With fans having waited with great anticipation for two years, David Fincher’s revolutionary Netflix series returns for its sophomore season to give fans an even deeper dive into the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. The long wait was well worth it because this second season is every bit as great as the first.
With a largely new writing staff, the second season of Mindhunter makes some structural changes including placing a larger focus on Holt McCallany’s endearing Bill Tench, who takes center stage over the determined and cocksure Holden Ford (Jonathon Groff). Shifting from the 1970s to the early ‘80s, Mindhunter sees the BSU continue to go about interviewing and profiling incarcerated serial killers in order to better understand what makes these killers tick while identifying if they share any commonalities that could be studied, and then used to catch others like them. Why do killers return to the scene of the crime? Why do some take souvenirs? Why are they obsessed with the media? Can they live a normal nine to five life? How do they choose their victims, and why do some victims later help their perpetrators?
There’s a whole new set of criminals lined up to interview but the majority of the season centers around Atlanta’s child murders which Ford sees as an opportunity to help validate their line of work and research. Tench, meanwhile, must deal with an extremely difficult personal struggle that unfortunately mirrors their investigation in tracking down the mysterious killer responsible for abducting and murdering more than two dozen black children in the greater Atlanta area.
The first episode quickly (and wisely) puts an end to the fallout from season one which generated tension between the four members of the BSU as well as Holden’s sudden panic attacks and his brief stay in a psychiatric ward. A good amount of screen time is given to Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), who finds herself in a new relationship but unfortunately, her subplot struggling with her sexual identity doesn’t quite pay off. That said, Torv is at least awarded some decent material as her Wendy increasingly feels isolated from the rest of her colleagues while also frustrated with working in an extremely conservative, male-dominated organization that is largely homophobic. More compelling is the arc of Bill Tench who must somehow balance his work life with his family life. McCallany gives the standout performance this season, and along with Stacey Roca (who plays his wife), they deliver some of the best scenes over the course of all nine episodes.
New additions this season include Lauren Glazier as Wendy’s new love interest Kay Mason, and Michael Cerveris as the new boss Ted Gunn, a man who has ambitious plans for the BSU and unlike his predecessor, is fully supportive of his staff. Meanwhile, Gregg Smith (Joe Tuttle) remains the fourth wheel and is regularly omitted from important meetings and social gatherings. It doesn’t help that he was outed as the man responsible for the leaked tape but while Smith is perhaps the least likable character, he does provide some much-needed humor particularly when he and Wendy conduct their own interviews in Holden and Bill’s absence. Unfortunately for him, his substandard performance doesn’t go unnoticed and worse, Gregg’s ineptitude becomes apparent when contrasted with the work of Jim Barny (Albert Jones) who salvages a pair of interviews that Holden has little-to-no interest in conducting.
As with Season One, Season Two is based on the nonfiction book titled Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Killer Crime Unit by Mark Olshaker and John E. Douglas. Douglas was one of the first criminal profilers in the U.S. who pioneered the method of building psychological profiles of killers so detectives could anticipate their next move or narrow down a list of suspects. While traveling around the country providing instruction to police, Douglas began interviewing serial killers (before “serial killer” was even a term) to gauge their motives — and figure out why they did what they did and why they did it the way they did. What makes Mindhunter different is how it never shows us the grisly murders nor recreates any of the crime scenes. Instead, the series takes an almost clinical approach to the aftermath of these horrific crimes sometimes by simply showing a chalk outline or a brief glimpse of some photos from a crime scene. Like Season One, Season Two remains a show about conversations, and we get a lot of long conversations between just about everyone involved. And what we don’t see is often more terrifying than what we are shown.
Mindhunter is a show firmly rooted in dialogue and exchanges of ideas, beliefs, worldviews, and psychology. Forget computerized databases and forensic science — Ford and Tench don’t believe the criminals they pursue as born inherently evil but rather formed, and that’s where David Fincher’s involvement feels pivotal. Mindhunter plays out like an expanded version of other big-screen, Fincher-directed procedurals, like Seven, Zodiac, and Gone Girl. The show takes its sweet time getting from one scene to the next, whether it’s a tense interrogation or the back-and-forth banter between the agents and convicts. But Season Two is far more reminiscent of Zodiac than say, Seven, with fewer investigations than Season One making it even more methodical than say, macabre.
Elmer Wayne Henley Jr.
Elmer Wayne Henley
Early episodes of Season Two features interviews with high-profile serial killers including the first victim-turned-killer in Elmer Wayne Henley who is currently serving six life sentences for kidnapping, raping, and killing at least 28 teenaged boys with his accomplice Dean Corll (aka “The Candy Man”) in what became known as the Houston Mass Murders. Henley (Robert Aramayo) appears in the best scene of the fourth episode when Greg fails at interviewing him and has every single one of his questions shut down. Quick to react, Wendy rightfully intervenes and it doesn’t take long before she realizes how to get Henley to talk by telling him a story about how she was once in a dominant/subordinate relationship with someone of the same sex. It’s not just the best scene of the episode but one of the best scenes of the entire season as it shows just how capable Wendy is in doing her job (something her colleagues and her superiors don’t realize)— and— shows (in similar and opposite ways) the extreme denial and homophobia of both Elmer Wayne Henley Jr. and Wendy’s partner Gregg.
Torv’s performance in the scene deserves praise as she demonstrates how Wendy is simultaneously proud of her work while also ashamed of her sexuality. But what makes this scene especially great is how we learn that Elmer Wayne Henley was first a victim of Dean Corll’s before becoming his lover and rounding up victims for him to murder. Their complex relationship complicates matters for the BSU who are still trying to figure out how to profile men and women who were persuaded to become serial killers—a topic later addressed again when Holden and Tench set out to meet Charlie Manson.
Charles Manson, Tex Watson, and Ed Kemper
With the fifth episode of Season Two, Ford and Tench visit Charles Manson (played by Damon Herriman who happens to portray the cult leader in a brief cameo in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). The latest subject in their long-term research has Holden especially excited since he’s been obsessing over the convict since the very first episode of Season One when he tried to convince a room full of police officers that Manson was possibly a victim and his upbringing led him to do terrible things. Needless to say, Holden is secretly a fan of Manson, even if he doesn’t realize it, so much so, he’s willing to entertain the idea that it was Tex Watson (Christopher Backus) who masterminded the Sharon Tate and LaBianca murders after Manson tells the agents that it was all a plan to get another family member Bobby Boselie out of jail. It doesn’t take long before their meeting with the famous criminal and cult leader goes off the rails as Manson starts claiming that the witnesses who testified against him couldn’t be trusted and that Helter Skelter wasn’t real.
Mindhunter critiques the cultural obsession that’s grown around the Manson family over the decades and reminds us that most of what we think we know about Charles Manson is either exaggerated, twisted, or simply untrue. For a man whose profile is among the most anticipated criminals of Season Two, Charles Manson comes across as a deluded, idiotic narcissist who is too weak and too short to be capable of killing anyone. It’s certainly fitting that Mindhunter finds the time to include Charles Manson given that this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Manson murders — but the best thing to come out of their meeting is the brief (and sadly only) cameo by Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton) who expresses his resentment for the far more famous Manson, who he superciliously refers to as “the charlatan.”
Kemper was the big bad of Season One, a man who feels no shame or remorse, and someone who would crack your skull open in a blink of an eye. And yet every time he is off-screen, you can’t help but miss him. Standing at 6 feet 9 inches, Kemper is articulate, polite, extremely intelligent, and loves to talk. Manson, next to Kemper comes across as a complete nut, and whatever “charisma” Charles Manson supposedly has, it is nowhere to be found here. In fact, after watching Holden’s interview with Tex Watson, one has to wonder just how a man like Charles Manson convinced and brainwashed his followers to commit those horrific crimes. As with Elmer Wayne Henley’s case, Mindhunter Season Two keeps returning to this question.
David Berkowitz a.k.a. Son of Sam
David Berkowitz and William Junior Pierce
While Manson and Kemper occupy a bit of the screentime, as do other interviews with the Son of Sam (Oliver Cooper) and William Junior Pierce (Michael Filipowich), both of whom are played for laughs. When Agents Holden Ford and Jim Barney visit Pierce at a Georgia jail in the third episode, they’re taken back by how dim-witted the convict is. As Pierce insists he’s intelligent and claims he speaks seven languages (while simultaneously showing us he has trouble to count to ten), the F.B.I. agents quickly realize he lacks the analytic insight and Ford quickly loses interest. Unlike the better-known murderers, it covers, Mindhunter doesn’t particularly detail Pierce’s life or crimes, which isn’t surprising since there’s little to be found (at least online) about the convicted killer – but the scene is interesting if only because it demonstrates Barney’s interrogative skills while finding time to also drop an Easter egg in the form of a picture that Agent Barney produces of the very real William Junior Pierce that was taken on May 1971.
It’s the second episode of Season Two that features the first interview with a murderer and who better to start with than David Berkowitz (a.k.a. the 44 Caliber Killer a.k.a. the Son of Sam) who killed six people and wounded seven between 1976 and 1977 before he was finally captured. Much like the Zodiac Killer, Berkowitz communicated with the police during his summer of carnage, leaving behind hand-written letters next to his victims and sending messages to the press. Berkowitz clearly took pride in his growing fame and did everything he could to become a household name. The “dumpy, awkward mailman,” as Doctor Wendy Carr describes him, claimed that he was possessed by a demon who shouted commands at him via his neighbor’s barking dog. As it turns out, Berkowitz made up the entire scenario in hopes to cash in on a book about his life.
What makes the Berkowitz interview fascinating (apart from the brilliant performance by Oliver Cooper) is how quickly Holden is able to sort through the facts and realize Berkowitz was manipulating the media the entire time in order to rebrand himself after being dubbed the “.44 caliber killer” a nickname he didn’t like. As it turns out, Berkowitz quickly confesses that he was faking his initial claims of schizophrenia and can’t stand the thought of a copycat killer stealing his thunder. But the most important insight they cull from the interview with Berkowitz is that he returned to the scene of the crimes, and according to him all serial killers do; it’s something they just can’t resist, he tells them.
Dennis Rader, the BTK Strangler
While Season Two teased the investigations of the BTK Killer (short for Bind, Torture, Kill), who killed ten people in the Wichita, Kansas metro area throughout the 70s and 80s — the killer himself only appears briefly in each of these nine episodes. As with Season One, Season Two features several cold opens with a focus on the BTK Killer himself, Dennis Lynn Rader (Sonny Valicenti) mostly concentrating on his practices with autoerotic asphyxiation while wearing a creepy doll mask as well as the aftermath of a few crimes he committed during that time. Anyone expecting more from him may be disappointed given that Rader had ended his murder career in 1991 and only began correspondence with the press and police again in 2004 leading to his eventual arrest in 2005. In other words, don’t’ expect more of him since he and the F.B.I. only cross paths much later in life.
Depending on whether or not David Fincher will want to fast forward a couple of decades in later seasons, we can only assume Rader will continue to be used simply as a thematic string to connect certain plot points along the way. Considering that Holden has often gone on record to say many times that serial killers are incapable of living normal lives, Rader directly contradicts that theory. In fact, everything about Dennis Lynn Rader conflicts with the profile that Holden Ford and his team have formulated thus far. In Season Two, Holden is also convinced that the Atlanta murder must be African American, a good theory but also one that many believe to this day, was completely inaccurate. Now that Mindhunter has introduced BTK as a regular, he’ll become a representation of the sad truth that no matter how advanced the FBI’s profiling techniques are, the reality is that they don’t always get the guy – and no matter good Holden may be at his job, he isn’t always right.
The Best Scene of 2019
Despite his lack of screen time, the BTK killer does bring the absolute best sequence of the series thus far courtesy of David Fincher and his impeccable talent in deriving suspense and tension out of even the simplest scenes… such as three men sitting in a car. Of course, I’m referring to the sequence involving Bill’s interview with the only known survivor of a BTK attack, Kevin Bright — whose sister was, unfortunately, not as lucky as he. Bright was shot in the head but survived; his sister, on the other hand, was strangled to death.
Bright agrees to speak to the authorities only on the condition that nobody ever looks him directly in the face. Since Kevin cautions Tench that he doesn’t want to be seen, Bill keeps his focus forward as Fincher stays locked in on tight shots of all three men with Kevin shown in the background out of focus. Adding to the tension are the sounds of a passing train in the background and waves of daylight piercing through the car windows. The sequence is a prime example of how David Fincher brings together the full talent of his cast and crew to get the most of a scene that in the hands of any other director, would just be a simple conversation taking place inside a vehicle. With Fincher in the lead, it is instead a master class of direction— and while our point of view of Kevin is head-on, thanks to the gorgeous cinematography by Erik Messerschmidt and astute direction of Fincher, we technically see as little of Kevin as Tench does.
The Brilliance of David Fincher
Fincher, who also serves as executive producer, returns to direct the first three episodes with his usual panache; while Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) and TV veteran Carl Franklin (The Leftovers) helm the remaining six. Fincher’s aesthetic and style permeates the series right from the get-go. In the first episode’s cold open, Mindhunter follows the wife of Dennis Lynn Rader as she arrives home only to discover her husband in the act of autoerotic asphyxiation. It’s one hell of a way to open up the season as Fincher’s use of slow-motion coupled with the eclectic choice of Roxy Music’s “In Every Dream Home a Heartache” keeps viewers at the edge of their seat thinking she will just be another victim of the BTK killer, only she’s not.
Mindhunter is simply put, some of the most disciplined filmmaking ever put to the small screen. It seriously is a stunningly gorgeous show to look at, even when things get ugly. Fincher makes the most of every scene using careful shot selection, terrific performances, assured pacing, brisk editing, crisp lighting and incredible sound design that clues us to things our F.B.I. agents don’t see. And given that most of the horror appears off-screen, Fincher somehow finds ways to heighten the suspense even in scenes with little-to-no action.
Wayne Williams, the Atlanta Child Murderer
The Atlanta Child Murders
Even more ambitious than the first season, Season Two spends much of the latter half tracking down the Atlanta Child Killer, an extremely complicated case (that is still open to this day), about young black children who are killed in an alarming rate. It’s a monumental task since the story unfolds against a political backdrop which saw the city and the capital of the state of Georgia, emerge from its pivotal role in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement into a new progressive era for black Americans. Not only does Season Two have to deal with the fact that many people believe Wayne Williams is not the man responsible for killing the children (a theory re-examined in the podcast Atlanta Monster)— but the second season of Mindhunter must also address the sensitive topics of racial, social, and economic divides that hampered that investigation from the start.
After being approached for help by a desperate hotel clerk, Tanya Clifton (Sierra McClain), Holden is introduced to a group of grieving mothers who are leading their own investigation. Ford firmly believes the child killer is also African American since, in his eyes, a white man can’t go unnoticed in the impoverished black neighborhoods in which kids had been abducted. But as the black mayor, the black officials and his black colleagues remind him, missing black kids are hardly a surprise in an area where the Ku Klux Klan have many active members, some of which work on the force. And while Holden Ford makes a good point about the difficulty of a white man going unnoticed in broad daylight while kidnapping black kids, he’s also eliminated any possibility that maybe, just maybe, he’s wrong. As Agent Jim Barney reminds him, Holden’s theory is just that, a theory. In the end, Wayne Williams is arrested and charged for two murders, but the fact remains, we still to this day have no physical evidence nor a confession that proves Wayne Williams was indeed responsible. Like Fincher’s 2007 masterpiece Zodiac, Mindhunter succeeds in reminding us that, there’s not always closure when investigating homicides and many of the most notorious crimes remain unsolved to this day.
Ultimately, Mindhunter is one of the best shows of 2019— a meticulous, well written and darkly evocative re-creation of a time and a place that captures the complexity and inherent difficulties of old-fashioned detective work. The attention to detail must be applauded— Mindhunter captures every feeling and nuance of an entire era and through its brilliant commentary, it will make you want to dig through Wikipedia posts while binging several true crime podcasts just to learn more about its subjects. It’s a story about the incomprehensible nature of evil and reminds us that in the end, we won’t learn every detail and understand every motive.
I guess we can all look forward to seeing John Wayne Gacy, a.k.a. The Killer Clown appear next season as pointed out by Reddit user @nick_o_lay, via the screenshot below.
- Ricky D