‘Mindhunter’ Offers a Stark Warning About the Limits of Empathy

by Cameron McAllister | “I am human and nothing human is alien to me.” — Terrence (Photo by Patrick Harbron)

I know we’re still cheering for the arrival of Stranger Things 2, but I’m here to tell you that Mindhunter is Netflix’s best show to date.

The series, which premiered its first season run of ten episodes on October 13, is a loose adaptation of John E. Douglas’s book by the same title. A former FBI investigator in the behavioral sciences unit, Douglas and his partner, Robert Ressler, pioneered the research that would culminate in the psychological profile of the kind of criminal we now classify as a “serial killer.” The phrase itself was coined by Ressler and has since migrated from the field of criminology to the world of pop culture, spawning its own unique subgenre that includes everything from Silence of the Lambs to Dexter. The continued popularity of Douglas’s story is yet another testament to our abiding cultural obsession with the most extreme forms of criminal deviancy.

All adaptations involve some embellishment, but this series offers a truly deft amalgamation of fact and fiction. In order to free their character development from unnecessary constraints, for instance, the writers opted to supply Douglas and Ressler with fictional counterparts: In place of Douglas, we get Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff waving farewell to his Frozen days), a bright-eyed idealist whose baby face masks a much more complex obsession with his chosen subject.

Raspy-voiced Bill Tench, meanwhile, walks into the picture with a cigarette in his hand and an ironic gleam in his eye—very much the seasoned veteran to Ford’s eager rookie. However, Tench’s gruff outward demeanor hardly matches his sensitive inner landscape. Though Ford’s theoretical brilliance will take the two men into uncharted territory, it is Tench who recognizes the moral complexity of this new terrain.

But it’s the factual material that makes the show simultaneously mesmerizing and repulsive. Apart from one scene of explicit violence and its uncompromising opening credit sequence, Mindhunter focuses mainly on the psychological dimensions of its criminals. This visual restraint, however, hardly makes it any less disturbing.

When Tench and Ford journey into the maw of the maximum security prison system to interview the nation’s most notorious murderers, their casual conversations involve such outlandishly grotesque scenarios that the net effect is almost more surreal than horrifying. Imagine discussing necrophilia in between slices of pizza and you’re in the general ballpark of these meetings. But fact is often stranger (and more terrible) than fiction, and these interviews are taken directly from official transcripts, adding a whole new level of malevolence to these little consultations.

 In the show, Holden’s idea of treating these incarcerated criminals like lab rats is greeted with a mixture of perplexity and disdain. Why would anyone want to interview someone like Charles Manson or Ed Kemper? What can we possibly learn from such demented minds? Shouldn’t we restrict our efforts to putting these people behind bars? If these questions seem naïve to us now, it’s largely a tribute to the paradigm-shifting influence of Douglas and Ressler’s work.

On top of directing four of its ten episodes, David Fincher also serves as the executive producer of Mindhunter, and fans of his work will note the clear affinities between the show and two of his most accomplished films—namely, Se7en and Zodiac. Interestingly, both films showcase the tension that erupts when unchecked obsession meets with the restraint of painstaking analysis. Since the medium of television offers the distinct advantage of detailed character analysis, Fincher uses it to refine his exploration of this conflicted dynamic, showing us how Ford’s insatiable curiosity begins to encroach on his personal life. The tension is intensified by the arrival of Wendy Carr—a steely academic recruited by the bureau to formalize the methodology behind the prison interviews. Carr has little sympathy for Ford’s unorthodox tactics in the interviews, which involve everything from catering to a prisoner’s shoe fetish to matching their obscene lingo.

Despite the undeniable breakthroughs offered by their unique fieldwork, both Carr and Tench recognize that clear boundaries must be established between themselves and their subjects. Ford’s apparent “immunity” to these interviews is a source of anxiety for Tench who finds their work deeply troubling. He also recognizes that his younger partner’s growing facility in earning the trust of sociopaths is calcifying into a kind of heedless pride, a pride that forms an uncomfortable parallel with the men they’re interviewing. Unlike Ford, Tench knows that there is such a thing as getting too close.

 Though it concerns events that took place in the late ’70s, Mindhunter is very much a show of its time. Arguably, the central virtue of our cultural moment is empathy. In its contemporary guise, this virtue presents itself as a steadfast refusal to marginalize any form of difference, no matter how exotic or extreme. Leslie Jamison’s superb Empathy Examsoffers a vivid encapsulation of this contemporary mindset:

Empathy comes from the Greek empatheia—em (into) and pathos (feeling)—a penetration, a kind of travel. It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze there?

Mindhunter asks us to consider whether there are limits to empathy. Expanding on Jamison’s metaphor, the show asks whether it’s possible to travel to the country of another person’s pain only to find yourself indefinitely detained, your passport confiscated. When does empathy move beyond identification and become transformation?

Like any serious story, Mindhunter pays its audience the compliment of high expectations. True, the show does feature sensational material—but it also abounds in long stretches of meandering dialog, much of it punctuated by technical jargon and academic references. Emile Durkheim’s social theories make an appearance in the first episode; Erving Goffman and Freud follow as the series progresses. Though the storyline remains compelling, this is not a show for multitaskers.

The unique forms of isolation imposed by the modern world have given us a rich tradition of films and shows that steadily push their loner protagonists to a climactic point of catharsis. The explosive finale in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver still sets the standard. David Fincher brings us close to Scorsese’s chaotic intensity in Mindhunter’s final episode. After a failed suicide attempt lands the 6’9” Kemper in the hospital with thick bandages on his thick wrists, Ford gets a call informing him that he’s listed as the man’s sole medical dependent.

Without hesitation, Ford races to the airport and soon finds himself sitting by Kemper’s side in the hospital. Size is very difficult to convey onscreen, but Fincher ingeniously centers his lens on Kemper’s massive feet, which the covers simply can’t contain. We also see a thick metal chain fastening Kemper’s legs together, a stark reminder of the patient’s lethal capabilities. All of these disparate qualities—the bed, the bandages, the room’s sedate lighting, the giant feet, the chain—combine to create a scene of nearly impeccable menace.

 When his subject leaps from the bed with the prowess of a predator in the jungle, Ford finally understands that he’s not the one in control—that he’s not some kind of exotic sociopath-whisperer. “I could kill you right now if I wanted to,” Kemper intones. We then watch as Kemper enfolds Ford in his mammoth arms, whispering sinister possibilities in his ear.

Ford breaks loose and staggers from the room in a blind panic, his legs melting beneath him. The full weight of his own radical empathy exams comes crashing down on his head all at once, and it arrives with the force of a revelation. It’s a masterful conclusion to the first outing of a very promising show. (Word has it that Fincher wants five more seasons of Mindhunter. It’s a testament to Season One’s success that this ambition doesn’t sound presumptuous.)

Though Christian audiences may be appalled by its subject matter, Mindhunter shouldn’t prove too shocking. In his short story “Genesis and Catastrophe,” Roald Dahl recounts a conventional childbirth. The tale is initially straightforward, if a little melodramatic. Like a chemist adding a volatile compound to a beaker, however, Dahl instantly transforms the narrative with one explosive detail: the baby is Adolf Hitler.

Dahl’s little conceit would garner the same results if it were applied to any of Mindhunter’s killers. Every hardened criminal was once a squirming infant. With its uncompromising depiction of aberrant behavior, Mindhunter is definitely not for everyone—but Christians can affirm the show’s somber reminder that the gravest danger always involves underestimating one’s own capacity for evil. We don’t have to travel as far as we think we do to see the darkness in others.

Cameron McAllister is a speaker and writer with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM). He lives in the Atlanta area with his wife, Heather. You can find him online @cammcallister7 on Twitter, and listen to him talk about signs of life in today’s culture on the Vital Signs podcast.