After a wait of almost two years, Mindhunter’s second season dropped Aug. 16. And it did not disappoint.
Like season 1, aesthetically, it is a joy to watch. The washed-out color palette makes it look like a faded photo from the 1970s. The expertly framed shots (the work of cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt) and tight editing by Kirk Baxter strike just the right balance between in-your-face and vaguely creepy. And it features another ultra-cool, spot-on soundtrack.
But as much as I loved season 1, it had some weaknesses — for one, too much talking heads in offices (or prisons). Understandably, this is hard to avoid in a series about people interviewing other people, then talking about those interviews.
In season 2, though, the talking-heads problem is skillfully handled, perhaps thanks to Carl Franklin’s influence. Franklin has a background in theater, a medium that also tends to be heavy on dialog, and he uses those skills to change things up. Yes, there are still plenty of talking heads, but now they are sitting in a bar, in an airplane, a car, and other locations besides just the basement at Quantico. It makes the show feels like there’s more going on. And honestly, there is.
In season 1, most of the storyline was about Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) — fictionalized avatars of pioneering criminal profilers John E. Douglas and Robert Ressler, respectively — interviewing various serial killers and learning how they think. The primary conflict of the story was Ford and Tench trying to convince the FBI and other law enforcement officials to see the value in what they were doing.
Season 2’s storyline is much faster paced and more complex: the cold open is a creepy scene where a woman walks into her home to discover a man dressed up in women’s lingerie and a doll mask engaged in auto-erotic asphyxiation. The man turns out to be “ADT Repairman” Dennis Rader, AKA the BTK strangler (Sonny Valicenti), and, like last season, we get even more teasers with him.
Back in Quantico, a new assistant director, Ted Gunn (Michael Cerveris) is put in charge of the fledgling behavioural science unit. He’s a little smarmy — it’s mentioned in passing that he was with “SLA,” which includes COINTELPRO — but he seems to be supportive of the work the three are doing. But he’s also “gunning” (sorry) for some wins — he wants their work to actually be put to use in the field to help catch killers, not just study them after the fact.
So he sends them to Atlanta, where several Black children have been going missing and found murdered. Holden does what he does best — gleans excellent insights into the mind of the killer, while utterly cocking up nearly every social and political situation he’s thrust into. And Atlanta in the late 70s and early 80s is a hornets’ nest of racial tension. Holden wants sincerely to help, but can’t navigate the Scylla and Charibdis of a racist and/or incompetent local police force, a politically narcissistic police commissioner, and a rightfully angry Black community who is tired of watching their children be picked off by a serial killer. The fact that the clues point to a Black man being responsible for at least some of the killings ignites controversy over what appears to be racial profiling (Ben Travers has an excellent take on the racial issues inherent in the story).
Meanwhile, this season takes a deeper dive into the personal lives of the other two members of the trio. Season 1 was pretty much limited to Holden, a character who is less than relatable — he’s been called “a collection of quirks in search of a personality” and “a porcelain nerd with a talent for looking out of place wherever he goes.”
But season 2 shifts the focus onto Tench and Carr — with mixed results. Carr, who has been played as icy cold throughout the series, is revealed to be a lesbian, which explains why. The unfolding — and unraveling — of her relationship with bartender Kat (Lauren Glazier) not only gives us a window into her personality, but into the dangers she and every other gay person had to navigate in 1970s America (Samantha Bañal has a great article on Carr’s queerness).
Then Carr is distanced even further: because Ford and Tench spend most of their time in Atlanta, she’s left in the office doing analysis, rather than the interviews she enjoys. Because of this geographical and emotional isolation, her character often seems like she’s in a whole different show.
We’re also given a front-row seat into Tench’s marriage and family life. I appreciated this; in the last season, without any other insight into his character, he seemed like a brainless buzzcut, the type who might enjoy beating down hippies and protesters (for the record, yes, that was a thing). But this season we get to see him as a full human being: a bit of a ham who enjoys bragging about his work, but also a loving husband and a concerned father trying desperately to juggle the demands of his work and the needs of his family. And this is where things get weird. Tench’s son, Brian (Zachary Scott Ross), is revealed to have witnessed some older boys murder a toddler. Not only that, Brian prompted the boys to put the child’s corpse on a cross, apparently in order to “resurrect” him. (Note, this wasn’t based on anything from Ressler’s life, but on the real-life “Crucifixion Murder” of 1971).
Afterwards, Brian begins showing some troubling behaviors, like wetting the bed, refusing to speak or play with other kids, and in one scene, staring creepily at a neighbor girl at a park. We see Tench wrestle with the dawning awareness that his son is displaying some of the same behaviors that the serial killers he interviews had as children.
It’s interesting as a thought experiment, but in the show, it feels forced, a storyline jammed into an otherwise solid narrative for no discernable reason.
But Mindhunter wouldn’t be Mindhunter if they weren’t interviewing serial killers. And this season’s lineup is no less impressive than last season’s. Cameron Britton and Sonny Valicenti continue to, ahem, kill it as Ed Kemper and Dennis Rader. Damon Herriman’s portrayal of Charles Manson (reprising his role from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) is a show-stealer. But Oliver Cooper’s David Berkowitz and Christopher Livingston’s Wayne Williams are just as amazing. These actors not only looked shockingly like the real killers (thanks to hours of prosthetic make-up work by Kazu Hiro), they captured the killers’ mannerisms and voices to perfection. Each one of them deserves an Emmy.
Back in Atlanta, the eventual capture of Wayne Williams, while gratifying, isn’t the neat, happy ending we might want. Real life never works that way. Williams was only charged and convicted of two killings — those of adults. The investigations into the children’s deaths was pretty much dropped after that, with police assuming Williams probably committed those, too. (Though it is a bit of positive news that on March 21 of this year, the mayor and police chief of Atlanta announced they would reopen the case).
But even Douglas himself didn’t think Williams committed all the Atlanta child murders. There were many victims and MO’s that didn’t fit the pattern. His fictionalized avatar, Holden, is similarly unsatisfied with the outcome, despite Gunn’s insistence that they call it a victory.
In all, Mindhunter’s second season was even stronger than its first, which was pretty strong to begin with. Which only makes it the more frustrating that it might be another two years before we get season 3.