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It only feels like it’s been a decade since Netflix launched the first season of Mindhunter, the serial-killer thriller that marks one of the odder under-the-radar offerings for the streaming service. It’s actually only been 22 months, but Mindhunter is back for a second season on Friday without the hoopla you’d expect for a drama from the director of Seven and Zodiac, much less for a series that could well be one of Netflix’s best.
Critics in New York and Los Angeles were able to see the new season’s first three episodes at a fan screening — Erik Messerschmidt’s cinematography looks spectacular on the big screen — and it’s a confident and tantalizing return, whetting my appetite for a weekend binge and making me wonder how much bigger this show’s profile could be under different circumstances.
AIR DATE Aug 16, 2019
The Mindhunter premiere picks up in the near-immediate aftermath of special agent Holden Ford’s (Jonathan Groff) ill-fated visit to serial killer Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton, not appearing in at least these early episodes). Perhaps sensing the length of the absence for viewers, though, the opening installment marks a nearly full reset for the series, such that you could almost just jump in here — not that you’d want to.
In the first season, Ford, Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) and Wendy Carr’s (Anna Torv) nascent Behavioral Science Unit was marginalized by the FBI and shunted to a basement in Quantico. Now, a new boss (Michael Cerveris) has arrived and he understands that their methodology represents the future and he’s prepared to give them resources and support. He’s also willing to make sure that the potentially damning Office of Professional Responsibility investigation from last season isn’t going to bog things down, which is fine since Ford’s fragile psychological state could be impediment enough.
The new season — with Courtenay Miles getting the first two teleplay credits as part of a largely new writing staff — is quick to make structural refinements to a show that detractors might have initially felt meandered, with characters who, by design, didn’t and couldn’t always be certain of what they were doing.
The series is still far more Zodiac than Seven, but it’s also more propulsive now, with no fewer than three ongoing investigations. The slow unveiling of the BTK Killer (Sonny Valicenti), teased in pre-credit sequences previously, accelerates as the open case finds its way to Tench’s desk. The third episode takes Ford to Atlanta, where he becomes aware of the unfolding Atlanta Child Murders. And then there’s a third mystery, not quite as initially convincing or authentic, that hits close to home in Virginia, this one investigated by an uncertain local detective played by Nate Corddry. All the while, the BSU is continuing its attempts to interview serial killers in captivity, with Tench and Carr forming an uneasy alliance to monitor Ford’s precarious condition.
Mind you, with focus Mindhunter hasn’t suddenly become a series driven by gunfights or car chases. David Fincher directed the season’s first three episodes — he’ll be followed by American TV neophyte Andrew Dominik and TV veteran Carl Franklin in the nine-episode season — and he’s still fascinated by ratcheting up the most possible tension around the least possible action. There are scenes in drab, florescent-lit offices — Messerschmidt expertly executes a mandate that must have declared war on primary colors — that are edge-of-your-seat unsettling for no discernible reason other than Fincher’s meticulous framing, Kirk Baxter’s nerve-jangling editing and a Jason Hill score that resists melody at every turn.
It’s hard to imagine any network giving a blessing to scripts this conversation-packed without a name like Fincher attached, and it’s hard to imagine a director without Fincher’s legendary obsession with coverage being able to shoot one of these multiple-page parlays in a way that would allow this much visual variety. I’d point to the second episode and a five-plus-minute conversation/interrogation in a truck in an abandoned parking garage for maybe the best example of Fincher’s commitment to claustrophobic versatility. It’s a conversation between Tench and a BTK witness and it’s pure horror and pure talk, all ominous compositions and evasive cutting. It’s a masterful scene.
Of course, none of this incident-through-talk approach would work if not for the beyond-solid cast. Fully settled into Tench’s mixture of intellect and buzz-cut brawn, McCallany is the standout so far. He’s a hulking figure, given more opportunities for sensitivity and cleverness this time around. The show has a better sense of Ford’s weaknesses this season and that gives Groff freedom to explore the character’s youthful insecurities without having to be believable exclusively as a far-ahead-of-the-curve hotshot. It’s evident how much faith Fincher has in Torv’s capacity for conveying understated thought, since she often seems to be doing very little, yet it’s never without calculation; a glimpse into Wendy’s personal life is well-handled.
Cerveris is a good cast addition, bringing both glad-handing smoothness and the niche pleasure of a Fringe reunion with Torv (and the potential of a sing-along every time he’s paired with Groff). The first three episodes don’t include Britton or Damon Herriman’s appearance as Charles Manson, but the weekly serial-killer spotlight continues to be a great vehicle for character actors, starting with a memorable Oliver Cooper as David Berkowitz and then, in a one-two punch, Michael Filipowich as William Pierce and Corey Allen as William Henry Hance. Expect a rush of Googling as audiences race to see how well the historical figures line up with guest stars.
Going forward, I’ll be most interested in seeing how Mindhunter handles the Atlanta Child Murders. The introduction is more emotional than what the series normally attempts, and Sierra McClain has an interesting role as Ford’s point-of-entry into the case, which should offer Mindhunter the chance to delve into the intersection of race and law enforcement in a way it has never attempted before. Landing that arc would expand the show’s world in deeply meaningful ways and dropping the ball on those issues could expose its limitations. After three episodes, Mindhunter appears ready to make that positive leap, and I look forward to a weekend following up.
Cast: Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany, Anna Torv, Stacey Roca, Joe Tuttle, Michael Cerveris
Creator: Joe Penhall from the book by John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker
Directors: David Fincher, Andrew Dominik, Carl Franklin
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)
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