Predators Prowl America in Eerie Second Season of Netflix’s ‘Mindhunter’ 

Getting to know the mental landscape of a monster doesn’t get any easier in the new season of Netflix’s “Mindhunter.” We could never expect it, considering how the first round ended with at least one FBI agent undergoing a major nervous breakdown. But broken minds carry on in this second season which is just as unsettling, intelligent and capable of crafting real art out of darkness. Much of its continued rich palette is owed to the return of the renowned David Fincher as both producer (alongside Charlize Theron) and director on several episodes. A rare stylist and master storyteller, Fincher insures that “Mindhunter” functions as a thriller, potent drama and absorbing psychological study.

The season opens with FBI agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) recovering from a mental collapse that sends him to the hospital. While his partner special agent Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) tries to figure out what’s happening their still fresh Behavioral Science Unit undergoes some administrative changes. The department is now under the watch of Ted Gunn (Michael Cerveris), who at first seems like just another Washington suit but is genuinely fascinated by and committed to the BSU’s work. He is particularly intrigued by Ford’s developed instinct for profiling serial murderers, crafting psychological maps and even predictions based on case evidence. Offering the team an expansion of space and resources, Gunn only demands that Tench and Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) make sure Ford doesn’t derail again. Now better-equipped the agents continue their series of interviews with incarcerated killers, collecting data to build a more complex catalogue of impulses, drives and motives. But the sudden reemergence of the “BTK Killer” in Wichita, Kansas and a growing string of child murders in Atlanta begin to absorb Ford and Trench into deeper forms of investigation, even as their personal lives face individual, dark turns.

Once again “Mindhunter” sets itself apart from the average TV cop show by using its subject matter as a canvas for deeper, wider themes. The first season was essentially a dramatized history of how the FBI in the late 70s began the BSU as a gamble to use the science of psychology to profile violent criminals. It was based in part on the book of the same name by pioneering FBI profiler John Douglas, who inspired “The Silence of the Lambs” and actually did endure a nervous breakdown. Like that first, brilliant season, this one isn’t so much about violence as about atmosphere and details. Rarely if ever do we actually see a murder being committed. What drives the rich writing is the very science and even artistry of what these profilers do. The world of “Mindhunter” is a baroque America lit in drained colors and shadows, where even a dinner party has a menacing air. In the first chapters Ford is almost numbed, too rattled from getting close to deviant minds. Gore is not a constant in this show, it is the way the profilers describe the sexual drives and actions of their subjects that unnerve. When the BTK killer resurfaces Ford and Tench go sit down with David Berkowitz (Oliver Cooper), the “Son of Sam” killer, and the scene builds to a quite riveting psychoanalytical duel as the convict insists a demonic canine told him to commit murder. Ford exposes it as a lie and the testimonial becomes a description of how Berkowitz found sexual gratification through shooting women. This kind of material is more effective than another cheap bloodbath on screen.

Last season was marked by the odd, perverse relationship formed between the agents and jailed killer Ed Kemper, who returns here with eerie articulation in actor Cameron Britton. For season two there is quite the parade of infamy. Among the felons Ford and Tench sit down with are William Pierce, Jr. (Michael Filipowich), who just needs good manners and a candy bar to speak, William Henry Hance (Corey Allen) and Emler Henley (Robert Aramayo). Yet the show is never exploitation, each interview is a study in how broken lives morph into violence and severe psychological deformations. They also bleed well into the wider narratives. For example Carr is forced to do the Henley interview herself and discovers a natural talent for breaking barriers when exploring a disturbed personality. 

However the great highlight of the season is episode five, when Ford and Tench finally meet Charles Manson, played in an older variation by Damon Herriman, who conjured a younger version of the cult leader earlier this summer in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” In a sense this episode is an antidote to the (brilliant) Tarantino take on the Cielo Drive killings. The facts of the murders are coldly described and the build-up to meeting the infamous pop culture ghoul is almost gothic as the agents wait for the subject to appear in a California prison. Herriman’s Manson is a carbon copy of the real thing, sitting atop a chair, rambling denials and semi-mystical wordplay as Tench loses his cool. Of course the maniac grabs Ford’s copy of “Helter Skelter” and signs an apocalyptic autograph. 

These moments are finely balanced with other story arcs involving the agents’ public and personal lives. Tench loses his nerves around Manson because he himself is dealing with a crisis at home when his young son witnesses the suffocation of an infant by older children. Forced to attend counseling and report to a social worker, Tench and his wife Nancy (Stacey Roca) are suddenly trapped in a nightmare, where a world confined to Quantico’s offices is now seeping into their lives. No one is safe. Carr falls for a bartender and begins an intense relationship, but it’s an early 80s world where being gay was still considered very taboo, especially in an office setting. When she connects with Henley by describing a past girlfriend she exposes herself to snitch agent Gregg Smith (Joe Tuttle), the apple polisher of the team who got them all in trouble last season by reporting an altered interview transcript. Ford, who lost his girlfriend last season, remains single and detached, like a wandering, working brain only living within the obsession of his work. It makes sense why the real John Douglas has described profiling a sort of art form onto itself.

All of this complex material is then combined with elements of classic detective thrillers. Ford visits Atlanta to interview a convicted killer but is then approached by locals in the African American community alarmed by a rise in child abductions and killings. True crime aficionados will recognize this as the Atlanta child murders case of 1979-1981. Going beyond just the murders, these episodes also touch on race relations in America, and how criminals can take advantage of a city where the black community has little trust in white-dominated law enforcement. Hovering over the entire season is also the BTK case, as we get glimpses into the life of its own predator, first introduced at the end of last season as he terrifies his wife, makes strange sketches alone at a local library and gets lost in fantasies that will soon lead to more crimes. But deviances can exist in even civilized corners and when Gunn, himself strange in a controlled way, invites the BSU team to a dinner party at his home the politicians and bureaucrats are just as creepy as anyone behind bars.

“Mindhunter” succeeds again because its quality has not diminished. Along with Fincher another notable director, Andrew Dominik, helms a few episodes with equal command of ambiance. They have used the story of the FBI’s profiling division to make a series both engaging but disturbingly relevant. The way Tench, Ford and Carr attempt to make sense of their subjects is a mirror reflection of our own grappling with modern-day terrors like mass shootings. What is it in the society that is sprouting such horrors? That’s what the show is asking in its layers of suspense and trembling psyches. 

Mindhunter” season two begins streaming Aug. 16 on Netflix.