Netflix's 'Mindhunter' Gets One Thing Right About Serial Killers
Edmund Kemper stands at an imposing 6’9” and studies FBI Agent Holden Ford calmly from across the room in the second episode of Mindhunter.
Ford shifts on his feet and tries his damndest to show no fear in the presence of the man accused of murdering ten people, the man who became known as the “Co-Ed Killer.” Kemper had lopped off his own mother’s head and forced post-mortem irrumatio (in other words, a blow-job) with her head.
Kemper, portrayed by Cameron Britton, is the first subject of the Netflix series in which FBI Agent Ford, played by Jonathan Groff, interviews serial killers to understand how they think.
It seems fair to say that this face-off is the moment viewers had been waiting for.
True crime geeks likely flocked to Mindhunter seeking methodical conversations with fascinating serial killers and that’s kind of what they get with the series. In a lot of true crime dramatization on TV, the problem with serial killers is that they are one-off characters; one-dimensional figures without gravitas. But Mindhunter seems to fix that in this first season. The serial killers — Kemper, especially — draw us in with their hypnotic control over their surroundings, even while in shackles that come with a maximum security prison. They feel authentically creepy and real.
Ford, a young agent who spends the first episode getting together with Debbie Mitford (Hannah Gross) and establishing himself as a whiz kid obsessed with finding a better way to understand these uncategorized “sequence killers,” is more of a focus than some might have expected. This is Ford’s story, technically, but it seems more likely that Netflix viewers came to Mindhunter because they wanted to watch Kemper and his fellow felons.
Mindhunter is at its best when it gives the people what they (probably) want: chilling interviews with some of the most dangerous convicted criminals in modern history. The only problem is that these scenes often seem few and far between.
Perhaps to remedy that — the time it takes to get from one killer to another or even to get to Kemper in the first place — the interviews are the slowest parts of the series, unflinchingly reminiscent of executive producer David Fincher’s work on Gone Girl, House of Cards, The Social Network. The interviews conducted by Ford and his partner Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) with Kemper and the rest of the killers are detail-rich, dialogue-heavy scenes that’ll leave lead in your stomach. As expected, the actors portraying the killers deliver their lines so casually and without gravitas that some of the horrendous pictures they paint take a moment to really sink in.
Often, Ford and Tench’s wide eyes and subtle flinches are the first things that clue you in that what was just said verges on the unthinkable.
Mindhunter, loosely based on John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker’s non-fiction book of the same name, is Netflix’s latest foray into true crime. The killers that Ford (who is based on Douglas) and Tench interview throughout Season 1 are on-screen versions of the killers Douglas studied. Season 1 features real serial killers and sexual criminals Kemper, Monte Ralph Rissell (Sam Strike), Shoe Fetish Slayer Jerry Brudos (Happy Anderson), Richard Speck (Jack Erdie), Darrell Gene Devier (Adam Zastrow), and Blind Torture Kill (BTK) murderer Dennis Raider (Sonny Valicenti).
Season 2 is already expected to cover the Atlanta Child Murders, which resulted in the deaths of some 24 children (ages of 7 to 17) from 1979 and 1981. But it’s fair to say that fans might be anticipating some more familiar cameos, too; after all, throughout his career Douglas interviewed the likes of Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Charles Manson, James Earl Ray, and many others who have gone down as the most infamous serial killers and criminals in American history.
If Ford continues following in Douglas’ footsteps, then viewers might get even more of what they came for.
Mindhunter Season 1 is now available to stream on Netflix.