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I watched the Netflix series Mindhunter over the course of one week, and I think I could’ve watched it in a single sitting if I had no other obligations or basic needs to fulfill. The compelling 10-episode series unfolds like a movie, rather than a collection of distinct episodes, making each episode’s end credits feel like a brief glitch rather than a suggestion to stop watching and save it for next time.
The show, produced and partially directed by David Fincher (The Social Network, Zodiac), follows FBI agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) as they travel around the US interviewing serial killers and recording their responses. Eventually they’re joined by Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), a psychology professor at Boston University, who helps them develop a system to categorize the killers and possibly predict future behaviors. The story is based on the nonfiction book Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit by former FBI agent John Douglas.
That might sound like a formula for a tense TV show full of starts and stops, building toward a climax and the eventual capture of a villain. It isn’t. Mindhunter’s storyline is mostly a straight line. If it weren’t so well done — lit like a furnished basement, shot with an almost tactical rigidity until the final scene — the whole thing would feel monotonous: Ford and Tench go to work each morning, interview some serial killers, discuss their results with Carr, then go home to their respective families or girlfriends. This technique encourages continued viewing, because of the realistic, familiar way the characters’ work days start to bleed into each other. Serial killer-obsessed FBI agents: they’re just like us!
In an interview with Esquire about the show, Fincher said, “Part of my job as director is to put blinders on people… But you also have to leave yourself open enough that when something happens that should be a part of your story, you don’t steamroll it looking at the schedule or looking at the sun.”
Fincher kinks the otherwise flat storyline just enough to keep things interesting. Each Mindhunter episode opens with a distinct but concurrent scene about an ADT serviceman moping around with a thick mustache. At first, he seems like an average bored husband living in a modest suburban home in Kansas, and it’s easy to forget about him once the episode switches back to Ford and Tench. By Mindhunter’s final few episodes, it becomes clear he’s up to something much more sinister, leaving the show (and the work of the FBI agents) as open-ended as possible. It’s widely believed, though not confirmed, that this is supposed to be Dennis Rader, aka the BTK Killer, who murdered 10 people between 1974 and 1991. Mindhunter is set in 1977, and Rader wasn’t caught by police until 2005, which means it’s unlikely this storyline will see any kind of resolution within Mindhunter’s time frame.
Other Netflix creators have tried to form their shows around the platform’s binging apparatus. Ross and Matt Duffer described the second season of Stranger Things as a movie sequel rather than a new season of television. The 2016 Gilmore Girls revival was divided into four movie-length parts rather than several episodes, and it was one of the most rapidly binged Netflix series ever, according to Netflix.
“In movies, there’s almost no room for characterization anymore, and in television there’s no money for plot,” Fincher said in the same Esquire interview. Mindhunter is a show explicitly about personal characteristics, and what those characteristics can predict about the way you’re likely to behave in the future. The season’s final episode feels the most like a standard episode finale: friendly relationships suddenly shift, the danger finally feels real, and the whole thing ends with a cliffhanger so steep you could ride a sled down it.
Fincher has already implied the show would be getting a second season, so once you finish the series, think of it as an intermission rather than the end.
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