“You keep looking at me like a specimen,” the massive man tells his visitor with a note of displeasure. Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton), a gently spoken but imposing figure, may have wisdom to impart, but he’s nobody’s lab experiment. His is a vivid, racing mind. And his visitor (Jonathan Groff) is there to find out how exactly that mind conceived of and carried out a killing spree.
In Netflix’s superior new drama Mindhunter, human minds are the staging ground for inhuman acts. Groff plays Holden Ford, a 29-year-old FBI agent with ambitions far beyond his station. Ford’s interest in criminals has less to do with bringing them to justice than with understanding why they do what they do and how their patterns might be spotted elsewhere. That’s what brings him to Kemper, a killer who gave himself up because, as he says, he “despaired of never being caught.” He was simply too good at getting away with murder.
It’s 1979 and the FBI is operating at cross-purposes. The agency is at once reckoning with the legacy of its late chief J. Edgar Hoover and trying to find its way in a world that seems defined by new evils. Murder sprees by Charles Manson’s California “family” and David Berkowitz, New York City’s Son of Sam, haven’t just captured the public’s imagination. They seem illustrative, within the FBI, of a sort of malignant evil that can only be fought be redoubling commitments to old methods. It’s one thing when Ford teaches future hostage negotiators to make perpetrators “feel heard” — that’s just strategy, albeit an edgy one. But when he confronts his colleagues about their reading of Manson as a figure from a morality play — “That’s a little bit Old Testament, don’t you think? Good, evil, black, white ...” — they revolt.
This tension, even more so than its subject matter, is what makes Mindhunter feel perfectly timed. Crime drama can, at its worst, revel in the grossest sort of spectatorship. Shows like CBS’s Criminal Minds, or ones that trade on the names of real-life murderers, can all too easily slip into gratuitousness for its own sake. (That program’s star, Mandy Patinkin, quit after two seasons over its content.) But at its best, the genre tries to understand the roots of crime by investigating some of humanity’s most vexing paradoxes. Mindhunter, curious and thoughtful, is an example of the latter.
Based on the fascinating memoir of FBI profiler John Douglas, Mindhunter carries you through one naïf’s journey into darkness. Ford, like any ambitious young thing, is bolder than he is wise. That mix of traits serves him well as he travels across the U.S. researching criminal minds. Groff, who played a lovelorn game designer lost in the sprawling San Francisco gay scene on HBO’s Looking, brings to this show the same questing spirit. He’s aided by the direction of David Fincher, whose ornately nasty visual style gave the early seasons of House of Cards their poisoned-truffle savor.
House of Cards is defined, though, by its haute allure — its characters stride the corridors of power, and do so in made-to-measure suits. Mindhunter is baggier and more appealing. Ford and his partner Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) exist in a state of disempowerment. One wittily shot sequence cuts between all the bits of sustenance and transport they rely on as they traverse the country seeking killers to interview, from diner coffee to Alka-Seltzer to Trans World Airlines flights.
Like any institution, the FBI has its own inertia: “Psychology is for backroom boys,” Ford is told by a higher-up. “It’s frowned upon.” His fighting back against this diktat helps make the character more than just a passive interrogator. He’s a hero we can root for, both to override his superiors and see his mission through. No one would call Kemper, the man Ford interviews about his crimes early on, a sympathetic figure: he targeted female hitchhikers. But Ford listens to him with real engagement. When Kemper suggests he be lobotomized — perhaps not such a bad thing — Ford reacts with horror. He’d lose a hugely valuable resource.
If all TV cops were this curious about the world around them, there’d be no such thing as a crime procedural. After all, what makes Law & Order so repeatable is the fact that the procedure doesn’t change. Cops and criminals all have a part to play. Mindhunter is engaged with the process of law enforcement, but a procedural it isn’t. Instead, it examines how crime is fought to ask what it is we really want cops to do for us. This is no bleeding-heart show—it’s on the side of law enforcement and incarceration. But Mindhunter’s underlying belief, that the enemy ought to be respected and known, feels almost radical.