The foundation of a well-adjusted society rests on the demarcation between good and evil. That demarcation is important because it helps differentiate us from ‘others’—the vicious and disgraced, the ones who, just like us, were wandering on the highway but took a sharp detour and got swallowed by the night. The ones who assuaged their pain by inflicting pain on others: shooting, butchering, raping. We, on the other hand, came back to our well-lit homes, happy families, cozy neighbourhoods, committing smaller crimes in our little worlds when no one was watching. We’re no strangers to evil; it’s always intrigued us. We want to understand it, while standing outside its shadow. We want to know why it exists, so we can protect ourselves.
In 1977, two FBI agents, John E. Douglas and Robert K. Ressler, wanted to pin evil down. Criminal psychology was in its infancy then, and Douglas and Ressler believed that interviewing serial killers, understanding their thought patterns and motivations, could help them solve real-life cases. In fact, the term “serial killer” hadn’t pierced the collective consciousness then; Douglas and Ressler coined it during the profiling process. Nearly two decades later, in 1995, Douglas (and writer Mark Olshaker) published the findings in a book, Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit. The screenplay based on that has been converted into a new Netflix series, produced by David Fincher and Charlize Theron, called Mindhunter, which released online last month.
Comprising 10 episodes of nearly an hour, Mindhunter is an unflinching examination of evil and crime, consummately bridging the gap between fiction and nonfiction. In the world of Mindhunter, serial killers aren’t apparitions or symbols or headlines; they’re quite simply people—cold and cruel and manipulative, but at the end of the day, still people. Mindhunter’s first season features interviews with five serial killers, jailed for their horrific crimes: Edmund Kemper, Monte Rissell, Jerry Brudos, Richard Speck, and Dennis Rader. They had tortured, murdered, and raped their victims—some were strangers, some family members; some were raped while they were alive, some were raped after their deaths. Yet, when interviewed, the perpetrators look scarily normal. You could have stood behind them in queues of subways and banks and restaurants, and not noticed anything wrong. And that is the larger point: Evil can, and does, live around us. The Kempers of the world are still behind the bars, but what about those who aren’t? What happens to those who murder, as part of mobs in riots, and then return to their homes and offices? What happens to their friends, colleagues, and families?
Based on the actual interviews of FBI agents with serial killers, Mindhunter tiptoes a tricky line with impressive aplomb. It knows that it has to humanize the killers, without being sympathetic towards them (especially because they’re remorseless themselves); it knows that it has to humanize the FBI agents without making them heroic. It’s a tough terrain to inhabit, but Mindhunter’s makers display both artistic acuity and moral responsibility. Large parts of the series corner you, asking questions that you may not have considered, let alone encountered. When Kemper is talking about his childhood, a period where he was neglected, insulted, and belittled by his mother, you’re not sure of your feelings. What are they: pity, indifference, disgust, empathy—or all of them? When the FBI agents, especially Holden Ford (modeled on Douglas), engineer fake empathy and quasi-reverence towards the killers, falsely appearing misogynist and misanthropic, you’re not sure what to make of that, either: ingenuity, callousness, desperation, transgression—or all of them?
But the greatest trick that Mindhunter pulls off, apparent only at the end of the season, is in the character arc of Holden. A deferential, quiet guy at the beginning of the show, Holden—very, very slowly—starts to change. He starts breaking the rules of the Bureau, starts disobeying his boss, puts his partner down, uses his position of power to make his subordinate lie. Amid all these scenes and subplots lies a terrifying introspective suggestion: Evil can change us; no one is immune to its seduction. Holden’s transformation is very similar to that of Breaking Bad’s Walter White (Bryan Cranston) who, after having discovered his calling and the way it could be used to exert power on others, becomes a completely different man, discarding all pretenses of being nice, kind, and accommodating. Holden is based on a real-life character so he, of course, wouldn’t transform into a vicious figure like White, but just the fact that he shows signs of recklessness, of not caring for the consequences, says a lot.
Maybe our morality, our sanity, is a big perverse joke. Maybe we cling on to them only when we’re watched. Maybe we can be evil; we just haven’t had the chance. Mindhunter, a chilling reminder of the little white lies we’ve told ourselves for long, is a big clear mirror: a show that on the surface is about them but is actually, deep down, about us.