Amazon Prime Video review: ‘Mindhunter’

The Amazon Prime miniseries Mindhunter is well-done. I’m not sure whether I’d call it “watchable,” because sometimes it’s hard to watch (though, thank Heaven, there are no dramatizations of actual murders, which might frankly have driven me off). And having watched both the first season and the newly-released second season now, I’m not entirely sure what the point is.

The series is based on the development of the discipline (I won’t say science) of criminal behavioral profiling at the FBI in the 1970s and ‘80s. The main characters, FBI agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt MacCallany), are based on real men – John E. Douglas and Robert K. Ressler. They are, however, fictionalized beyond all recognition. Holden is a young agent, kind of a genius with an intuitive understanding of human motivation, but poor at social relations and office politics. Bill is old school, at first skeptical of profiling but gradually won over. He runs interference for his partner when he steps out of line. Which is often. There’s also a professional psychologist, Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), who is a closeted lesbian and chafes at being kept out of the action on the street.

The experiment begins with the agents doing long, intense interviews with various incarcerated serial killers. Richard Speck is one of them, and they “get” Charles Manson in Season Two. But the most “helpful” is Ed Kemper, the “Co-Ed Killer” (Cameron Britton), who is portrayed as remarkably articulate and self-aware, but helpless to control his impulses – a fascinating performance, chilling in its ambivalence. Gradually (they believe) they begin to recognize social and behavioral patterns matching various kinds of “organized” serial killers.

The show is fascinating (I think) mainly in its portrayals of the criminally insane. I’m less impressed with the value of behavioral profiling in itself. In the real world (or so I’ve read), profiling doesn’t really do much to solve crimes. By its nature it can’t provide positive evidence. That problem seems to be echoed in the aura of futility that hangs over much of the production. Season Two ends with the conviction of Wayne Williams, the Atlanta Child Killer, but the resolution leaves the agents frustrated. And Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer, appears in regular vignettes. But in fact, profilers had little or nothing to do with Rader’s conviction. He was identified through digital forensics.

So I’m not sure what to say about Mindhunter. It’s fascinating to watch the process and be shocked by the face of evil, but there aren’t a lot of satisfactions here. Serious cautions for disturbing material, foul language, sex and nudity.

4 thoughts on “Amazon Prime Video review: ‘Mindhunter’”

  1. I’m almost tempted to compare it to that episode of THE BIG BANG THEORY when Amy informs the guys that RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK would have ended the exact same way had Indy never entered the picture in the first place. While we’re supposed to be impressed by Holden’s insistence that the serial killer of African American children is himself black, something no one initially believes or wants to hear (for political reasons), it may just be that Williams was innocent of almost all those crimes. And the Wendy Carr side tale contributed virtually nothing to the greater story. It came off as little more than compulsory diversity casting and a domestic sidebar about how you never really know people, just reinforcing the bigger morality tale about how, well, you never really know people, despite all the soft science that tells you you do. I would recommend it only for Bill Tench, especially as played by MacCallany: a man of great character and integrity who nevertheless can’t keep his life from falling apart.

  2. I’ve listened to a podcast series on the Atlanta Child Murders. W. Williams definitely sunk himself, but he was only convicted of two adult murders (and he may not have committed those). It is appealing to think the murders stopped after they arrested Williams, but the evidence I heard doesn’t support him being The Child Killer ™. Most weird in all the testimony were the two stories about a creepy guy who looked like Williams but the witnesses recognized he was someone else.

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