The following is a review of the second season of Mindhunter — Created by Joe Penhall.
In my first season review of Netflix’s MINDHUNTER, I wrote that it is like catnip for true crime aficionados. I stand by that, but it really hurts being without that catnip for two years. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve rewatched the first season of the show, so when it became clear that it was finally making its anticipated return I was excited, and before I published this review I made sure to watch the entire season twice. Rest assured, the second season of MINDHUNTER proves that the wait has been worth it. The excellent true-crime series about methodology and research is back, and this time around they get to interview exactly who they want.
The second season of MINDHUNTER continues from almost immediately where the first season ended. So, at the start of season two, agent Holden Ford (played by Jonathan Groff) is still suffering from the serious panic-attack he had at the end of season one, and they are still waiting for news about the investigation that the Office of Professional Responsibility is conducting about the behavior of Ford in interviews on behalf of the Behavioral Science Unit.
However, when Ford is released from the hospital, things are about to change for their research unit. Assistant director Shepard (played by Cotter Smith) is retiring, and he is about to be replaced as overseer of their unit by Ted Gunn (played by Michael Cerveris). Gunn is enthusiastic about their work and especially about Holden’s methods, though he is cautious about his insistence and behavior, and Gunn has ambitious plans that include their methods being used in real cases as soon as possible, which Dr. Wendy Carr (played by Anna Torv) feels they are not ready for.
In the second season of the series, Gunn finally gets Bill Tench (played by Holt McCallany) and Holden Ford in the room with people like Tex Watson (played by Christopher Backus), Son of Sam (played by Oliver Cooper), and Charles Manson (played by Damon Herriman), but the series is devoted to exploring two other crimes: the Atlanta child murders of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and a murder in Bill Tench’s neighborhood.
The first season of the show included ten episodes about serial killer research, but Netflix only has nine episodes for us this time around. The first three episodes are directed by the outstanding MINDHUNTER-producer and Zodiac-director David Fincher, the following two were directed by Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), and the final episodes were all directed by Carl Franklin.
The second season is about the challenges of putting a new and somewhat incomplete methodology into practice. Characters rush to judgment and are increasingly myopic. If the first season of the series was about establishing a methodology, the second season is about testing it, but under circumstances that don’t necessarily allow for critical thinking or adjustments. One of the more interesting scenes in the season, not surprisingly, comes when they visit Ed Kemper (played by Cameron Britton) shortly. Kemper notes that their unit’s focus on characteristics of captured killers is limiting because it doesn’t take into account the individuals who have evaded capture. The season is also very much about the effects of breaking up the group. Carr is sidelined by their boss, Tench loses any sense of normalcy and is unable to do his job, while Holden’s instincts and adherence to the methodology becomes a problem. The season also explores racial profiling, shame, guilt, and systemic issues.
I think this is another great season of television that builds on the drama of the first season but also changes the series somewhat. One of the greatest improvements this season is the focus on Bill Tench’s family. Tench essentially becomes the main character for a while, and Holt McCallany is capable of carrying the show on his shoulders. There is a vulnerability to him and a clear breaking point. Also, the high-profile interviews in the season are outstanding. The make-up artists and performers that made, particularly, the Manson and Berkowitz interviews as entertaining as they are do deserve a lot of credit. But I think the two best and most haunting interviews are the ones conducted with Tex Watson and Kevin Bright, which feature some great sound effects. I also think the series does a great job of covering the Atlanta murders, and even though the season finale may not be satisfying, they end that case the only way they possibly could — with guilt. There are a lot of minor moments throughout the series that add to the characters’ individual subplots elegantly. For example, throughout the season, Tench’s problems come up in interviews sometimes subtly until they reach a breaking point, and, furthermore, Holden’s unhealthy fascination continues to be present subtly. Ford is quietly gleeful when he is about to meet Manson, and he is impressed by another murderer’s control over potential panic attacks. They don’t make a point of the latter incident, but it is definitely felt if you pay attention.
There are a couple of things that, however, didn’t really work for me this season. First, the subplot involving Holden’s panic disorder, sort of, just disappears as Dominik takes over for Fincher as director, and it rarely comes up in the remaining episodes. Secondly, Gregg (played by Joe Tuttle) completely disappears from the series at one point. Finally, Anna Torv’s Wendy Carr almost suffers the same fate, which is incredibly odd and frustrating as she is one of the series’ most pivotal characters. There is a scene in the fourth episode when she asks Holden and Bill: “Why was I even in that meeting?” She is frustrated by Ted Gunn’s lack of interest in her involvement or work, but, upon my second viewing of the scene, it almost felt like genuine frustration from Torv, who gets very little to do this season. The subplot involving her and a bartender, sort of, fizzled out, and thereafter she basically disappears from the season, even though she actually does get to participate in some interesting interviews with criminals.
Before I make my final conclusions about the season as a whole, I wanted to talk about the scenes or vignettes with Sonny Valicenti’s character and their impact and effect on the series. The true nature of Sonny Valicenti’s character was essentially a mystery, if I remember correctly, for most of the first season. It was clear that this guy was, let’s just say, different, but it wasn’t until we got later into the season that it became clear that he was, in fact, playing Dennis Radar, also known as the BTK killer (BTK stands for ‘Bind Torture Kill’).
I wasn’t sure exactly how to feel about these vignettes in the first season, especially since it sometimes felt like this character wouldn’t be relevant to the series unless they did a significant time jump. In defense of the vignettes’ inclusion, I would argue that they have the same effect that the flash-forwards on Better Call Saul do, which is to tease a future slowly, but surely with the promise that one day you’ll get closure on the guy you’ve been ‘following.’ Of course, where this comparison doesn’t work is when you consider that Better Call Saul is a fictional Breaking Bad-prequel series and that the events of the flash-forwards take place after the events of Breaking Bad. We don’t know what is going to happen to the so-called Gene on Better Call Saul, but, since Mindhunter is based on reality (and since the BTK killer exists in the real world), we do know what happens to Dennis Radar.
I still don’t know how they’ll wrap up his story on the show, and if Netflix bafflingly doesn’t renew the series until it has reached its natural conclusion then perhaps we never will. Some of my fears about these vignettes were abated this season, however, because of two things; first, this season’s vignettes are more direct and much creepier, and, second, the BTK killer is actually discussed in the Behavioral Science Unit this season. Tench and Holden have lengthy discussions about him, and they discuss the initial findings. And, of course, I must say that the final scene that he appears in this season is unforgettably disturbing.
The second season of MINDHUNTER is another incredibly entertaining season of true crime television. The interviews are haunting and unforgettable, and the fieldwork is fascinating even when it doesn’t provide closure. While there are a couple of clear instances where they may have mishandled a pivotal character, the show makes a wise series lead change that puts Holt McCallany front and center.
– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.