‘Mindhunter’ Season 2 Review: Now With More Institutional Cynicism

It’s been a long wait for the followup to one of the best crime dramas of the decade, but Mindhunter‘s second season is finally here. Details about this season were sparse, and once you watch you’ll know why. This season is as dark and harrowing as the first but takes a much more cynical look at the FBI and even its main character. This season showcases David Fincher‘s signature bleak look at justice and evil with expert style, but it isn’t without its shortcomings.

In the first season, FBI agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) set out to create a new division of the FBI, the Behavioral Science Unit, by studying the worst minds in the country, notable serial killers. Holden is the show’s golden boy in the first season, he believes in change and wants to break rules to get their work recognized. This is his downfall when the team, including psychologist Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), is investigated for questionable interview tactics, and at the end of the season, they are in troubled waters. They turn on each other and the future of the unit is uncertain.

The show picks back up on the team with Bill playing the family man at home and taking the fall for Holden’s disappearance with their superior. Holden is held up in a mental hospital after having a breakdown following his meeting with Ed Kemper at the end of Season 1. Wendy continues to be the rock of the study without any respect. The team gets a new superior when the assistant director retires and brings in Ted Gunn (Michael Cerveris), an emphatic supporter of the Behavioral Science Unit and of Holden’s tactics in speaking with serial killers, even if they may have been questionable to others. Their goal is to continue their work studying serial killers but focusing on ones that may help with catching the serial killer known as BTK and later solving the Atlanta Child Murders. Holden takes a backseat to most of the character studies, and the show focuses on Bill’s troublesome home life and Wendy’s personal life as she finds a new girlfriend (Lauren Glazier).

What the show does better this season is the side stories focusing on the lives of Wendy and Bill rather than Holden. Wendy doesn’t get enough recognition for her work with the FBI and with the new director, she’s just someone to leave behind in the basement while the boys go and talk to killers. In the few scenes we get with Wendy doing her psychology work, she proves she can get what she wants out of the killers just as well as Holden and without bias. Most of her scenes in this season focus on her personal life, which is lovely to watch. Her struggles to have a meaningful relationship with her new girlfriend while trying to keep her sexuality from the public is moving.

The other side storyline that this season explores is Bill’s home life. His wife desperately wants him to spend more time at home so they can be a normal family. His work comes too close to home when a toddler’s body is found in one of the houses his wife is trying to sell. He offers to help the local detective take a look at the crime scene, but what he finds is not what he expected. The boy’s body was shaped into a cross and his son was there to watch the boy die. It becomes clear that his adopted son is very troubled and all the interviews with real serial killers never prepared Bill with raising a son who could become the same. Bill has been an old fashioned guy when it comes to drawing defined lines of right and wrong, but this season forces him to question that.

The story of the murdered child in Bill’s neighborhood juxtaposes the unfolding of the Atlanta Child Murders perfectly. In the Virginia suburbs where Bill lives, the community comes together in a church to hear from the detective solving the case. They’re angry, but their thoughts are heard, and the idea of a young child being murdered in their town is unheard of. Meanwhile, in Atlanta, the families of the children missing or found dead are given no hope from investigators. Their children aren’t mourned for in the same way, and their families are even blamed for putting their children in danger. The racial divide is clear between the two stories, both sad and disturbing, but one on a much larger scale.

If you hadn’t known anything about the Atlanta Child Murders before going into this season, the way the case resolves (or fails to) is disappointing and angering, but that’s how the true story goes. Wayne Williams remains in jail for the two murders he is convicted of in the show. To have the main characters behind the shoddy police work and disregard for other leads is hard to watch, knowing that they are supposed to be the good guys. Holden and Bill always feel like the heroes when interviewing other serial killers, but when using those same tactics on someone who clearly has done nothing wrong, they aren’t who we want to side with. Fincher is perhaps the only filmmaker who can pull off this bleak look at the FBI, and it feels completely intentional to leave the audience unsatisfied and angry with the reality of the case.

The interviews continue to be some of the most chilling scenes on television as they find ways to portray violence through dialogue rather than visuals and actions. The Son of Sam (Oliver Cooper) and Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) characters don’t disappoint in their cameos, but the most harrowing interview comes from a victim rather than a killer. As Bill tries to hone in on BTK before he is distracted with what is going on in Atlanta, he interviews a survivor of an attack they believe is connected to BTK. The young man Kevin (Andrew Yackel) talks about his traumatic experience in emotional detail that is much more chilling than seeing the attack on screen. If Mindhunter knows how to nail anything, clearly it’s monologues.

The BTK crimes almost have a bigger part in this season, but that investigation is completely thrown out once they focus on Atlanta. The short scenes he is in this season aren’t as harrowing as last season and they make him somewhat comical. If the team would have just focused on his case, perhaps the season would have been more similar to the last, but the BTK parts of the show still feel like throwaway moments at this point.

While the case is historically disappointing, the characters’ stories in this season end without resolve, too. Bill’s storyline with his son seems to have no bearing on how he looks at the Atlanta murders. Holden is given even more praise for catching a guy they had no evidence against, stroking his ego that only got worse this season. Wendy is completely left out of the investigation, perhaps because if she were to witness Holden’s grasping at straws, she would have never allowed it. The show ends with the men of the FBI boarding a jet and patting each other on the backs, claiming they did their jobs like they were supposed to or at least trying to convince themselves they did.

The show takes on an unfathomable story in the Atlanta Child Murders, and for its efforts, it does a pretty good job telling the tale of the investigation. The politics and racial discussions in the show are thoughtful, even if they are somewhat cynical. The supporting characters take over the show, and it’s for the better. The show began by developing a baseline for new psychology practices but chose to focus on the human aspect of using science to prove intuitions to be right even when they are wrong. Like the first season, the second ends with no indication where these characters are headed, but we’ll surely be waiting on bended knee for the next season.

Emily Kubincanek: @emilykub_ Broke writer in the making.