Warning: This is a spoiler-free review of Mindhunter Season 2, but contains spoilers for the end of Season 1. Not seen it? Read our spoiler-free review of Season 1 here.
“I believe all great things are created in the space between method and madness,” says Ted Gunn (Michael Cerveris), the new head of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. “That’s the first Hamlet reference I’ve heard at the FBI,” replies Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), as they begin to plan out the future of the department. It’s a future that will see what was initially a theoretical piece of research turn into practice, as the lessons learned by Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) are applied to actual cases on the ground.
If that sounds like a dramatic change of course for Netflix’s psychological thriller, it succeeds because it roots those thrills in the psychology not only of those being profiled and hunted but in its two leads. Ever the odd couple, their great achievements are exactly as Gunn as describes: Bill Tench prefers the gruff method of a well-trodden FBI agent, and Holden? Well, he’s risking approaching madness the more successful their work is.
Mindhunter’s first season was a stunning piece of television, primarily because it had no interest in producing jaw-dropping spectacle: playing out like a haunting talk show, it was a quietly riveting display of the simple power of conversation, of people connecting, disconnecting, gaining power and taking control. In carrying out conversations with some of society’s most depraved, though, Holden and Bill also have to open themselves up to their roles in those exchanges: calm observers, curious questioners, secret sympathisers or eager learners.
For Holden, it’s a role that he dives into without hesitation or restraint; so determined is he to get results that he adopts his subjects’ mannerisms and vocabulary, getting increasingly attached to Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton). We pick up after his off-the-books chat with Kemper, which saw the towering figure envelop him in a hug – a moment of intimacy that sent Ford into a panic attack.
He keeps it secret from Gunn, who sees Holden as his prized savant to lead the FBI forward into a new age – a perspective that couldn’t be more at odds with departing chief Shepard (Cotter Smith). Seeing Shepard grumblingly go through his retirement party – complete with cringe-worthy speech from Holden – is a laugh-out-loud reminder that Holden is buoyed by arrogance as much as intellect, and keeps his achievements in check with the toll they take on his health. It’s a gift of a part for Jonathan Groff, whose ability to move between naive and annoying, often within the same sentence, is sharper than ever, and it brings a welcome dose of sympathy to a character who could have become the kind of one-note detective that typifies many crime dramas.
It’s testament to Mindhunter’s writing team, headed up by creator Joe Penhall, that they know just how to develop each character, adding new shades to a world that’s already brilliantly murky – director David Fincher, returning for the opening episode of Season 2, and regular DoP Erik Messerschmidt continue to capture the wonderfully sickly yellows and greys of the FBI world, a grim dimness that seeps out from the BSU’s basement office into Holden and Bill’s outside lives.
While Ford’s flawed ingenue, and his freshly hiked physical and mental stakes, are the opening source of tension for Season 2, though, Mindhunter’s sophomore run actually belongs to Bill Tench. Holt McCallany is delivering the performance of his career here and deserves to be showered with awards. As clenched as his surname audibly suggests, he’s an intense presence that sucks in everything and everyone around him; he absorbs his work without letting it vent, becoming a landmine of unexploded anger, disgust, fear and horror that’s just waiting to blow.
But it’s not just in the interview room that Bill’s uncomfortable: he’s equally out of place at home, struggling to communicate with his wife, let alone his son. “You know, it’s not really barbecue conversation,” he says to their guests when they socialise over burgers, eternally unable to inhabit any role that society seems to expect of him. Sure enough, he starts spilling the graphic beans anyway, incapable of detecting where the boundaries of acceptable conversation are. “I don’t want you talking about this with these people here,” cautions his wife, trying to steer him right while unintentionally encouraging him to shut down further.
As he and Ford as sent to investigate the Atlanta Child Murders, the media attention and the FBI pressure placed upon them leaves you waiting to see not only if they crack the case but also which one of them will crack first. Even the promise of Charles Manson – played by Damon Herriman, who also played Manson in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – can’t overshadow their crackling double-act. In between them, Carr’s icy Carr remains a brilliant, vital pivot of suspense – and promises to have her own romantic subplot, which should give Carr more, much-deserved screen-time – and Joe Tuttle’s straight-laced assistant, Gregg, a wonderfully prickly thorn in their sides.
The result is a season that sets the stage for a changing time in US history, as the FBI prepares for a new generation of thinking. “You are truly oblivious to the wreckage you leave in your wake,” spits Shepard at Holden, outside of his retirement do. That line, perhaps, is the one that separates this poster-boy for psychological profiling from the people he profiles, people who are all too aware of what they’ve done and have already, in their disturbing ways, come to terms with that. As Holden, too, becomes increasingly aware, Season 2 promises to ask what that means for his own mindset. For Mindhunter, at its heart, is a probing, utterly gripping study of society’s fascination with criminals as celebrities, exploring where that obsession comes from, and shining a light onto its dark ramifications.
Mindhunter: Season 1 and 2 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.