On top of directing four of its ten episodes, David Fincher also serves as the executive producer of Mindhunter, and fans of his work will note the clear affinities between the show and two of his most accomplished films—namely, Se7en and Zodiac. Interestingly, both films showcase the tension that erupts when unchecked obsession meets with the restraint of painstaking analysis. Since the medium of television offers the distinct advantage of detailed character analysis, Fincher uses it to refine his exploration of this conflicted dynamic, showing us how Ford’s insatiable curiosity begins to encroach on his personal life. The tension is intensified by the arrival of Wendy Carr—a steely academic recruited by the bureau to formalize the methodology behind the prison interviews. Carr has little sympathy for Ford’s unorthodox tactics in the interviews, which involve everything from catering to a prisoner’s shoe fetish to matching their obscene lingo.
Despite the undeniable breakthroughs offered by their unique fieldwork, both Carr and Tench recognize that clear boundaries must be established between themselves and their subjects. Ford’s apparent “immunity” to these interviews is a source of anxiety for Tench who finds their work deeply troubling. He also recognizes that his younger partner’s growing facility in earning the trust of sociopaths is calcifying into a kind of heedless pride, a pride that forms an uncomfortable parallel with the men they’re interviewing. Unlike Ford, Tench knows that there is such a thing as getting too close.
Though it concerns events that took place in the late ’70s, Mindhunter is very much a show of its time. Arguably, the central virtue of our cultural moment is empathy. In its contemporary guise, this virtue presents itself as a steadfast refusal to marginalize any form of difference, no matter how exotic or extreme. Leslie Jamison’s superb Empathy Examsoffers a vivid encapsulation of this contemporary mindset:
Empathy comes from the Greek empatheia—em (into) and pathos (feeling)—a penetration, a kind of travel. It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze there?
Mindhunter asks us to consider whether there are limits to empathy. Expanding on Jamison’s metaphor, the show asks whether it’s possible to travel to the country of another person’s pain only to find yourself indefinitely detained, your passport confiscated. When does empathy move beyond identification and become transformation?
Like any serious story, Mindhunter pays its audience the compliment of high expectations. True, the show does feature sensational material—but it also abounds in long stretches of meandering dialog, much of it punctuated by technical jargon and academic references. Emile Durkheim’s social theories make an appearance in the first episode; Erving Goffman and Freud follow as the series progresses. Though the storyline remains compelling, this is not a show for multitaskers.