TV tropes are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they exist because they work: they create a kind of structural shorthand that writers can use to keep producing content reliably. On the other hand, used at the wrong time, or in the wrong show, they can smother any unique voices or angles.
I believe this is what has occurred with the second season of Mindhunter. What follows will constituted spoilers, so if you haven’t already binged it, you are accepting responsibility for this by reading any further. So, *SPOILERS* begin now.
The dirty secret of Mindhunter is that we don’t need the main characters to have full and rich emotional lives displayed on screen for us. The characters are not really characters so much as they are proxies for the exploration of darkness and the historical account of how the FBI codified the demonology of serial killers. That’s the hook; that’s what we want to see. Holden Ford and Bill Tensch and Wendy Carr are all more or less normal people, and the interest is watching normal people confront the void. Who they date and how much golf they play is of no interest unless it informs that confrontation.
No one found Holden’s girlfriend Debbie from Season 1 more irritating than I did, because watching him spend so much time with someone who could not stop belittling him and condescending to him got old fast. However, their relationship, at least in the early stages, did inform and inspire his thinking about what he was doing in the FBI. It was relevant. But Wendy’s relationship with a bartender this season was relevant to nothing, because it was the only thing we saw her do. All it serves is the trope of “we’ve revealed she’s lesbian, so we need to explore that, so she can *grow as a character*”. No. We don’t need to explore that, because Wendy Carr is not a teenager. She is who she is, and if we don’t know what we can do with her while Holden and Bill are chasing the Atlanta Child Killer, then do we need to see her at all?
The same with Holden’s psychology. Watching Holden have a massive panic attack at the end of Season 1, as he confronts the reality that the void, in the form of Co-Ed Killer Ed Kemper, has also gazed into him, was a strong way to close Season 1. We spend time with it in the early episodes, and it seems as if it’s going to matter, as both Wendy and Bill feel obliged to look after him. But then it goes nowhere, until it’s played off as an almost-joke at the end of the season (Bill telling Holden “You look anxious. You should take a Valium”). I don’t watch this show for lame cliffhangers.
I’d like to say that the breakdown of Bill Tensch’s family is better, but it isn’t. The creepy little boy is still a creepy little boy, and the incident involving the toddler feels like cheap drama. It seems to be so important, and yet it’s only Nancy not wanting to stay in the house that blows everything up at the end. It felt obligatory. A toddler died, and the result is Nancy packing everything up and moving out without leaving (so far as we can tell) so much as a Dear John letter. This isn’t where the emotional weight of the series should be. It’s not a character show, it’s a content show.
Meanwhile, the actual draw of the season gets almost short shrift. You’ve got BTK, who was mere shadowing in Season 1, suddenly landing on the Behavioral Science Unit’s radar, but by the end of Season 2, we’re back to watching him for a scene at the beginning or end of an episode acting weird. Which isn’t unreasonable, as BTK wasn’t caught until 2005. But other than a quick trip to Wichita for Bill, they seem oddly blase about the whole thing. Is this really the best use of the material?
The season works best when dealing with the Atlanta Child Killings of 1979-1981. The tantalizing mystery of this, with so many dead children, and so few leads, and a community deeply suspicious, is top-shelf stuff. More, it serves as a great challenge to the whole concept of “profiling”: although Wayne Williams fits the profile, physical evidence tying him too the dead children remains elusive. The story builds logically off of what we’ve seen them do in Season 1, but everyone except Holden treats it as an irritating distraction. The conflict between theory and reality should occupy the center stage, and everything the characters are doing should build off of that. Instead, we have conversations about authenticity and real estate but nothing about why Holden is so certain about the kind of man he’s trying to catch. He doesn’t get to make his case. It’s like the show just wants him to be wrong.
Fincher says he plans to do five seasons. I’m not going to wait with such anticipation for the next one.