Why the Dark Ending of 'Mindhunter' Season 2 Offers No Easy Answers
This post contains spoilers for Season 2 of Mindhunter and discusses the ending in detail.
Netflix's serial killer drama Mindhunter isn't afraid of the unknown. In its first season, which focussed on the formation of the FBI's behavioral science unit, the David Fincher-produced series followed agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) as they cobbled together a new methodology for criminal profiling in the late 1970s by interviewing convicted murderers about their personal histories, proclivities, and inner-lives. These lengthy Q&A sessions combined experimentation and intuition. Putting a G-men spin on the snob vs. slob, odd-couple dynamic, the pair dug deep and prodded the dark corners of the human psyche.
In the early days of the show, that exploration was done with a rebellious, rule-breaking spirit. In the second season, which recently debuted on the streaming service after a two-year wait, the heroes are a bit more established in the world and confident within their profession. Given the backing of an ambitious new boss, played by Fringe's Michael Cerveris, the core group of Holden, Bill, and psychology professor Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) increasingly put their new procedures to the test in the field.
Still, the show makes a point of not sensationalizing the violent acts, which are rarely shown on screen. Instead, we follow Holden and Bill as they fly from Quantico to Atlanta, where they investigate a series of brutal child murders; back at the headquarters, Wendy gets her shot at interrogating suspects in their absence, discovering that she has a knack for grilling killers. But, by the end of the season, they're all questioning themselves: Is this project accomplishing what they thought it would? Or are they all deluding themselves?
From its beginning, Mindhunter played both like an unbearably tense procedural and a darkly funny workplace drama, like Silence of the Lambs meets Mad Men. Holden's intellectual gifts and considerable arrogance, delivered with an earnest obliviousness by Groff, butted up against the old-school investigative instincts of Bill and the more academic leanings of Wendy. They would often clash with each other in drab offices, giving the show a sealed-off, claustrophobic quality that was often punctuated by ongoing investigations and occasional scenes of the agents at home. The frequent cut-aways to the uncaught BTK Killer in Kansas also added a foreboding sense of menace.
Without changing up the formula too much, Season 2 expands the scope of the show by mostly focussing its latter half on the Atlanta Child Murders, which remain mostly unsolved to this day. The complicated case doesn't lend itself to conventional narrative catharsis or TV heroics. Holden is first recruited to look into the unsolved murders by Tanya, a hotel concierge played by Sierra McClain, and he soon inserts himself in the middle of a web of frustrated community leaders, nervous politicians, and disgruntled police officers. Ignoring the racial dynamics and history of the region, he constructs his profile and pursues his theories with a single-mindedness that blinds him to other possibilities within the case.
For some viewers, the appearance of Wayne Williams at the end of episode 8 might signal that the series is building to a conclusion where the bad guy gets caught, the case gets solved, and everyone gets to pat each other on the backs for a job well done. Williams, who mostly fits Holden's rigidly constructed racial and psychological profile, is eventually arrested for the murder of two adults. But Fincher, director Carl Franklin, and the show's writing staff don't let the FBI, the local authorities, or the show's main characters off the hook.
"That is known as a victory lap," says Camille Bell, one of the grieving Atlanta mothers as Holden prepares to leave Atlanta behind. "It's supposed to be taken at the end of the race." During the scene, she's pointing to a television in a restaurant where a politician speaks about justice being delivered. Clearly seeking approval, Holden makes a promise that he'll continue looking into the unsolved murders, but the next day he's getting on a private plane back to Virginia and his pleased new boss tells him they're downgrading the Atlanta cases to "inactive status." He's got all the public recognition and institutional backing he always wanted. But at what cost?
As often as Mindhunter highlights the cleverness of its main characters, it also frequently notes how the profiling techniques, which in real life have long-since been discredited as useless, can flatten out the specifics of a person or the reality of a case. These tools developed by the agents can be manipulated, used to justify existing biases and reinforce dominant social codes, and that's what happens at various points in Season 2. In the same way he dismisses local suspicion of the KKK, Holden has ideas about Charles Manson that lead him to downplay the Manson Family's racism. He's so sure of his own brilliance that he avoids certain facts and emphasizes others to fit his ideology.
If there was a drawback to the second season, it's that the show occasionally flattened the domestic lives of its characters in an effort to make these larger structural points. Wendy's relationship with a bartender often felt rushed and essentially dropped away in the last episode; similarly, the plot about Bill and his wife Nancy (Stacey Roca) confronting their son about his dark, possibly sociopathic impulses occasionally lapsed into over-wrought melodrama. Holden's panic attacks, which were set-up as an important story element early on in the season, never really came back.
Despite those flaws, there's a meticulousness to the show's construction that makes me think some of these dangling, unresolved plot threads will eventually return. Fincher has hinted that there's a five-season plan for the series and the final moment of Season 2, which found the still at-large BTK Killer engaging in some terrifying autoerotic asphyxiation, continues to set the stage for the future. As long as Netflix doesn't abruptly pull the plug on the series, as they've done to some beloved series lately, Mindhunter will likely continue to double-down on ambiguity over certainty. At the very least, don't expect a victory lap.