How Mindhunter plays our true crime obsessions against us
Within moments of starting the second season of Mindhunter, I knew who the killer was.
A few episodes later, my suspicion was confirmed by the use of his alias for the first time: Agent Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) is contending with the BTK, a killer who murdered 10 people in and around Wichita, Kansas, beginning in 1974. Because of the real-life basis of most of the murderers in Netflix's hit true crime drama, I also knew the real name of the BTK and how he would eventually be caught. Given how many other people are obsessed with true crime these days, I'll bet I'm not the only one.
Don't worry — for those of you with happier hobbies than reading serial killers' Wikipedia pages, I won't spoil the show, which is reportedly structured in a five-season-long arc and has lots more story left to tell before its conclusion, including the purpose of all those BTK vignettes that start and end the episodes. But the confirmation of the show's Kansas killer being the BTK (rather than some fictional composite) midway through the second season points to a problem Mindhunter must reckon with: that there are only so many serial killers, and a whole lot of true crime aficionados who know all of its potential cases inside and out. How, then, to keep up the suspense for those of us who already know how these stories end?
While I'm a big fan of both seasons of Mindhunter, I don't deny that we've hit a saturation point when it comes to true crime. The contentious genre seems to be everywhere: in documentaries, in books, and in an endless number of podcasts. There is so much overlap, in fact, that just last week, Crime Junkie, the most listened-to series on Apple Podcasts, was accused of multiple accounts of plagiarism. Apparently, there really aren't any new serial killer stories under the sun.
Structuring Mindhunter as a straight whodunit, then, makes little sense. The second season of the show, which premiered over the weekend, centers specifically on the Atlanta murders, a case that is well-known by true crime obsessives due both to the number of victims — in two years, at least 28 people, mostly children, were killed — and the fact that its primary suspect was infuriatingly never charged with most of the deaths. The Atlanta case is nevertheless an obvious choice for the show, seeing as it was a historic instance of serial killer profiling by the FBI, and is likewise covered in Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit, which serves as Mindhunter's source material. Of course, Agents Tench and Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) don't know who the serial killer is at the onset, so viewers need to follow their discovery linearly, in keeping with the narrative grammar of the show.
While centered on tracking down the killer in Atlanta, though, Mindhunter doesn't stop there. Mindhunter's showrunner David Fincher, an avid true crime consumer himself, is clearly aware of the infamy of the case, and so he includes lesser-known crime stories to keep up the suspense when needed. (He did something similar in season one's plot involving Darrell Gene Devier, a relative unknown in the true crime sphere.) The show also, on rare occasion, creates fictional killers to populate the plot, like the family involved in the death of the babysitter Beverly Jean Shaw in the first season, or the murder witnessed by Tench's son in the second. These composites can throw true crime obsessives off the show's trail.
Most importantly of all, though, Mindhunter goes beyond merely rehashing the most lurid details of American killers. The show functions as an extension of Fincher's long-held fascination with the representation of murderers, both in the media (as is explored in his 2007 film Zodiac) and in tearing down the expectations and romantic images of killers (as he dances around in 2014's Gone Girl). In one telling turn during season two of Mindhunter, for example, Ford pokes holes in the Son of Sam's claim that he believed he was possessed by a demon, exposing it as a lie told for media attention. In another episode, Charles Manson is shown to be an attention-seeking fraud hiding behind his guru mask. BTK and the Atlanta Monster both talk themselves up to the media as well, with Mindhunter then serving to undercut their own self-constructed images — images that are often regurgitated by other true crime shows and podcasts.
Ford himself is an uncomfortable stand-in for the audience, as over-eager as he is to meet history's most famous monsters and interrogate them about their sprees. His fanaticism does not go unremarked upon by his colleagues (a popular fan theory is that he is a psychopath himself — while I don't fully buy it, still what does that say about us, gawking along with him at home?). Mindhunter, then, is less concerned about adding another show to the true crime whirlpool than it is invested in exposing the hypocrisies of being a passive consumer of such stories. Its biting suspense lies instead in its constant interrogation of the serial killer mythologies we've otherwise come to accept.
Future seasons of Mindhunter could easily find Tench and Ford taking on the Green River Killer (whose spree began in 1982) and the Butcher Baker (who killed at least 17 women between 1971 and 1983). Both serial killers are covered in the book Mind Hunter, and would be natural choices for a TV show so concerned with the question of representation.
The Green River Killer and Butcher Baker are also, of course, high-profile cases that everyone who's ever listened to a true crime podcast can likely recite. But the eventual outcome is irrelevant. Even with the occasional red herring to throw you off its trail, Mindhunter grips you — not with the promise of some big reveal, which you can cheat by reading on Wikipedia, but for what it chooses to unravel in the story of killers who've controlled their seductive narratives for far too long.