Netflix crime drama ‘Mindhunter’ capitalizes on our obsession with serial killers

FBI agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) from "Mindhunter" (2017), Netflix’s latest thriller series, is pictured. (Courtesy Patrick Harbron/Netflix)

Netflix’s latest thriller series “Mindhunter” (2017) follows two FBI agents in the late ’70s as they begin to conduct research on America’s living serial killers. The show is produced by the highly acclaimed David Fincher, who worked on movies such as “Fight Club” (1999), “Gone Girl” (2014) and “The Social Network” (2010). Fincher also directs some episodes. The main characters Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) and Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) are based on actual FBI agents Robert Resslet and John E. Douglas, respectively. The series is based on the book “Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit” by Mark Olshaker and former FBI agent John E. Douglas. In the show’s first season, Holden Ford and Bill Tench interview serial killers Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton), Richard Speck (Jack Erdie) and Jerry Brudos (Happy Anderson), among others.

The show begins with Ford’s career as a professor at the FBI Academy, teaching Agents in Training. He specializes in hostage negotiations, and it is clear from the first episode of the series that Ford differs from his FBI counterparts. Unlike the young agents in training who are eager to shoot hostage-holders, Ford emphasizes de-escalation and is sensitive to the psychological states of the people he is working with. Upon overhearing another professor discuss Charles Manson, whose murders had shaken the American public, Ford had a hard time believing that Manson was unmotivated. Simply put, he was unsatisfied with the answer that these men who kill more than once are just crazy with no motive behind their crime. Later on, Ford is introduced to Tench, head of the behavioral science unit, and both later met Dr. Wendy Carr, played by Anna Torv and based on Dr. Ann Wolbert Burgess. Real-life Dr. Burgess cofounded the first ever center for counseling rape victims, and was one of the leading sociologists at the time.

Ford, Tench and Carr make for a dynamic trio. Ford is young and curious, as well as extremely temperamental. He does not fit into the stereotypical FBI mold, where agents were supposed to be concerned with what to do after a crime is committed, not its motives or crime prevention. Ford is far too inquisitive and concerned with the psychology of these murders in comparison to his FBI counterparts. The show gives just enough context for this moment in American history by successfully demonstrating the paranoia around these novel, obscene crimes. Ford often faces pushback from his superiors, and has to be reigned in by the more experienced and mature Tench. Dr. Carr serves as the academic mediator between the two, but she also faces difficulty when attempting to keep the serial killer interviews objective and systematic in order to establish the killers’ patterns of behavior. As the show progresses, we learn more about the characters’ personal lives and how much they sacrifice to do the work they do. While “Mindhunter” is a riveting show, it can also at times be difficult to watch. Through this difficulty, the viewer can experience the emotional toll the work takes on the show’s main characters.

The tensions that arise are well balanced by the show’s actors, and it is clear by the end of the series that the characters have changed deeply. While interviewing serial killers, Ford and Tench also help local police units solve sexually motivated murders that the police are unequipped to handle. Dr. Carr and the FBI often run into conflict as she would like to focus solely on serial killer interviews and research, whereas the two agents also want to apply the tools, however undeveloped, in order to solve real world crime. The real life trio would go on to publish “Crime Classification Manual: A Standard System for Investigating and Classifying Violent Crimes” (1992), and this standardization of handling these kinds of cases is hinted at on the show.

The ability to solve current crimes (some of which are based on real events) changes Ford’s character radically. Not unlike the serial killers he profiles, he turns more and more narcissistic after each serial killer interview and criminal confession. He ostracizes his girlfriend Debbie Mitford (Hannah Gross), his only companion who does not work in the FBI. Mitford acts as a foil for Ford, as she is more blunt, academic and unabashed, but she becomes disillusioned as Ford becomes more and more obsessed with his success. 

“Mindhunter” is a compelling show with a strong cast that carries the weight of the work the real life characters are doing with gravity. The actors who play the serial killers do an eerie rendition of them, and the show, without any cheesiness, demonstrates that maybe these killers are not much unlike ourselves — just more deeply disturbed than the majority of us will ever be. The series has already been issued a second season, and this Daily writer cannot wait to see what other cases the Mindhunters have in store.


"Mindhunter" not only shows us the psychology of America's most notorious serial killers, but also demonstrates the human toil it took to understand them.

4.5 stars