The academic anti-drama of 'Mindhunter'

True crime: A still from Mindhunter

True crime: A still from Mindhunter  

What makes this show the founding father of the contemporary detective drama, the ‘ground zero’ of the serial-killer genre?

Not much moves in season two of Mindhunter. There’s an inert “backroom-ness” to the narrative – a tone one might associate more with a tale of jaded activists battling a bureaucratic system rather than detectives pursuing an elusive serial killer. At no point do the pathbreaking pioneers of FBI’s Behavioural Science Unit – Agents Holden Ford, Bill Tench and psychologist Wendy Carr – look like geniuses in control of their circumstances. Their goal is extraordinary, but their missions and mistakes feel frustratingly ordinary.

Madness of method

Ford has an anxiety problem. When he does have ideas, he resembles a skydiver held back by faulty buckles. The roadblocks he encounters are political and petty. At one point, Ford requires multiple red-tape permissions to print fake flyers; at another point, he personally ends up assembling wooden crosses on the office floor because the material is ‘delivered late’. Tench flies home every weekend to resolve a domestic crisis – he is rarely available when Ford needs support to counter the small-mindedness of the Atlanta Police department. Carr is shackled in Quantico, creaking under the pressure of being a smart, self-made woman in law enforcement. Together, they behave less like legacy builders and more like glorified data collectors constantly behind the curve.

This is also the understated beauty of Mindhunter. The academic amateur-hour vibe is deliberate. We want the rhythm to be sexier because, as viewers exposed to modern crime sagas, we are conditioned to expect smooth sleuths who have enjoyed the fruits of the technological revolution. We expect more than a paper-and-pencil team in a basement. What we often forget – creator Joe Penhall doesn’t – is that in the early ‘80s, the police were relatively unexposed to the madness of method. For instance, nobody joins the dots about the victims’ musical ambitions. The series stays honest to these roots instead of succumbing to the stylistic excesses of the cool-cop narrative. It recognizes that Ford, Tench and Carr are the roots themselves. They are the bricks and mortar on which the intellectual evolution of police-work is built. The job they do – stilted, slowly satisfactory – makes Mindhunter the founding father of the contemporary detective drama, the ‘ground zero’ of the serial-killer genre: the why that defines the how(s) that follow.

Forensic thrillers

Mindhunter’s language is best understood by watching the two other outstanding true-crime shows of 2019. Both Unbelievable and Delhi Crime flow with the fluidity of a forensic thriller. The filmmaking is urgent and evocative, in line with the purpose – a serial rapist, a gangrape – of its cases. More importantly, the definitive moment of each series is inextricably linked to Mindhunter. Both scenes feature the cops finally confronting the criminals in custody. In Unbelievable, the detectives observe as the cameras record the interrogation of the unrepentant rapist; they pause the video, disturbed by his easy brazenness. The man is flattered when told that his mind might make for an insightful case study. In Delhi Crime, the entire team is shaken by the monster’s graphic description of that night. But Mindhunter hinges on normalising this face-off. Ford and Tench spend years demystifying these beasts in person, exposing the morbid mentality, rather than snazzy physicality, of the chase.

Moreover, the placidity of Carr’s track acquires heft once you realise that Unbelievable and Delhi Crime are defined by female-led investigations. Carr, a closeted lesbian, senses that the heroes of the show – Tench is homophobic – are bigoted products of American suburbia. The new boss, a driver of the unit’s potential, epitomises this culture. He guides sleazy politicians to her at parties, and uses her as eye-candy to seduce Washington’s kingpins into enabling his blue-eyed boys’ budgets.

Battle for relevance

These portions might appear too on-the-nose for today’s viewers. But Mindhunter takes the risk of investing in an unpleasant character arc at an unpleasant time precisely so that we recognise the privilege of being able to appreciate new-age heroes like Detective Grace Rasmussen, Karen Duvall and DCP Vartika Chaturvedi. The experience of watching a dignified Wendy wage a silent battle for relevance in a man’s club is elevated by the headiness of watching Karen scolding a male intern and Vartika demanding discipline from unruly subordinates. Wendy is a difficult presence; she dilutes how we perceive the strained masculinity of Mindhunter. But she is necessary to blaze a trail for gender-dynamic narratives of the post-2000 detective ecosystem. She is necessary so that Vartika, addressed as “Madam sir,” can proudly inform a lady that the assaulters of her daughter have been captured. She is necessary so that a grateful survivor – a girl once bullied by men into doubting her own conviction – can phone Karen Duvall and thank her for making her believable. One can imagine Karen making this call to Wendy Carr. In other words, Mindhunter is necessary so that shows like Delhi Crime are far from Unbelievable.

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Printable version | Feb 29, 2020 7:00:04 AM |

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