Mindhunter and the Optics of Murder

There’ss a scene in the second episode of the second season of Netflix’s Mindhunter where Special Agent Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) sits in a bar with a Kansas policeman, discussing the BTK Killer, aka Dennis Rader. “We’ve lost a lot of the original task force over the years,” the Kansas policeman says. “It’s hard on guys.” 

People tend to scatter after murders, especially if the killer goes unidentified. Regardless of worldview, it’s hard to accept the fact that a violent killer hasn’t faced any consequences, let alone that they’re still roaming around your community. Why stay in a place where you’re reminded of your community’s trauma every day? How can you look at yourself in the mirror, knowing how the world must view your community now that heinous crimes have gone unpunished?

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Murder and Politics

Politics inflects all of social life. No matter what mindset we take to a public event, the way we approach it is political. Even the most innocuous or bipartisan events have politics, and even the attempt to remain apolitical is a political stance. Murder is no exception, as Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and his team — Tench, Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), and Jim Barney (Albert Jones) — at the Behavioral Science wing of the FBI discover in Mindhunter’s second season. 

Whereas the first season focused on Holden as he interviewed a variety of serial killers to build a better understanding of their pathologies, Mindhunter’s sophomore effort finds him and his team in Atlanta investigating one primary case, the child murders of 1979-81. What Holden finds in Atlanta is a social climate he is not remotely prepared to navigate, as the city’s black residents rail against the city’s political leaders for their failure to catch the criminal(s) murdering black children — 28 of them in total.

This makes the case a political powderkeg, and Holden find himself stumbling throughout the investigation. Every step of the way, he complains about the politicians, press, and voters who seem to care more about how his investigation looks than the investigation itself. The politicians want to downplay the idea that the crimes were committed by a single predator, the press sensationalizes everything, and the voters curse at the seeming lack of progress being made. 

Which Murders Matter?

Most characters in Mindhunter’s second season are concerned with how things look — even the killers. Tench talks to a judge who thinks he can just tell if a juvenile delinquent is evil at a glance, and wishes he could put them away for life. Tanya, the hotel concierge who first reached out to Holden for help, can’t accept his conclusion that the killer is black, because as soon as he says it he looks just like every Atlanta police officer she’s known. Wendy talks to a gay murderer who refuses to take responsibility for a series of murders he is highly suspected of committing, adding, “Perceptions matter when you’re an aberration. We can’t be seen as eating our own.” 

Some murders just matter more than others in the eyes of the public, and that calculus is determined by optics and politics. Sure, the Atlanta child murders are gruesome, but do they have the cultural cachet of the Manson family? Manson himself appears in season two, as Holden seeks to interview him. However, they learn almost nothing new from him.

Manson is easy to figure out: a con man who so needs to be in control that he taught his family to kill, sits above Holden and Bill, and lies to fellow inmates about stealing sunglasses from Holden. His collaborator Tex is more insightful, but neither of them help Holden much in Atlanta. But he’s Charles Manson, so Holden had to talk to him, right?

As objective as Holden tries to appear in all of this, he’s playing the same game as everyone else. Yes, he sticks to his guns, his hard-won research indicating that serial killers rarely prey upon victims outside their own race. He remains laser-focused on using his studies to bring in the predator despite all the obstacles, despite all of the friends his task loses him. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t paying attention to optics, too.

Holden, personally, has so much riding on this. He and Tench have an opportunity to change the entire FBI with this case, but to do that they to be right as a proof of concept for their whole team. Holden doesn’t just need to catch the killer, he needs the killer to fit his specific profile. Holden doesn’t just need to talk to serial killers, he needs to talk to the most famous killers that ever killed. Wendy and Bill each have subplots about their personal lives this season, but Holden doesn’t, because he doesn’t have a personal life. He has nothing in his apartment and nobody in his life except for the murderers he studies. That means that when we see him in the narrative, we see almost nothing but his mistakes and frustrations in finding his killer.

The Limits of Understanding

Mistakes and obstacles abound for Holden. When he isn’t pissing off Atlanta’s police commissioner, he’s failing to get support from the FBI and Atlanta’s police. It gets so bad that he compares himself to Sisyphus, eternally punished by having to roll a boulder up a hill, only to have it always roll itself back down at the summit. 

Each of Mindhunter’s three main characters has their own boulder. Wendy finds herself increasingly sidelined throughout the season, as her new boss Ted Gunn keeps her locked in place rather than have a non-agent out in the field, no matter how much better at interviewing killers she is than that clod Greg Smith. Bill can’t connect with his son Brian after Brian witnesses older boys killing a toddler — Brian seems to be emotionally regressing from the trauma and there’s nothing Bill can do about it. 

Holden’s boulder is, of course, the case. Atlanta police fail to interview suspects and can’t even help him print flyers to lure the killer. But the final straw comes when the police and the FBI move on after a single man is arrested, despite increasing indications that there was more than one killer. As far as the optics were concerned, they had their man. Marianne Faithfull’s “Guilt” plays as Holden watches the FBI break his promise to stay in Atlanta and keep working the cases. People scatter as many of the hardest questions of the case go unanswered. 

There’s a reason the writers of Mindhunter chose as the foundation of their second season the Atlanta child murders, a case with more doubts than answers. Because underneath all the politics, the social miscues, the optics, there’s just Sisyphus. Rolling his rock up a hill, watching it plummet back down, and never understanding why. Mindhunter has always been about the persistence of evil: the first season is about the fear that we may never understand it. The second season is about the fear that no matter how much progress we make, it won’t be enough to make a difference.

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