of his own case files; at work, his exasperated dynamic with Holden remains largely the same. Wendy, meanwhile, sees both personal and professional progress. Off the clock, she meets a bartender named Kay (Lauren Glazier) and enters into a relationship that starts to test her rigidly defined boundaries. In the office, she’s forced to confront the challenges of being a woman in an almost entirely male workplace, even as that workplace affords her thrilling opportunities—including the chance to conduct interviews of her own.
The first season’s interrogation scenes, many playing Holden’s uncomfortably boyish excitement against Kemper’s obliging performance of menace, were justifiably celebrated as a highlight. (Britton even earned the show’s sole Emmy nomination, for Guest Actor in a Drama.) Allowing Wendy to participate in this rite is therefore a symbolic baton-passing as well as a rich opportunity. There’s even an odd-couple pairing to rival Holden and Bill’s overeager Cub-Scout–begrudging chaperone act: Wendy, the urbane sophisticate, teams up with Gregg Smith, the stick in the mud who ratted Holden out to internal affairs for tampering with interview transcripts. Unsurprisingly, Wendy is much better prepared to handle the curveballs thrown at them by their interlocutors.
One of Mindhunter’s central themes is that, despite Wendy’s best efforts, profiling is an inexact science, and may not even be a science at all. This fuzziness means the show’s characters are often flailing in the dark, both in the annals of forensic knowledge and their own unexplored subconscious; the personal, intuitive nature of profiling means profilers’ personalities and experiences can’t help but influence their process. Some of these links are clumsier than others: In a much-hyped sit-down, Charles Manson (Damon Herriman, reprising the role after a cameo in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood) delivers a rant about corrupted children and neglectful parents to a steaming Bill. Elsewhere, buttoned-up Holden’s interest in serial killers’ perverse form of liberation has already been established. Wendy, on the other hand, finds a more complicated link with her subjects.
As a gay woman, Wendy knows she’s seen as a deviant by polite society—the kind epitomized and protected by the FBI, less than a decade removed from the reign of J. Edgar Hoover. In a terrible irony, Wendy must conceal this difference from her coworkers even as it gives her an advantage in their shared project. While Holden and Bill are dispatched to Atlanta to investigate the city’s infamous child murders, Wendy and Gregg speak with Elmer Wayne Henley Jr. (Robert Aramayo), former protégé and killer of “Candy Man” Dean Corll, and Paul Bateson (Morgan Kelly), a gay man convicted of one murder and suspected of several others. When Wendy brings up a previous relationship with an older woman to contextualize Henley’s bond with Corll, Gregg and their superiors assume it’s a clever lie; when Bateson observes that “we can’t be seen as eating our own,” he gives Wendy a knowing glance. Mindhunter’s characters spend much of their time awkwardly translating primal instincts like sexuality into cold, clinical language as they try to determine the exact link between violence and sex. For Wendy, that process means turning her identity into a clinical instrument that could backfire on her at any time.
After hours, Wendy’s new romance offers as much conflict as solace. Kay is a free-spirited divorcée who delights in ribbing her uptight new girlfriend, but Wendy balks when she sees Kay has a double life of her own, and therefore little right to judge Wendy’s. Their relationship becomes a study in different forms of queerness, and the overlapping compromises these women have made to lead full, if compartmentalized, lives. Before a dinner party at the new boss’s house, Wendy is told she’s welcome to bring a guest; she shows up alone. (So does Holden, ever the outlier.) And when she’s there, she’s subjected to the unwelcome advances of a Justice Department flack who can’t seem to fathom why she may not be interested. Wendy the outsider may inform Wendy the researcher, but the two can never intersect.
Eventually, Wendy’s foray into the field comes to an end—not with a bang, but a smarmy request from on high to stay where she belongs. Wendy’s obvious dismay and immediate resignation recall the Mad Men subplot where Joan happily takes on new work, only for the bosses to hand the job to an underqualified man. Wendy’s happened into a job she didn’t even dare to want, one she’s arguably better at than anyone else. (Her interview tactics never triggered an investigation.) But her gender prevents her colleagues from seeing that, just as they’ll never see an entire aspect of her personhood.
In the finale, Wendy’s sidelining at work leads to her being sidelined within the show; stuck back in Virginia while Holden and Bill track down a suspect in Atlanta, she barely appears over the course of more than 70 minutes. Mindhunter has always struggled with how to capture a worldview without replicating it. But relative to last season, the show has figured out how to use Wendy to communicate its ideas, rather than inadvertently shaping her into their living counterpoint. Before, Wendy actively hindered Mindhunter’s case for itself as a well of psychological perception; now, she finally bolsters it. Helpfully, this season is less obsessed with the classic true crime dichotomy of predatory men and vulnerable women. Still, Wendy’s office struggles and short-lived romance do more than help Mindhunter finally pass the Bechdel test. They deepen its understanding of the deception and disclosure, repression and revelation that govern its study—and, the show implies, every human interaction. You don’t have to be a killer to know how many of us go through life wearing a mask.