Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you. — Friedrich Nietzsche.
It is hard to doubt that many inhabitants of the American imperium are going insane. The irrational nature of sudden, public outbursts of violence escalates to new levels of horror every year. The recent bloodbath in Las Vegas has raised many, quite necessary, debates over the gun-crazed culture that frames the American mindset, but little attention is being paid to the actual mental state of the republic. Surrounded by hyper-capitalism, predatory competition, and an increasingly isolated way of living, new monsters are being bred and formed, to roam the countryside and inflict new body counts. It is almost fitting that the current White House occupant is himself deranged, because shouldn’t a leader be a mirror image of his people?
All these cultural realities make it more than fitting that Netflix should premiere its new, excellent series Mindhunter at just this time. Based on the 1995 book by FBI profiling pioneer John Douglas, the series recounts the days in the late 1970s when the Bureau began using psychological science to begin dealing with the rise in serial murder cases. The Summer of Love faded into the murderous rages of the Manson Family, the Son of Sam, and a new phenomenon of grisly killers so horrifically deranged they became criminal celebrities (in a capitalist society anything can be commodified). It is into this scene that agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) enter with the task of studying the deviant predators. Along with a professor named Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), the agents develop a unit inside the agency’s Behavioral Science department designed to not only capture deviant killers, but develop a psychological framework by which to track and possibly preempt their crimes.
Mindhunter sets aside the typical style of a serial killer procedural. It dismisses the glamorized view of the topic that’s been in vogue since The Silence of the Lambs and TV shows like Hannibal. It takes Douglas’s book seriously and feels like an almost anthropological piece that discards gratuity for psychiatric tension, violence for the scarring revelations of personal confessions. It is essentially an anthology of interviews and cases which reveal the fierce depths of human depravity, while observing the effect the experience of immersing oneself in this world has on Ford and Tench. Produced by David Fincher, director of baroque hits like Seven, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Fight Club and Gone Girl, this is a series closer to his 2007 Zodiac, which depended more on tone and shadow for its effect. But Fincher taps into a terrible zeitgeist here, producing a period piece that feels eerily at home in 21st century America.
If television is still dominated by testosterone-fueled visions of the United States, Fincher’s vision is gothic and Nietzschean, presenting a story not so much about law enforcement as about individuals staring into the black well of their civilization, and coming back marked. The writing focuses on psychology as a science and not a mere plot gimmick. Wide angles frame scenery almost sickly in its drained colors, and the music is an eerie string of sound punctuated by classic rock (“Psycho Killer” by Talking Heads takes on new terrain, as does Led Zeppelin’s “In the Light”). Even the interior of the apartment where Holden and his girlfriend live is drenched in shadow, giving the impression of hidden nightmares or anxieties in its corners. Like all history, beneath the romanticized nostalgia of an era there hide terrors in the night.
But the show’s key thread is the parade of killers interviewed by the agents. They lack the thriller appeal or villainous charm of Hannibal Lecter or Dexter; instead, these are the offspring of a society fueled by misogyny, sexual commodification, a society carrying violence in its DNA. They kill because of humiliation, abandonment transformed into murderous fantasy, a distorted senses of masculinity channeled into butchery, and patriarchy flowering into horror. The casting is perfect in that these men seem almost pathetic, and would be pitiful if they weren’t killers transfixed by the pool of Narcissus. But then again, this is a society increasingly transfixed by its narcissistic self. The way “The Co-Ed Killer,” Edmund Kemper (brilliantly played by Cameron Britton), describes the gruesome nature of his crimes — including the murder of his mother — is expressed with the same tone and self-righteous mannerisms I’ve seen bankers express when discussing wealth and the laziness of the underclass. As Dr. Carr explains to Holden early in the series, the question is not how a sociopath could become president, but how could he not?
This goes to the real heart of Mindhunter. It is a portrait of the American psyche in its current state. In the pilot episode, one of the series’ most relevant lines comes when Tench describes the sudden rise in truly deviant crime following the social upheavals of the Vietnam War and Watergate, as if crime itself becomes a cultural extension of a society’s political and social degradation. Is this not the case today, as we shift into an ever more brutally competitive, sociopathic social order? Politics is now a crude sideshow, the Iraq War was a cataclysm we brush under the rug like a guilty memory we allow to fester, and our veneration of weapons and testosterone is having subconscious effects we dare not acknowledge. Even the FBI in the show lacks the heroic aura of other films. Instead here it is a terrain riddled with corruption and bureaucracy, where J.Edgar Hoover’s portrait still hangs in the offices. The main characters are not action heroes, more like agents of the state trying to understand why the imperial subjects are breeding monsters.
It is now common to expect some sort of public massacre before the month is out. Like the killers in Mindhunter, the current spree of shooters range from someone who couldn’t get a date to a gambler secretly amassing a mountain of armaments. Be sure that our obsession with how the tone and shape of our bodies represent a kind of social status, which further fuels countless, unspeakable fantasies in minds already gone adrift. In one episode, a scrawny killer snarls with acidic rage how his girlfriend is always being hit on by a bigger guy, while another killer defines his views of women entirely on porn. It is true, there is no excuse for murder, but the interrogation scenes in the show touch on a nerve that rattles deep and shakes into the light an awareness of a culture, American culture, that can shape its citizenry in ways entirely fraught, if not altogether frightening.
America’s Spawn: The New Breed of Predator
Frustrated, stunted, their minds gone ever deeper into realms of harrowing psychosis, these characters all show alarming linkage to an entire sphere of individuals today all too normalized in the American State; normalized, that is, till time comes for a ritual slaughter — there must always be the sacrificial cow — and the great singular sacrifice of 2017 is Harvey Weinstein. Fueled by great wealth and influence in Hollywood, Weinstein began treating everyone, from actresses to journalists, like vassals, sex dolls or inanimate glory holes. A liberal icon, Weinstein is no different than our debased president in his employment of sex as a weapon. It is a practice as old as Ancient Rome. Read Suetonius or Tacitus to learn how the Caesars — having been granted mastery over the world — felt free to indulge in their most debased impulses, because no one would dare stop them. Tiberius enjoyed breaking the legs of young boys who rejected his advances, Nero and Caligula raped at will. There is a fine line between the all-powerful politician and CEO, and the killers interviewed by Holden and Tench, a point made by Bret Easton Ellis in his novel American Psycho. One brilliantly subtle episode in the series involves a school teacher who enjoys tickling children in his office and then giving them pocket change as a reward.
As a work of film, Mindhunter is full of great craft. The subplots involving the agents investigating cases depend on psychological insights, clues based on behavior and atmosphere. The writing is sharp, the characters intelligent but flawed enough to be empathic. One of the show’s most intriguing angles is how Holden begins to absorb his work to the point where he starts applying his own technique to his relationship. He dates a fiercely independent and sharp post-grad student named Deborah (Hannah Gross), who is more in tune with the experimental culture of the 70s than his suit-wearing, controlled self. But as he dives deeper into the murder cases, he begins to pay closer attention to Deborah’s history and experiences. “Why did you sleep with all those men?” he asks one night. For are we not all shaped by our experiences, memories, scars, joys and insecurities? There is not a single false performance in the episodes, and there is brilliance in the way we are repulsed and disturbed by mere descriptions. We never see Kemper decapitate his mother, we hear him describe the act. The same applies to the numerous rapes, kidnappings and depraved fantasies described in the prison interviews. Fincher and his team of writers and directors force us to envision the acts in our minds, and that makes it truly disturbing. Never does the camera linger on gruesome crime scenes or body parts. The horror is hinted at in flashes, glances, and above all in dialogue as tragic and horrifying as anything pure fiction could try to conjure.
But if the arts subconsciously express our collective state of mind as a society, then Mindhunter is a portrait of American civilization continuing to produce individuals driven to deviant forms of murder; it is a civilization shaped by its own unique culture which itself becomes increasingly predatory in all facets. If the serial killers of the show symbolize private horrors, where the victims are hunted and disappeared in the night, now our horrors are becoming ever more public, with body counts rising as our elected leaders threaten their own brand of violence against distant shores. In this sense the characters of Mindhunter are trying to diagnose the very ills of a society’s delicate fabric. In understanding what diseases us, we might better understand ourselves and pull back from oblivion.
Alci Rengifo is a Contributing Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.