MINDHUNTER: Yakking About Psychopaths

Below you will find spoilers for Season 1 of Netflix’s MINDHUNTER, no really, I mean it, I spill everything, don’t say I didn’t warn you.









I do not know why I love this show.

Seriously. 99% of the time, it’s a bunch of people talking. The rest of the time, it’s moody shots of people maybe possibly being about to do a thing (or be the victim of someone doing a thing), or one of our principals having sex. (There’s not a lot of this, btw, but it’s pretty explicit when it happens.)

But most of the time they’re talking, and a lot of the talk is about criminal psychology and investigative methodology. Also dismemberment, really ugly sexual assault, and explicit acts with bits of dead people. (No, I’m not kidding.)

Principal #1 is Holden, a bright but shall we say sheltered young FBI agent who opens our story trying to talk down a gunman with a hostage. The police pre-empt his probable victory by blowing the guy’s head off (literally, yikes, yuck). Holden is annoyed, but the cops don’t know why; they saved the hostages, didn’t they?

It’s not that Holden didn’t want to save the hostages. He just wanted to do it by climbing into the gunman’s head. The fact that this idea is greeted with confusion by the police officers was my first clue that this show is set in the past (the late 1970s).

When it comes to dealing with normal people, Holden’s got a pretty stiff affect (and he knows it). Despite his brilliance with the bad guys, he seems to spend a lot of time provoking mystification and irritation in the good ones. It’s a bit like watching people get irritable with Data on Star Trek: Holden can name the emotions that other people are feeling, but he can’t seem to understand why he provokes the reactions he does.

Bill (Principal #2), Holden’s partner, is not precisely the opposite of Holden, but he’s different to the point that we don’t so much have a Mulder/Scully camaraderie as two people who more or less share the same professional goals but don’t seem to work terribly well together. (It’s refreshing, actually, to see a genuinely dysfunctional workplace.)

Bill initially recruits Holden into his attempts to teach police departments how to deal with serial killers, but he quickly becomes impatient with Holden’s tenacious fascination with the fuzzier aspects of criminal psychology. And he’s deeply uncomfortable with Holden’s uncanny ability to make psychopaths feel he’s empathizing with them. Holden acts on instinct here, and he’s brilliant, and yeah, I’d be really, really worried about a guy who manages to so easily convince more than one serial killer that they’re BFFs.

Bill’s not without his own contradictions. He sees the validity of their work, but he’s also got enough old-fashioned Tough Cop in him that he’s bothered they might be providing murderers with excuses. Where Holden’s skill is in talking to killers, Bill’s is in talking to law enforcement officers, recognizing the fine line between teaching them a new strategy and telling them they’ve been fucking everything up for years.

But the biggest issue for Bill is that he doesn’t have Holden’s ability to abstract himself from criminal situations: he can’t get cozy with killers for very long before he becomes emotionally drained. The longer they continue–the more Holden learns from the people they’re interviewing–the more horrified Bill gets with Holden’s ability to sink into the criminal mind, then turn and walk away without being affected at all.

And then there’s Wendy (Principal #3). She’s immediately put off by Holden (in part because he’s unsubtle about finding her attractive, and her reflexive dismissiveness is absolutely professional and kind of wonderful), and she frequently calls Bill on his sexism and inflexible thinking. But by the end of the season she and Bill have found some common ground in their mutual concern for how Holden is beginning to behave: Holden is brilliant, but although all three of them flout the rules in their own way, Wendy and Bill seem to recognize that Holden is crossing a psychological line.

Actually, I think they’re both concerned he doesn’t have that line to begin with. There’s a marvelous scene where Wendy clarifies that psychopaths do indeed have emotions–they just don’t think anybody else has them.

There seem to be a lot of people on the net arguing over whether or not Holden is a psychopath. Given what we’ve learned in recent years–that environment can make someone with a psychopathic brain into a non-violent and reasonably productive individual–that’s not a bad theory. I’d argue against it, though, for a few reasons:

  • His scene with Bill’s son. He instinctively approaches this silent, isolated child and begins to play with him, quiet and companionable and undemanding. There’s empathy there. Empathy for the damaged? Sure, but empathy nonetheless.
  • Debbie’s assertion when she breaks it off with him that Holden has changed. While some of her perception could be attributed to the end of their relationship’s honeymoon period, we have seen the same thing. He grows more callous, more defiant, less interested in rules and social norms the more he interacts with his serial killers.
  • His final scene with Ed Kemper (I’m sure that actor is a lovely person IRL but my god his performance here is the stuff of nightmares give him an Emmy). I don’t discount the possibility that a psychopath would fear for his own life, but the subsequent replay in Holden’s head of all the worst moments of all those interviews, followed by what sure does look like a classic panic attack, makes me think his oddity is a little different.

I’ll be disappointed, frankly, if they go with “Holden is a psychopath and that’s why he’s so good at this!” It’s much more interesting to have him be socially stunted in a different way, a human who has trouble keeping attachments like so many others do, but not have him be just like the killers.

One of the things I’ve liked about this show is how it both embraces the standard psychological tropes (“it’s always the mother’s fault”) while also pointing out the flawed thinking behind them (“maybe the father up and disappearing was just as bad”). By the late 1970s, a lot of these psychological cause-and-effect theories were simultaneously acquiring mainstream acceptance and being challenged as absolute orthodoxy. I do suspect the show does some retconning in terms of what was practiced at the time, but I can’t disapprove when (for example) Wendy points out that cross-dressing doesn’t correlate with violent behavior, and basically tells Bill his problem with it is his own hangups around masculinity. (I love Wendy. I hope the kitty is OK.)

And in the late 1970s, we did not have the widespread cultural understanding of the subtleties of autism that we do now (not to suggest that we’re not still pretty damn ignorant). I suspect part of what Bill is going through is fear that his son is like Kemper, like Speck: damaged, broken, maybe even potentially dangerous. When his wife suggests music therapy, he shrugs it off not only because his tendency toward the traditional leads him to be dismissive of something that seems so unmedical, but because he’s still hoping this is something the boy will just snap out of. Bill’s got anger, he’s got impatience, he’s got guilt; but mostly he’s terrified he’s raising a monster.

But yes: primarily, MINDHUNTER is a show about talking. It’s sharply drawn, carefully written, and perfectly acted, from every principal down to single-line bit characters. And even when scenes aren’t about talking–the car wreck, for example, or Kemper’s threat to Holden–they’re not about action but reaction. They’re always about our characters and how they’re processing what they’ve heard other people say. It should be boring as hell.

I’m going to be hitting refresh on Netflix until it’s time for season 2.

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