'Mindhunter' and Facing Our Monsters
Last year when I turned 30, I wrote about aging out of the “dead girl” demographic. I’d spent a good chunk of my teenage years and all of my 20s watching girls and women who didn’t look too different from me displayed as bodies on television. Frequently, these women were victims of nebulous “serial killers,” which is a concept TV likes even though most women who are murdered are murdered by someone they know, not strangers with a penchant for building Lincoln Log structures out of the limbs of their victims. When I was 16, I took a class called “Issues in Contemporary American Society” and one of the first units was about serial killers. In addition to hearing about the crimes, we were taught “never get in the car,” general situational awareness, holding your keys like brass knuckles, and knowing that you yell “fire” not “help.” In my experience, women become fascinated by serial killers due to a perverse fascination with how they pick their victims, and how you avoid being a victim. Or how to distance yourself from those victims so you can assure yourself that they did something wrong to deserve a terrible death. There are very few women who are serial killers. We understand that in these stories we are almost always the prey and practically never the hunter.
In Mindhunter we follow the life and career of Holden Ford. Some will try to pluralize the title to refer to the team, but this is Holden’s show in more ways than one. He finds a way to use his position at the FBI to speak to serial killers. Later, he is able to arrive at a REASON to talk to serial killers, but the constant through the show is that he doesn’t want to talk to these men to explore a pathology. He wants to talk to specific people (he has near encyclopedic knowledge of their names and crimes before the project starts) about specific crimes to know specifically why they committed them. While he ends up as part of a task force designed to define a psychological profile for serial killers that can be used to catch them early, Holden seems to have an interest in why, exactly, some men kill in monstrous ways. He does not want to know this because he is afraid of them, until the very last episode he seems to have no fear of being in the company of these killers, he seems to want to know this because he wants to know what makes a person into a killer. On some level he senses an affinity with these men, and he seems to want to avoid indulging that affinity within himself without realizing that he already is hunting is own preferred prey. Watching Mindhunter is watching Holden Ford engage in his own psychopathy under the guise of being an FBI agent, and it is terrifying.
There are a lot of parallels that can be drawn between Holden and the men he interviews, but one of the most damning is the way the men see him. They are eager to speak to someone who wants to understand them, and basically beg them to explain to him why they did what they did in some cases. Holden himself selects a romantic partner, Debbie, whom he treats in much the same way. Debbie’s studies into psychology seem fascinating to Holden less for her own insights and interest and more in the way he can use her to explain himself. Holden appears to have almost no firm self-image or self-understanding. He only wears suits, his apartment is barely furnished, he has no friends. What he has is Debbie, and an insatiable desire to interview serial killers before we knew to call them serial killers. Before we knew there might be a connection between the guy who beheaded people to have sex with their corpses, a guy who abducted women to take pictures of them in lingerie and high-heels and then killed them, and a guy who raped a woman and then killed her and all her roommates.
The serial killers discuss embarrassing incidents from their upbringing, usually involving their mother and shame. Holden shares stories about his mother walking in on him while he’s masturbating and interrogating him about his college sex life. While Dr.Carr and Agent Tench are all about creating a formalized list of questions and making the interviews as professional and routine as possible in order to gather information, Holden keeps pushing the envelope to cater to specific killers and their specific acts. This does mean he’s the only one to understand that the principal who won’t stop tickling children even after being warned is on the same scale of compulsion that the killers are; but it also means he forgets to understand that these men are to be feared not trusted.
Mindhunter ends with two distinct incidents; one is that Holden is threatened by Ed Kemper and realizes all at once what it means to be the prey of the men he’s been hunting. The other is that we see a man who’s likely the BTK killer calmly destroying evidence after we hear that the story about the new FBI profiling team went nationwide through the AP wire. The problem with learning about monsters who are human is that the monsters can learn too. Holden learned it at the end of this season. We’ll see if that knowledge serves him going forward, or if his own compulsions are simply too irresistible.