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‘Mindhunter’ season two is a masterclass in atmospheric eeriness

| Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Claire Kopischke | The Observer

If you want to understand what makes the second season of “Mindhunter” so undeniably eerie and effective, just watch the show’s opening credits. Images of a hand slowly setting up a recording device are interrupted by pictures that vanish almost before the viewer can fully recognize what they are. These “flashes” depict a myriad of dead and decaying body parts. The images aren’t graphic, per se, and the gore couldn’t rightly be called gratuitous, but these injections of carnage, however brief, suggest a darkness that permeates the opening theme and sets a mood for the coming episodes that never really disappears. Indeed, in these first images — and, I will suggest, in the show as a whole — the banal is interspersed with the grotesque. Mindhunter works hard to enmesh and equate the two in viewers’ minds until the hand threading the tape recorder is just as disconcerting as the images of bloodied, mutilated bodies, until the soft notes of the piano score, while not necessarily creepy on their own, are enough to send a chill down one’s spine.

That’s what “Mindhunter” does so, so well. It makes the everyday terrifying. And it does so expressly by avoiding the very strategies employed by most other procedural dramas that might be considered traditionally frightening. There are no jump scares. There is no violence. There is very little gore. Unlike in “Criminal Minds” or “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” “Mindhunter” leaves the crimes themselves offscreen, allowing viewers to experience the stories of Charles Manson and the Son of Sam’s atrocities from the perpetrators themselves. Instead of watching a recreation of the Manson massacre or seeing Son of Sam shoot one of his victims, we hear their excuses and their explanations. We, as viewers, don’t get the benefit of seeing them commit the very acts of violence and inhumanity that separate them from the rest of humanity; that way, we could dehumanize them. But “Mindhunter” doesn’t let us get off that easy.

We hear Son of Sam talk. We see Blind, Torture, Kill (BTK) at the library. We are forced to admit these people are human, that they did once exist as members of society. We are forced to see them not as aliens, but as twisted versions of ourselves. And so are the show’s characters, in very effective (and off-putting) ways.

In its second season, “Mindhunter” wisely chooses to pivot away from Holden’s personal life and explore more of the gruff yet lovable life of Bill Tench. Tench’s home life — specifically, his son Brian’s incident — begins to bleed into his work. He is clearly worried about the implications of his son’s actions, knowing what he does about the psychology of sociopathy. Indeed, the way the escalation of Brian’s problems informs Tench’s interview conduct effectively displays the permeation of the evils exhibited by the show’s killers into areas of life that should be safe from it. The show very effectively creates a terse environment within the Tench household thanks to tight dialogue and fine acting from Holt McCallany (Bill Tench) and Stacey Roca (Nancy Tench). Roca is especially convincing in her exhaustion at the family’s situation and growing fear about who her son is becoming.

Another addition to the show’s pervasive, subtle atmosphere of eeriness is its treatment of the Atlanta child murders. Although occasionally employing a bit of lightheartedness — as seen, for instance, in the montage of the bridge stakeouts in episode eight — “Mindhunter” uses the Atlanta cases to display the limits of bureaucracy, as well as the political and institutional racism that made it so hard to catch the perpetrator of these crimes. Again, there are no depictions of the crimes themselves: the source of fear is the ineffectiveness of those solving the case and the uncertainty that surrounds the arrest of Wayne Williams for the crimes. We see that Williams is guilty of something, but we’re left to wonder whether he is truly responsible for every murder, and we see other evil men, like the Ku Klux Klan member brought in and questioned, are allowed to walk free.

But that’s just the way the show is. “Mindhunter” is content not to tie up loose ends. For instance, we watch brief vignettes depicting the BTK killer going about his daily life, but we know that Holden and Tench don’t catch him because he’s not apprehended until 2005. Moreover, we aren’t given definitive explanations as to why the serial killers interviewed did what they did — except, of course, the ones they give us themselves. Instead, we are left to squirm in our own uncertainty; “Mindhunter” is a better show for that.


Show: “Mindhunter”

Streaming Platform: Netflix

Favorite Episodes: Episode 1

If You Like: Criminal Minds, Law and Order

Shamrocks: 4/5

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