Early in the first season of “Mindhunter,” Netflix’s new show from David Fincher about criminal profiling and the invention of the serial killer, FBI agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) finds himself trying to understand why crime doesn’t seem to make sense anymore. Beset by spree killers, men who commit grotesque acts of violence against women, and crimes that seem to lack any social or economic motivation at all, Ford is convinced that the meaninglessness of these crimes reflects something about a society that seems to have lost its moral center.
But over the course of the series, Ford and his partner, Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), come to understand something they didn’t initially see. All of these crimes have an obvious root cause: the men who committed them hate women. That Ford and Tench and their FBI colleagues had a difficult time recognizing just how widespread misogyny is ultimately a disturbing reflection on them.
It might sound grinding to sit through 10 episodes of a show about violent crimes against women. One of the strengths of the series is the way Fincher and his colleagues manage to make these confessionals banal rather than pornographic; it’s the dull minds of the killers that are most clearly exposed, not the thrill they got from their crimes. But in an odd way, I found something comforting about “Mindhunter,” especially in this moment.
On “Mindhunter,” the men who have committed heinous offenses against women are perfectly aware of their motivations, and they are candid about them. They hate their mothers. They become enraged when women don’t respond to them sexually, or when they’re trying to rape women who don’t put up enough of a fight. They have a horror of female aging. Some of them, like Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton), who comes across as a forefather of Isla Vista killer Elliot Rodger, feel so entitled to female attention and companionship that they decide that murder is a justifiable response.
“My whole life, no one wanted to interact with me, not even our cats when we were kids,” Kemper explains to Ford in a harrowing confrontation towards the end of the first season. “The only way I could have those girls was to kill them, and it worked. They became my spirit wives. They’re still with me.”
I wouldn’t want to spend time with any of the real-life men who are the basis for the criminals on “Mindhunter.” But I found their lack of pretense about just how much they despise women refreshing. It’s more honest, at least, than the men who persistently sexually harass their female colleagues and then praise the strength and intelligence of the women they tried to diminish once they are exposed. I’d rather simply hear that a man hates women than for him to brandish the roles he created for older actresses like some sort of shield.
The crimes of these serial and spree killers may be more repulsive to us than the offenses of the men who are in the news today because of sexual harassment — and in some cases — sexual assault allegations lodged against them. The difference, though, is one of details and degree, not of root cause.
And by the time the first season of “Mindhunter” had concluded, I trusted these spree and sequence killers more than I trusted Ford himself — at least on the question of who had more self-knowledge.
“I can’t let these guys rub off on me. The way they view sex,” Ford told his girlfriend, Debbie Mitford (Hannah Gross) early in the season. But by the end of the last episode, Ford has become like his research subjects in another way. Like these men, who see the world in profoundly distorted ways that allow them to justify their actions, Ford becomes enamored of what he believes is a system of secret knowledge and insight that allows him to understand his targets and their behavior better than anyone else. Ford is so convinced of his righteousness that he’s barreled ahead, getting a school principal (Marc Kudisch) fired for tickling his students and bragging about his work with Tench in a way that endangers the bureau’s ability to continue it.
And that’s not even to mention his growing contempt for and impatience with Mitford. He appears disgusted by her sexual history. He’s impatient with her need to study. “Could you just be my girlfriend?” he demands at one point. “You mean, shut up and adore you?” she challenges him. “You could try it,” he shoots back. By the time Mitford laments the man he was when they met, who was “so sweet and curious,” Ford has the self-awareness to acknowledge that he’s only one of those things anymore, but not entirely to recognize what that loss of sweetness means: that to a certain extent, he’s reverted to the mean of the society he seeks to understand.
Holden Ford would probably never sit across from Edmund Kemper or Richard Speck (Jack Erdie) and admit that he feels a certain contempt for women, even if he’s willing to adopt misogyny as an interview tactic. But that doesn’t mean he’s immune from the same strains of feeling that have so badly infected the killers he interviews. Instead, Ford comes to represent a dangerous, if understandable tendency in all of us: to separate ourselves from society’s worst deviants, to insist that their actions are incomprehensible, rather than acknowledge that they represent a dark destination at the end of a road so many of us walk.