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Mindhunter Season 2 Turns Its Psychology Inward

We had to wait nearly two years before we got new Mindhunter content after the excellent first season ended. I feel like a long build-up of anticipation can sometimes result in disappointment. However, that was not the case in this instance. Mindhunter Season 2 was just as enjoyable as its first season, and in some ways I think it was an improvement.

After the first season, I guessed we would get more of a focus on the mysterious mustached man who appeared in short snippets at the beginning of episodes. And Season 2 did indeed return to this character, as Bill flies to Kansas to learn more about “BTK” (the name assigned to the killer, which stands for “bind, torture, kill”). Bill meets with the brother of one of BTK’s victims and learns details about the murder, as the brother was at the scene and even was shot by BTK before escaping.

I really liked how Mindhunter used the BTK case to set up the rest of the season. The Behavioral Science Unit spends a good amount of time in the early episodes analyzing the case and using it to drive their interviews and come up with new profiles. BTK wrote letters to the press and relates to other serial killers. He idolizes the Son of Sam, who Holden and Bill subsequently interview. From BTK and Son of Sam, the BSU creates a new category: someone who commits crimes that are sexual and also someone who enjoys reaching out to the media.

Son of Sam sits at a table with a tape recorder on the table

Midway through the season, before the meeting with Charles Manson, Ed Kemper makes a brief appearance. (I wasn’t sure if Cameron Britton would be back to reprise his role as Kemper this season, and I’m so glad he did, even if it was only one scene.) Holden and Bill ask him questions related to BTK, and while Holden thinks BTK will eventually make a mistake, Kemper reminds them they have only been able to learn directly from the killers who have been caught.

The attention paid to this conversation with Kemper and the new category related to BTK pays off later in Mindhunter Season 2. I really admire how everything is set up to factor into the focal point of Season 2: the Atlanta child murders.

After Season 1 aired, I had enjoyed some of the Case of the Week stuff and hoped it would continue. But we didn’t get as much of that in the new season. In fact, I think Mindhunter changed its feel in the second season. It focused less on the interviews of convicted killers (although the high-profile interviews of Manson and Son of Sam were great) and focused more on our main characters. The evolution of the show didn’t feel jarring to me. I liked the changes quite a bit.

A New Psychological Focus

I always love a story that is based on psychology and analyzes why people do the things they do. Season 1 of Mindhunter leaned heavily in this direction, with Holden and Bill conducting multiple interviews of serial killers and piecing together profiles based on their crimes.

One thing I loved about Season 2, however, is that it kept its psychological subject matter—and expanded it outside of the killer profiles. It turned its look inward, onto our main characters. In this new season, we get to see some of the mental health challenges faced by the members of the FBI Behavior Science Unit. Such an interesting idea.

During the thrilling end of Season 1, we see Holden hyperventilating on a hospital floor after the behemothian Ed Kemper engulfed him with a bear hug. At that moment, a line had been crossed for Holden and I think he finally came to terms with how dangerous the criminals he had been working with really are.

Holden also had a number of other things on his mind, as his girlfriend left him and he’s likely facing repercussions within the department for doctoring interview transcripts. Sometimes in life, everything bad seems to bubble up at once and you find yourself hyperventilating on the floor. I’ve been there, Holden.

Time-wise, Season 2 picks up right after the end of Season 1. Holden is recovering from his panic attack, and after his release from the hospital, he is still experiencing lingering anxieties. At the end of Episode 1, Holden begins to have another panic attack at Shepard’s retirement party after Holden gives a cringe-inducing speech that prompts Shepard to cuss him out for ruining his career.

It’s interesting to see both Bill and Wendy’s reactions to Holden’s anxiety. Bill basically tells Holden to toughen up, while Wendy is sympathetic. They both agree they need to be transparent with each other about it, and to keep an eye on Holden.

The focus on Holden’s anxiety fades as the season goes on, however. I suppose overplaying this aspect could become dull, but I thought another panic attack might crop up at some point. With all the time spent on it early in the season, I have to imagine it’s something Holden will deal with throughout the series as it goes on.

I could see it being handled similarly to how Tony Soprano periodically and randomly had panic attacks in The Sopranos. That would be rather effective and realistic—because doesn’t anxiety always seem to pop up at random, unexplainable times?

The most tragic aspect of Mindhunter Season 2 is Bill Tench’s relationship with his family. Season 1 had hinted that Bill had some challenges at home: After not being able to have a child of their own, Bill and Nancy adopted their son Brian, who was extremely quiet and not connecting with Bill. A lack of a connection only scratches the surface of problems for Bill and his family in the second season.

After a young child is found murdered in one of the homes Nancy was attempting to sell as a realtor, it is revealed that Brian was present at the murder. He did not participate in the actual killing (which was committed by other boys from the neighborhood), but he suggested they place the body on a cross.

As we have seen from Holden, the stress of the work of the BSU can be extremely taxing in and of itself. But now Bill is forced to fly home every Friday and face the fact that his son witnessed and even participated in an act of murder.

Does he feel responsible? Is he responsible (or not him, per se, but his work)? I mean, Bill’s job involves sick, ruthless killers committing terrible acts. Is it merely a coincidence that some of that violence has seeped into his life at home? Remember, Brian found some crime scene photos in Bill’s home office in Season 1. What effect did that have on him? Have there been other similar incidents?

It’s possible that Bill’s work has nothing to do with Brian’s actions. Bill and Nancy are in the dark about what happened to Brian in his first few years of life. He could have suffered abuse or some other trauma that would set off his future behaviors. But I’m sure Bill can’t help but feel like some of this is his fault.

I loved how all of this was woven into the Charles Manson interview. Bill loses it and has to end the interview when Manson (played by Damon Herriman, who also played Manson in Quentin Tarantino’s recent film Once Upon A Time in Hollywood) talks about “Family” and children. He tells Bill “You eat meat with your teeth, you kill things that are better than you, and then you say your children are killers.” Bill says, “You’re not supposed to let children fall, you’re supposed to guide them.” You can’t help but think of Brian during this exchange.

With all of these stressors going on in Bill’s life, I’m surprised he isn’t the one suffering the panic attacks. His “strong and silent type” personality may only be able to hold up for so long, especially since he is keeping these problems primarily to himself. He doesn’t let his new boss Ted Gunn (Michael Cerveris) specifically know what is going on, and only lets Holden know very late in the season.

Bill opens up to Wendy, so at least he has one person he can talk to. But he clearly could have benefited from getting some of the weight of his problems off his chest. It may have cost him his marriage, too, as he discovers Nancy has left him and taken Brian with her at the end of the season. I’m not sure how much Bill’s family will factor into later seasons and whether Bill will try and solve how to help Brian open up and deal with the harsh events of his life. It was definitely riveting and heartbreaking subject matter in Season 2.

Wendy also deals with her share of issues in Season 2, struggling to find her identity—both professionally and personally. In Season 1, we followed Holden’s failed attempt at his love life, but in Season 2 it’s Wendy’s turn. A bartender, Kay (Lauren Glazier), catches Wendy’s eye and the two enter a relationship.

Wendy is still uneasy about being open regarding her sexuality. She is more comfortable staying in with Kay and a bottle of wine, as opposed to going out in public together. She hides the fact that she’s a lesbian from her coworkers. While conducting an interview with the incarcerated killer Elmer Henley she uses a Holden-esque tactic and goes off script. Wendy tells Henley she was in a relationship with her mentor, who was a woman, to get him to get him to open up.

When she said this during the interview (with Gregg present), I figured the cat would be out of the bag. But when the full team reviewed the interview later, she played off what she said as a lie to simply get a reaction out of Henley. This was a different time, so I understand why Wendy is hesitant to be completely honest with everyone. She is already dealing with sexism in the workplace (the most evident example being her encounters at a work party in Episode 5, in which Ted unzips her blouse before introducing her to other FBI big-wigs), so it’s unknown how people would treat her knowing she was a lesbian.

I’d have to think she’ll let Bill and Holden know at some point. It will be interesting to see their reactions. (Ultimately I don’t think they will treat her any differently once they know.)

Even though the relationship with Kay doesn’t work out, Wendy has made progress in this season of finding out what she wants. I really enjoy Wendy as a part of this team; I’m rooting for her in future seasons to find happiness. But with what we’ve seen about Holden and Bill’s lives, is finding happiness possible in this job?

The Atlanta Case: Do They Get It Right?

As we close in on the end of Mindhunter Season 2, the focus moves from interviews of jailed serial killers to the pursuit of someone in Atlanta who is killing young black boys in the early 1980s.

Using clues from the BTK case and interviews, Holden builds a profile for the killer: a black man in his 20s or 30s. He stubbornly sticks to this profile, despite blow-back from the Atlanta community and police force. Many people, including the families of the boys being killed, suspect it’s the KKK committing the murders. But Holden does not back off, and he pisses off a bunch of people in the process.

Holden walks down the streets of Atlanta carrying a cross. A large group of people are walking behind him

One of Holden’s main arguments is that young black boys would not agree to get in the car of a white man without other people in the community noticing. This makes sense, but it also is pointed out multiple times that the community was relatively mixed racially so perhaps this would not appear so out of place.

The investigation finally leads to Wayne Williams (played by Christopher Livingston), who is found late at night near a bridge after a splash was heard. As a black man in his 20s, he fits Holden’s profile. He worked with young boys in the music industry, trying to find the “next Michael Jackson.” And he had been previously arrested for impersonating a police officer (an act that could explain how he would be able to pick up young boys and earn their trust).

Holden and the task force discover Williams at the end of Episode 8 and then question him throughout the final episode. But Williams makes a brief appearance, barely noticeable, in Episode 6, at the scene of one of the murders as a photographer. This is something discussed multiple times in Mindhunter, a killer returning to the scene of the crime. As Kemper tells Holden in Episode 5, “At the murder site, I could relive the experience. Feel the same elation, the incredible release.”

Holden sticks to his guns, and pins Williams as the guy. He points out that serial killers don’t kill outside their race. But many of the Atlanta residents remain skeptical the murders could be committed by a fellow black person. At one point, Jim Barney asks Holden, with all of the same evidence against Williams, if he was white, would Holden still think they had the right guy. It’s one of many interesting ways to look at the case and how it relates to race.

So did Williams kill all of the children? At the end of the finale, he is arrested for only two murders—Nathaniel Cater and Jimmy Ray Payne, both adults. The police claim there wasn’t enough evidence to link him to the remaining 27 children murders. The real-life Williams denied killing the children, and Mindhunter provides no official closure on the case.

The FBI considers the case “closed,” with local authorities in charge of following up on the child murders. Unfortunately, even to this day, none of the remaining cases have been prosecuted.

We’ll probably never know what the truth is. I think it’s very possible some of the children were killed by someone else. Mindhunter mentions a house near Fulton County Stadium that seems to be related to the crime but not connected to Williams.

It’s a frustrating and devastating way to end the season, and it brings up returning themes from Season 1. Is the work of the BSU effective? How much should profiling be relied upon? I think the resolution of this case (or lack thereof) shows that profiling may only be a piece of the puzzle, not a fail-safe solution. As Kemper said, they can only learn from the killers who have been caught. We are now starting to see that even if the FBI has an idea of who they’re looking for, nothing is for certain.

Mindhunter Season 2 certainly ends on a down note. Holden is upset about how the Atlanta case played out. Nancy and Brian have left Bill to an empty house. Wendy is still searching for answers.

For Season 3, I’d like to see Mindhunter continue in the direction it went with Season 2. I’m thinking the BTK case will continue along the periphery (as the real-life killer wasn’t caught until 2005). The final scene of Season 2 shows BTK dressed in women’s lingerie wearing a mask with “trophies” from his crimes laid out on a bed. So it doesn’t appear he will be stopping anytime soon.

I hope it doesn’t take another two years before we see a Season 3, as this is one of my favorite shows on TV right now. The psychology, the acting, the mood, the creepy background music. Mindhunter has it all.


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Written by Bryan O'Donnell

Bryan O'Donnell is a Writer and TV Editor for 25YL. In addition to TV and Twin Peaks, he loves music, baseball, reading, and playing video games. He lives in Chicago.

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