One by One by Gina Dalfonzo, Free Promo Pack for CAPC Members
Available free to Christ and Pop Culture members until September 20, 2017, from Baker Publishing Group.
We’re always pretty convinced that our current moment is more depraved and evil than any other before it. At the very least, we often imagine that the unique trials and temptations of our time are just that—unique. In the Netflix drama Mindhunter, we have the advantage of hindsight with which to clearly see this falsehood for what it is.
Mindhunter chronicles the creation and development of a department of the FBI dedicated to studying the behavior of serial killers. The small group is made up of Holden Ford, a young agent with a passion for criminal psychology; Bill Tench, a crusty elder with experience in teaching local police departments about behavioral science; and Wendy Carr, a distinguished psychology professor. Over the course of the 10-episode first season, the group is built at a glacial speed, with only a few episodes featuring the completed “team.” Wide-eyed wunderkind Holden must convince the FBI leadership to allow his dabbling in academic study of criminal psychology, and the department is slowly forged through opposition and trial.Instead of showing us how the good guys can go bad, Mindhunter wonders if maybe the good guys have been just as evil all along.
Toward the end of the season, the team finally begins using the insights they’ve gathered from hours of interviewing convicted serial killers to solve real crimes. The group is truly discovering the criminal psychology principles and creating protocol for their use in the FBI as they go, with one prominent scene detailing how the group ultimately decides to see if “serial killers” as a category will “stick.”
It’s fairly tautological to say that a show about serial killers displays the depth and pervasive nature of human depravity. It could be said about almost any cop procedural or detective drama. The good guys that hunt the bad guys always turn out to be flawed in their own miserable ways. Mindhunter makes a similar point, but in a slow, creeping way that still manages to halfway surprise you. Instead of showing us how the good guys can go bad, Mindhunter wonders if maybe the good guys have been just as evil all along.
The first episode seems to ask the question that many of us are asking today: Why are we becoming more evil? Why does it seem like there’s more disaster, strife, and depravity than ever before? Holden, a newly appointed instructor at Quantico’s FBI Academy, seeks advice from a more seasoned colleague, and the two discuss the shifting motives of many murderers. Holden comments, “It’s as if we don’t know anymore what moves people to kill one another.” Later that evening, the elder instructor rants, “Look at the list of unprecedented events that have occurred in the past decade and a half,” with the two agents listing “unpopular war,” the Watergate scandal, violence against protestors, and the “vanishing” of democracy as evidences of this unique time. It might even seem like too heavy handed a reminder of the unoriginal nature of our current political climate, if it wasn’t such a natural conversation for any era.
As the team begins interviewing more serial killers and in a more formal fashion, Holden’s unyielding determination begins to show its darker side. His early wide-eyed fascination and intrepid curiosity slides into arrogance and cruelty so effortlessly you barely notice it happening. The incredibly slow pace of the series shines in these moments, when you spend episode after episode rooting for a character that you suddenly realize you barely know. The speed is aggravating in moments, when the long, rambling conversations sound more like performance than reality, but it’s often tempered by its unique ability to give the haunting, ominous vibe that makes the season so effective.
And as Holden’s knowledge and application of criminal psychology increase, his interviews become more disturbing. After one particularly dark series of questions, Holden defends himself to the local authorities, saying, “You want truffles? You got to get in the dirt with the pigs.” The entire second half of the season could be Holden’s story of becoming a serial killer himself, and it seems like each episode tips him closer and closer to the brink. He has a slow exposure to deeply disturbing behavior and ways of thinking, and displays his own ability to inhabit the logical framework of his subjects. In one scene, it’s not even in the interrogation room that he comments about a victim’s “flashy” outfit that “shows off her legs.” Once he’s stepped into the minds of these killers, it seems impossible to ever fully step back out.
The show makes sure you have no room to entertain the idea that Holden was primed for this kind of evolution. There’s multiple surprised reactions to his birthplace of New York (all natives are cultured and cynical, I guess), because he just seems so wholesome and bland. His girlfriend, Debbie, originally says he looks “Mormon,” and later comments that he acts “like a monk,” wondering how people in law enforcement could be so “naïve.” Perhaps more than anything, we’re supposed to slide right into Holden’s breakdown with him, both of us left wondering how this good-natured kid ended up identifying so closely with perverted serial killers.
Mindhunter paints this picture of pervasive evil in all sorts of ways outside of Holden’s dark turn. The show doesn’t depict much actual violence or gore, but it pulls no punches in describing the deeply depraved crimes the team studies. After one interview, Tench compares a sexually suggestive advertisement with photographs their subject took of his victims before murdering them. “These could be in Playboy, easy. Movie, TV. Classic damsel in distress.” Tench denies Holden’s defensive question, “What are you saying, advertising creates psychos?” but the implication is clear: we aren’t nearly as far from these guys as we’d like to think.
As FBI investigators tell Holden in the final episode, he’s “developing a pattern of behavior that will not sustain” him. He constantly bucks the advice or guidance of Tench or Dr. Carr, preferring his own intuition and knowledge. After his questionable interrogation tactics provoke an internal investigation, he ditches his interview, bursting out, “The only mistake I ever made was doubting myself.” His best qualities as a fresh FBI instructor—his curiosity, sharp instincts, and creative thinking—became dangerous as soon as he treated them as absolute.
Mindhunter adds an important nuance to the classic theme of the pervasiveness of evil, by showing how easily we can become the very monsters we’re trying to fight. The noble and needed mission that Holden pioneers becomes hijacked quickly by self-righteousness and arrogance. It’s not that exposure to evil makes people more evil, or even that we’re all more capable of evil than we’d like to think, but that distancing ourselves from our own capability for depravity makes us all the more vulnerable to indulging it. The camera often hangs back, mirroring the very distance the characters (and audience) want to create between the killers and ourselves. Unfortunately, Holden’s slow collapse reminds us that we’re not as separate or removed as we’d like to think. And when it comes to any kind of valiant mission, we must come to terms with our inevitably mixed motives.
Many of the discussions we’re having today are remarkably similar to Holden’s early conversation with another instructor. We bemoan the increasing depravity of our country or community, we line up examples that prove that evil is becoming more prevalent, we search for patterns or solutions that explain why things are worsening. Conservatives often (rightly) criticize liberals for believing in the myth of continual progress, but rarely acknowledge their own belief that the passage of time has any effect on the brokenness of humanity—our hearts, our systems, our institutions. In reality, sin has always been pervasive, systemic, and adept at hiding in even our virtues and accomplishments. Mindhunter reminds us that whether it’s our own hearts, communities, or our current historical moment, we’re not nearly as removed (or any closer to) depravity than we’d like to believe.
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