Essays · TV

The Impact of the Unseen in ‘Mindhunter’

The scariest part about serial killers is what we don’t see.
By  · Published on October 19th, 2017

The scariest part about serial killers is what we don’t see.

As soon as I knew David Fincher was directing a series on serial killers, I was in. That was all the knowledge I went into watching Mindhunter with, but it brought up a lot of expectations. Thankfully, all of those expectations were completely overturned in a brilliant, unexpected way.

Serial killers usually make for compelling characters. Film and TV have certainly capitalized on them in the years since the inception of the Behavioral Science Unit, but that is where Mindhunter begins. In the 1970s, the FBI had no explanation for the mass killings occurring across the country. The murderers seemed to be marvels of psychology, without motive or remorse for the uncanny violent crimes they committed.

Now we know the patterns of behavior that are telltale signs of a serial killer. Many viewers are going into the show knowing more than the protagonist, Holden Ford, who is essentially discovering all that we already know about serial killers for the first time. So, Mindhunter‘s interesting topic also poses its hardest obstacle. The audience familiar with serial killers must be invited to put that aside and learn along with Holden for the sake of entertainment.

Instead of taking the Criminal Minds approach and showing the gruesome killings before they are solved, Mindhunter limits the point of view to Holden. The only glimpses we get at these crimes are through the interviews he conducts with the killers themselves. This may sound unsatisfying, but hearing the details from the men who committed the murders is much more jarring than simply being shown the murders. This lends the writers more leeway into describing vile acts Holden investigates that they couldn’t show the audience in such detail. It also teases the audience’s imagination with references to images we never want to think about, but nonetheless stick with us after the episode has ended.

Brilliantly, Mindhunter is not concerned with solving the mystery of these killers entirely either. We hear their account of their infamous crimes in their detached, cold voices. They answer the agent’s questions, but don’t fully answer the question that keeps audiences returning to serial killer stories: Why? Once the killers have provided an insight that benefits the research the FBI is conducting, the show jumps to the next crime or the next interview (except Ed Kemper, who makes a chilling return in the finale). The terrifying mystery of these men still remains.

The show is more about Holden’s personal discoveries, with researching serial killers and with understanding the gray areas between right and wrong. His arc is more of a downward spiral that is refreshing and entertaining to see in a show that deals with law enforcement. With the shows before Mindhunter, those investigating serial killers have an aura of genius to them. Their instincts are always right somehow. Mindhunter recognizes this cliche (Holden is referred to as Sherlock Holmes throughout the series) and banishes it. Holden’s instincts are often wrong, making for some of the most powerful moments in the show. This may not have been possible, or at least as nuanced if the emphasis was on getting a finite explanation to the men Holden investigates.

In a way I think only Fincher can pull off, Mindhunter finds its conflict outside of the reason many people come to the show. The heart of the show comes from the drive to understand other people, the desire to break new ground, and the possibility that to do the right thing means defying authority. That being said, Fincher delivers on the uncomfortable and disgusting material people are expecting. The conversations throughout are full of sexuality, vulgarity, and unsettling subjects that will certainly linger with you after you finish the show.

Mindhunter has already been renewed for a second season, but you can watch the first 10 episodes on Netflix.

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Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_