5 Ways “Mindhunter” Expounds on Narrative Control
One of the fascinating aspects of the second season of Netflix’s drama series Mindhunter concerned its themes of narrative control. The series created by Joe Penhall, based on the true-crime book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, is now in year two. The sophomore year was even more intriguing than the first. While the first season dealt with two agents developing techniques to help profile killers, the second season found them applying their new skills to real-life cases like the Atlanta child murders in the early 1980s.
Aided by knowledge gained from interviews with famous serial killers, the FBI helped crack the Georgia case and bring serial killer Wayne Williams to justice. The season took one’s breath away, building tension and dread from beginning to end, even without showing the murders committed onscreen. This show focuses on the aftermath, and what an aftermath it was.
In some ways, Mindhunter plays like The Silence of the Lambs done exponentially, as the Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) of the FBI interviews numerous incarcerated killers to help them catch other killers on the l am. (And the real-life murderers are just as insidious as the character of Hannibal Lecter). The Jack Crawford character in Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winning Best Picture was based on John Douglas, the FBI agent who wrote the Mindhunter book with co-author Mark Olshaker. In the Netflix series, agent Holden Ford represents Douglas, while Bill Tench is based on colleague Robert Ressler.
Ford (Jonathan Groff) is young and eager, plying unorthodox approaches to his detective work to get results. He’s willing to step on the protocols that his partner Tench (Holt McCallany) prefers to respect. Tench is a gruff, by-the-book veteran, but he’s also an invaluable ally in dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s necessary to make their work stick. Together with the laser-focused analytics of psychologist Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), the three develop profiles on killers yet to be caught based on learnings they’ve culled from studying those already incarcerated. Together, they forged the fledgling BSU within the FBI, which is the focus of the series.
Indeed, such behavioral studies were crucial to cracking the Atlanta murders, and the FBI ably assisted local law enforcement throughout that manhunt for Williams. Some characters in the show were fictionalized, and certain events were truncated too as part of the “historical faction” style. Still, even with such liberties, the Mindhunter series adhered avidly to most of the facts and BSU insights.
Additionally, the true-crime series continued to expound upon the idea of narrative control, both within the events it dramatized, as well as in how the audience would interact with what they were seeing. The show is so savvy that there are five distinct variations on the “narrative control” theme evident throughout the second season.
1) Serial Killers Need to Control Their Narrative
The first and most prominent theme of narrative control is in how the show continually highlights the need for serial killers to control how their murders are perceived, even if they’re already in prison.
While interviewing inmate David Berkowitz (Oliver Cooper), the infamous “Son of Sam” admitted to Ford and Tench that he gave himself that name because he loathed the press calling him “The .44 Caliber Killer.” When Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) was interviewed in prison, the diminutive cult leader sat atop the back of his chair to elevate himself over his interrogators. Even in the seating arrangement, Manson felt the need to seem larger than life. The cult leader, arrested for ordering the murders of Sharon Tate and six others in 1969, also lied about stealing Ford’s sunglasses to the guard. They were given to him by the G-man, but Manson knew the prison population would deem him more “bad-ass” if the narrative spread that he swiped them.
Perhaps the most insightful pattern the investigators discovered about serial killers this season was how utterly childlike they were in their insecurities. Indeed, understanding this insight, and learning to manipulate such fragile egos, helped the BSU trick their prey into sharing more of their modus operandi or step into traps that helped the authorities capture these killers.
That played out with the hunt for the Atlanta child murderer. When Ford and Tench realized that Williams (Christopher Livingston) was inserting himself into their investigation, trying to control the perceptions of him in the press, they were able to manipulate him into exposing his criminal activities.
Like Berkowitz, Williams (Christopher Livingston) had insecurities about his prowess and a need to appear smarter than his adversaries. When an innocent man was taken into custody for questioning regarding the Atlanta killings, Williams proceeded to dump a new victim’s body in the Chattahoochee River to get the FBI back on course. Controlling the narrative was paramount to such a rickety narcissist who craved the unyielding attention for his murderous “accomplishments.”
2) The FBI Knows Where a Killer’s Story is Going
In the first season, FBI superiors didn’t know quite what to make of the BSU. The unit was often derided for their promotion of theories over cold, hard facts. In season two, after their successes in crime-solving from season one, the three special agents now were seen as credible and even celebrated. Their new boss Ted Gunn (Michael Cerveris) was so delighted by their ability to drag the FBI into modern times, he backed their work whole hog.
But when the BSU was called in to help solve crimes in local jurisdictions like Atlanta, the regular police weren’t as enthusiastic. They resented the interloper’s smarts, and the egos of those local cops and politicians in Georgia ended up appearing almost as fragile as those of Williams. Thus, the BSU not only had to outwit a killer but also navigate all the politics swirling around their investigation.
3) The Job Effects the Story at Home Too
Last year, talking to such warped minds as serial killer Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton) took a toll on Ford. He ended up having panic attacks and even a nervous breakdown. He recovered, but his anxieties lingered over the entire second season. Could Ford keep it together when sitting across from the Son of Sam or going up against authorities in Atlanta who despised him? Groff played it all wonderfully, even if the trope of the hunter getting too close to his prey was a bit expected. At times, Ford’s character brushes a little too close to the Will Graham profiler character from the TV series Hannibal (2013-2015). Smartly, the second season showcased more of how such investigations affected others in the BSU too.
Tench’s family was turned upside down after their adopted son participated in the neighborhood murder of a toddler. Did Tench’s work somehow infect his family? By season’s end, Tench’s wife Nancy (Stacey Roca) had become despondent and left her husband. Tench remained stoic throughout, and McCallany did award-worthy work conveying the angst under the machismo, as his character questioned the limits of nature vs. nurture driving his boy’s behavior.
Meanwhile, Carr saw her world both enhanced and hindered by her demanding profession. She took center stage interviewing a few killers and received some long-overdue recognition for her contributions to the team. Carr also came out of the closet, allowing her to enjoy an intensely sexual relationship with Kay (Lauren Glazier), a free-spirited bartender from her neighborhood. Still, Carr’s trust issues with her male superiors and the darkness inherent in her work helped coax the ruin of the relationship with her lying lover. By season’s end, the shrink was alone too, just like Tench, and like Ford at the end of season one when his girlfriend split. When you bring such stressful work home with you, it’s likely to prevent any legitimate happy endings.
4) Mindhunters Practices Precise Narrative Control In Its Telling
Many procedurals rely on flashbacks as a plot device. A detective explains how a crime was committed, and then it visually plays out, matching his words. Mindhunter leaves them out of the narrative equation altogether to bring the storytelling into the present of its time. That way, audiences can watch things unfold and experience the story in tandem with the agents. Plus, by eschewing flashbacks, the audience is placed directly in the G-men’s shoes, wondering if what they are hearing can be believed. It keeps the mysteries all the more mysterious.
One of the best scenes this year saw Tench sitting in the front seat of a car listening to the testimony of one of the BTK killer’s surviving victims seated behind him. The young man didn’t want anyone staring at the bullet hole scars on his face courtesy of the BTK’s point-blank gun.
The audience watching wasn’t granted any better a view than what Tench had, grounding us solely in his POV. Plus, by not showing the victim’s face, the scene became even more suspenseful. We kept waiting for the reveal, but wisely, the filmmakers never showed it to us. That represents brilliant control of both the material and how we perceive it.
5) An Invitation to the Audience to Profile
Just like last season, episodes began with glimpses into the BTK killer’s world. We see how he, Dennis Rader (Sonny Valicenti), enjoyed binding, torturing, and killing his victims, but the audience also witnessed events that the BSU wasn’t privy too. We saw the explicit examples of Rader’s sexual deviancy as well as his need for absolute control over any aspects of his killing. Rader scolded a library worker for a faltering copier while he was making Xeroxes of his murder plots. He refused to confront his seething wife about how the repulsive peccadilloes that she discovered, further driving him into lashing out at the world. And while the man tried to project a sense of calm in his day-to-day living as an ADT repairman, his rage was always just under the surface, evident in his glaring eyes.
The man’s M.O. is all there for the BSU to catch him, but we got to see it first. (In reality, Rader didn’t get captured until 2005, 24 years after the second season’s time period, so it will be interesting to see how many subsequent seasons it takes to get there. Expect large time jumps.) Was this window into the BTK killer’s world that only we got to see as a way of inviting us to profile him, connecting the dots knowing what we know from the BSU’s work? Absolutely. It’s another way of expounding on the show’s themes of narrative control. Only here, we know more of the story than the detectives. It makes us feel like we’re in the hunt with them, being an informed participant in this superior television procedural.
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