Mindhunter: A gritty insight into criminal psychology
Joe Penhalls Mindhunter, is a Netflix original series set in the 1970s circulated around criminal psychology and the motives possessed by sociopathic murderers. FBI agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) interview a plethora of serial killers who are serving life sentences in order to gain understanding of what causes them to commit such heinous crimes and apply this newfound knowledge to bring more killers to justice and better yet, stop them from being created in the first place. The series is based off the True crime book of the same name and features real life serial killers such as Edmund Kemper’ and Richard Speck among others.
What makes Mindhunter so special?
Mindhunter has carved somewhat of a niche within a niche for itself akin to many other gritty Netflix originals i.e. Daredevil. It’s not your run of the mill cop drama by any stretch of the imagination. The series-though brooding, twisted and dark- much like many other detective drama, is unique in the sense that it offers a chilling realism which amplifies its impact. As Holden and Tench continue to interview these maniacal fiends, they begin to truly get into their heads and as they do, the audience does as well: perhaps more-so because each and every one of these killers once walked among society in the real world. It is this aspect of realism which is both thought provoking and tormenting which seperates Mindhunter from other shows of the same likeness.
Perhaps more compelling than watching some of the most notorious psychopathic murderers of all time brought to the small screen, would be the enthralling dialogue which their twisted minds manufacture. One of the series biggest strengths was its ability to show less and say more. Instead of having overly gratuitous violence, the show offered something more chilling and that was hearing the people behind these murders speak on their actions with remorselessness. Among such interviews was the ongoing dialogue with Edmund Kemper: a serial killer who was responsible for the abduction and massacre of several women, among them, his own mother. When Ford initially begins interviewing Kemper he is taken aback by his physical and mental superiority. Standing nearly 7 ft tall, its no surprise that he was adorned with the nickname ‘Big Ed’.
“Would you like an egg-salad sandwich?”
Despite what his size and criminal record would suggest, Kemper is somewhat placid to a disturbingly high degree given his mental corruption. His initial dialogue with Ford had him exchanging in human pleasantries such as offering Ford an egg-salad sandwich and speaking with him as if he were a friend and not a federal agent looking to pick his brain. Kemper, though lacking empathy, was extremely articulate demonstrating incredibly high intellect. It is this very composure which separates Kemper from just another mass murderer. He is entirely self-aware of his actions and this is evident with the chillingly monotonous way he describes his crimes. An example of this would be him describing to Ford, just exactly what it takes to kill someone by slitting their throat ‘ear to ear’. Even more disturbing is the way in which Kemper describes his ‘humiliation’ of his mother following her murder. Kemper seems truly void of human emotion in all of his encounters with Ford and Tench and agent Tench encapsulates his demeanour perfectly when he refers to Ed as ‘having nothing behind his eyes’. Despite his ability to conceal recognisable emotion however, Kemper is able to assimilate with neurotypical people and gain their sympathy- trait shared by many psychopaths which is as fascinating as it is terrifying.
What makes a killer tick? The science behind the psycho
Instead of telling one individual and linear narrative, Mindhunter chooses to tell fragmented anecdotes from each of the serial killers upbringing up until the time of their eventual incarceration. By doing so, they are given a background- a story which humanises them. By implementing this, audiences subconsciously find themselves empathising with them for the trauma they have endured, however much they condemn their actions. At times, it is difficult for both the audience and agent Ford to comprehend that Edmund Kemper has brutally murdered several women due to his aforementioned demeanour. This is amplified by the documentation of his rather isolated upbringing where he was neglected by his mother due to his innate psychopathic tendencies as a child. By gaining insight of this trauma, viewers begin to gain somewhat of an understanding of what drove Kemper to his ‘vocation’ (as he so nonchalantly describes it) as a serial killer. His mothers ‘matriarchal’ degradation of him began to manifest itself in his inability to form relationships with women- he’s describes himself has not being physically impotent but rather, emotionally impotent.
Mindhunter is largely an exploration of criminal psychology as oppose to the crimes themselves which is why such context is provided behind the grotesque murders. By providing such context, it becomes scientifically evident that psychopathic behaviour is one influenced by environmental factors as oppose to being innate. It is this very concept which allows the aforementioned empathetic reaction from both audiences and agent Ford whose psyche begins to grow more and more warped by his interactions with the criminally insane.
Criminal psychology: the method behind the madness
What allows Mindhunter to distinguish itself from essentially being a documentary would be how the personal lives of both agent Ford and Tench are afflicted by their rather disturbing line of work. At the beginning of the series, Ford seems to be innocently naive having a rather concrete view of criminals. Yes he is inquisitive of the enigmatic minds of those he brings to justice, but he has limited knowledge and actual interactions to base this conjecture from. It is not until he begins to actually interact with these killers that his own mind begins to get altered through influence. Agent Ford touched darkness and evidently it returned the favour.
As Fords curiosity manifests itself within him, he begins to grow more and more ambitious in his career prospects. The 1970s was a time where criminal psychology was such a farfetched area of study which surface had barely been touched and Mindhunter exhibits this paradigm shift quite eloquently as Ford is deemed as heinous and sympathetic toward criminals when he approaches his FBI superiors with his proposition for a study into the motives of a killer.
The darkness within
Despite being clearly intimidated at first in his dialogue with Kemper, Ford submerges himself in the minds of other rapists and serial murderers alike and as a result of this, develops an insatiable lust for more insight. He is ultimately so adamant on making a breakthrough that it affects his relationship with his girlfriend Debbie. This degradation of empathy within him as well as the disturbing dialogues he has creates distance between the two- so much so that it affects their love life. This is evident when the mere sight of Debbie in high heels incites protruding thoughts within his head, reminding him of the fetishisation of the very same thing by serial killer ‘Jerry Brudos’.
Towards the tail-end of the season, Fords idiosyncrasy completely alters him. His subjects grow less willing to partake in such dialogue so he himself has to emulate their behaviour in order to incite any form of response and he does so with unparalleled enthusiasm. Holden even begins to jokingly reference Ed Kemper’s perverted dialogue: “You gotta make it with that young p***y before it becomes Mom”, in an interrogation of a suspect in another case. Fords seemingly effortless ability to assume the perverted vernacular of a man who murdered his own mother shows extreme disparity to the character he was prior to undertaking his psychologically intense investigation. In perhaps the most memorably cold one-liner of the series, Holden provokes serial killer ‘Richard Speck’ who murdered 8 nurses by referring to his victims as ‘8 ripe c***ts’ in an effort to communicate with him. This kind of conduct would not be tolerated in 2017 let alone the more politically correct era of the 70s. Though he remains persistent, Holden eventually succumbs to the burden of rubbing shoulders with psychopaths as the season culminates with him having what appears to be a stress fuelled breakdown following yet another dialogue with Kemper. The two grew so close that it had Ford second guessing whether or not their conversations had transcended professional boundaries.
On the other end of the spectrum is Agent Tench who upon first glance, appears to be rather conventional in his approach to criminal psychology. Unlike Ford, he is less open to complex theories on how psychopaths are formed and the way they think and is more-so focused on apprehending them. This changes as the season progresses however as Tench begins to see things from Fords perspective as he gradually begins to understand criminal motive. This improved evaluative clarity doesn’t come without a cost however as his already neglected family life seems to get more and more compromised. This is evident upon initial introduction of his wife during a dinner with agent Ford and Debbie. In comparison to the younger couple, Tench and his wife seem rather despondent and this stems from Tench’s inability to interact with his son due to him being absorbed by his career responsibilities which intensify as the seriousness of him and Fords project becomes apparent. This is further evident in a powerfully dark scene where Tench’s son discovers his FBI evidence case files containing polaroids of mutilated corpses which causes extreme disturbance amongst his family. Though quite different individuals, agent Ford and Tench are personally afflicted by the darkness that has manifested within themselves as a result of their line of work.
Retrospectively, the first season of Mindhunter was nothing short of excellent. It provided for an intriguing and informative exploration of the structural approach to crime taken by the FBI and explored the paradigm shift that was the introduction of criminal psychology. In addition to this it provided for enthralling personal subplots which explored the the psychological impact of interacting with evil and what it can awaken within. The show can be criticised for being reliant on tropes such as the alcohol dependant damaged and brooding cop persona, afflicted by his traumatic encounters which somewhat shines through in Agent Tench however these are mitigated by its excellent psychological storytelling and dedication to factual information. This series has more than enough potential to be even successful given the formula for success seen in both Netflix originals and gritty and dark criminal series.
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