A relatively dry book about an emerging law enforcement technique wouldn’t seem like the most obvious source for a high-profile Netflix drama, but that was the case when the streaming service partnered with David Fincher for the first season of Mindhunter. Back in 2009, Charlize Theron reportedly gave Fincher a copy of Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit, a 1995 book written by former FBI Special Agent John Douglas, which details the now-commonly-known practice of “profiling" killers by way of crime scene examinations and interviews with convicted criminals.
In the years since, multiple production teams took cracks at the property as the tide of true crime drama swelled. Riding that wave was Netflix, which took on the show as a decidedly fictionalized version of the Douglas text. Instead of portraying the real-life Douglas and his collleague Robert K. Ressler, who developed their techniques working alongside with Boston College professor Dr. Ann Wolbert Burgess, the show follows Agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), as they work alongside Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv).
The names of the killers, however, remain the same. In the show’s first season, we saw Agent Ford as he begins to develop his theories on profiling — the practice of using details and methodology from one homicide to predict a murderer’s next move — in the process creating the concept of the “serial killer" that we know so well today, mainly by interviewing name-brand killers that have already been caught. Keep in mind that the show is set in the late 1970s, when law enforcement agents were only begrudgingly beginning to admit this stuff worked.
That early skepticism creates some of the first season’s tension, as we see Ford and Tench defend their unit to FBI brass, overcoming resistance in order to talk to inmates that include Ed Kemper (aka “The Co-Ed Killer"), Jerry Brudos (whose crimes reportedly inspired Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill character), Montie Rissell, and Richard Speck (arguably the most infamous of the bunch, Speck sexually assaulted and killed eight student nurses during one horrible night in 1966).
When they're not interviewing these monsters, the two agents face more personal challenges. Ford’s relationship with his graduate student girlfriend, Debbie, falls apart, while Tench also seems to be having trouble at home. We do see them have some small measure of professional success, as the two mount a tour of small-town police stations, spreading the gospel of profiling in a way that appears to help solve a couple of crimes, but those wins are overshadowed by some iffy decisions, as Tench pushes Ford to cut some of his, shall we say, more psychologically manipulative interview techniques from the official record of his chats — and Ford follows that ethically questionable move by drunkenly boasting about his unit’s work within earshot of the press. Ford ends the season by suffering a panic attack following a fraught conversation with Kemper, putting their unit in jeopardy.
Ford’s panic attack would likely have been much worse if he’d seen everything the audience was privy to in the first season season. In each episode, unrelated to the FBI’s operation, viewers saw a midwestern ADT serviceman (Sonny Valicenti), who seemed suspicious, even if his earliest on-screen actions were not. Our sense that he’s up to no good eventually proves correct, as toward the end of the season we witness him enter an intended victim’s house but leave before committing a crime.
Though the character is identified only as “ADT Serviceman" in the show's credits, he’s reportedly intended to represent Dennis Rader, the man more commonly known as BTK (a self-applied nickname standing for “bind, torture, kill"). His storyline is left hanging at the end of the first season, and although we see an allusion to his acts in Mindhunter’s second-season trailer, his storyline will likely to stretch well beyond, as the real-life BTK was active from at least 1974 through 1991 (and wasn’t nabbed until 2005).
What we can expect is a more tightly-plotted season, with only eight episodes, compared to the first season's ten. According to interviews with Fincher, Season 2 features more big-name killers, as both David Berkowitz (aka "the Son of Sam") and Charles Manson are on deck as Ford interviewees. (The latter is played by Damon Herriman, who is currently in theaters playing young Manson in Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood.)
The focus of the second season will be the Atlanta Child Murders, a series of slayings that ran from 1979 to 1981 and left at least 28 dead. And here’s where folks seeking neat story arcs should brace themselves, as while a man named Wayne Williams has long been long been suspected by investigators for the crimes, but hasn't been convicted for any of the child killings (although he is currently incarcerated for the deaths of two adults). Williams has steadfastly proclaimed his innocence in the kids’ deaths, but officials in Atlanta re-opened the case this past March. All of which is to to say, if Ford is interviewing Williams in an effort to solve the case, he’s not going to get any useful answers. And, if Mindhunter’s second season hews to real life, neither will we.
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Eve Batey is a writer, editor, and consultant based in San Francisco. She also co-writes a true crime newsletter called Best Evidence.
TOPICS: Mindhunter, Netflix, Jonathan Groff