‘Mindhunter’ Offers a Stark Warning About the Limits of Empathy
Image: Courtesy Netflix

This article contains spoilers for the first season of Mindhunter. Also, the show itself contains disturbing subject matter that may trouble some viewers. The first episode opens with a scene involving nudity and gruesome violence, and other episodes contain several instances of overt sexuality and off-camera bloodshed. While these narrative choices reflect the series’ thematic focus, viewers should exercise discernment in deciding whether or not to watch it.

“I am human and nothing human is alien to me.” — Terrence

I know we’re still cheering for the arrival of Stranger Things 2, but I’m here to tell you that Mindhunter is Netflix’s best show to date.

The series, which premiered its first season run of ten episodes on October 13, is a loose adaptation of John E. Douglas’s book by the same title. A former FBI investigator in the behavioral sciences unit, Douglas and his partner, Robert Ressler, pioneered the research that would culminate in the psychological profile of the kind of criminal we now classify as a “serial killer.” The phrase itself was coined by Ressler and has since migrated from the field of criminology to the world of pop culture, spawning its own unique subgenre that includes everything from Silence of the Lambs to Dexter. The continued popularity of Douglas’s story is yet another testament to our abiding cultural obsession with the most extreme forms of criminal deviancy.

All adaptations involve some embellishment, but this series offers a truly deft amalgamation of fact and fiction. In order to free their character development from unnecessary constraints, for instance, the writers opted to supply Douglas and Ressler with fictional counterparts: In place of Douglas, we get Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff waving farewell to his Frozen days), a bright-eyed idealist whose baby face masks a much more complex obsession with his chosen subject.

Raspy-voiced Bill Tench, meanwhile, walks into the picture with a cigarette in his hand and an ironic gleam in his eye—very much the seasoned veteran to Ford’s eager rookie. However, Tench’s gruff outward demeanor hardly matches his sensitive inner landscape. Though Ford’s theoretical brilliance will take the two men into uncharted territory, it is Tench who recognizes the moral complexity of this new terrain.

But it’s the factual material that makes the show simultaneously mesmerizing and repulsive. Apart from one scene of explicit violence and its uncompromising opening credit sequence, Mindhunter focuses mainly on the psychological dimensions of its criminals. This visual restraint, however, hardly makes it any less disturbing.

When Tench and Ford journey into the maw of the maximum security prison system to interview the nation’s most notorious murderers, their casual conversations involve such outlandishly grotesque scenarios that the net effect is almost more surreal than horrifying. Imagine discussing necrophilia in between slices of pizza and you’re in the general ballpark of these meetings. But fact is often stranger (and more terrible) than fiction, and these interviews are taken directly from official transcripts, adding a whole new level of malevolence to these little consultations.

In the show, Holden’s idea of treating these incarcerated criminals like lab rats is greeted with a mixture of perplexity and disdain. Why would anyone want to interview someone like Charles Manson or Ed Kemper? What can we possibly learn from such demented minds? Shouldn’t we restrict our efforts to putting these people behind bars? If these questions seem naïve to us now, it’s largely a tribute to the paradigm-shifting influence of Douglas and Ressler’s work.

November
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‘Mindhunter’ Offers a Stark Warning About the Limits of Empathy