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.