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'Mindhunter' Is More Than Just an Uncritical Love Letter to the FBI

A nuanced look at how the bureaucratic sausage gets made.

by Ricardo Contreras
Sep 19 2019, 8:55pm

Image courtesy of Netflix

Content Warning for discussion of Sexual Assault from approximately 1:52:00 - 2:07:00

On this week's Waypoints, Austin watched all of Netflix's Mindhunter while he was on vacation and couldn't wait to talk about it with the rest of the crew. It's a look at the FBI during the late 70's, before the term "serial killer" existed, and how some of that methodology was invented. Rob brings us Arrival, Denis Villeneuve's 2016 movie about aliens landing on earth and language, communication, and trauma. Danielle visited Halloween Horror Nights and brings us the scoop on the design and craft of the various haunted houses. After the break, Austin, Patrick, and Rob discuss last week's NFL news, including a segment on Antonio Brown's sexual assault allegations. You can read an excerpt and listen to the full episode below.

Rob: What did concern me a little in season one was that a lot of us felt airless? That you were, like Holden, you were in this room with Kemper and he's kind of like this sort of "fascinating subject." And I think that's how a lot of at least early true crime series tended to handle their subjects with "Wow, what a crazy case. Let's let's dig in." What gets lost in that is that when you move out of the realm of the whodunit into True Crime you are getting into the realm of sociology and then actual human pain and suffering. And I'm not sure season one is too interested in that, but did you did you find that season two [begins] to puncture some of the artificial bubbles we place around crimes and narrative fiction?

Danielle: I think it does both. I think it both is actually showing at least some sensitivity towards victims, towards families, towards, you know, folks who have actually suffered. It shows much more interest in that. But it also sure does do some stunt casting with like showing Charles Manson.

Austin: "This season we're gonna talk to the Son of Sam [and] Charles Manson. Meanwhile in the background BTK continues to develop." Right? That has been, just to be clear, the the plan for the show is five seasons that is about the capture of BTK eventually. And so BTK is already in season one as the the character who you see during certain intros and then continues to play that role in season 2 and theoretically will forward. Which is so funny, do y'all know how the BTK killer was actually caught?

Danielle: No!

Austin: I has nothing to do with profiling, at all. It is a fluke, it is a technological trick. It is like, this is the thing that's fucked up, to your point Rob, about true crime stories. I don't wanna–

Rob: No look, spoil it, it's history. I can Google it.

Austin: He wants to send a message to the police. He says "Can you determine where I'm from from a floppy disk?" They go "Naw, definitely not." Yes they absolutely can. And they did, and they got him through that. Which is super interesting to me because there is a scene with the BTK Killer, I want to say towards the end of season one, where he is making copies or something.

Danielle: Yeah, it's in season two.

Austin: Is that season two? Oh ok. He's making copies at the library and Xerox machine breaks, and he's freaked out about it. I think they are already planting the seeds that it is his technological ineptitude, not some like super brilliant wunderkind profiler who cracks his psychology. And I'm so excited for them to pay that off, because the take away from the BTK is not "You know what? If we build the right instrument we can finally predict crime." It isn't, that isn't what happened.

Danielle: It's ineptitude on both sides. The ineptitude of believing that Science and Technology will fix all our problems from the cops, from the FBI, and also the guy who was frankly an idiot for not knowing a fairly like –

Austin: Yeah, I mean, listen, I'm not here to judge the BTK killer for his technological–

Danielle: Nobody was a criminal mastermind, I suppose, is the point I'm trying to make. Neither one of these people are masterminds, they all think they are.

Austin: Look Skip. You KNOW I hate the BTK killer. BUT!!!

Rob: Waypoint is canceled for techshaming the BTK Killer.

Danielle: That may have been what just happened. Nobody's a mastermind!

Austin: Right, no one involved is a mastermind, there's no such thing as a mastermind. The bigger question for me ended up being, while I was watching I kept writing these notes that are like "Is this, is this a fantasy of police competence?" Which is a classic thing of that that drives a lot of folks, even folks who hate the police, to like things that feature police, right? There are a lot of black folks who love Bad Boys, obviously right? There are a lot of people who have suffered at the hands of law enforcement who like cop shows, who like detective stories, that happens.

And part of it is sometimes talked about as the fantasy of competent policing. "Ah, fuck, what if the cops were like this instead of fucking harassing me on my way to fucking work. This is a version of a policing I can get behind." But I don't think that's what this is, and then I thought for a little bit " Ah, this is a fantasy of police improving themselves." It's it's a fantasy of, here are all the ways that the police are, maybe they don't get to competence, but they but they are reflective, there are things moving around inside to push them into a good direction.

But then throughout season two, not only do they hit brick walls, but you find again and again that the reason for "progress" is politics, is lowercase 'p' politics, is "Hey, lets get someone new in charge down there who really understands the way to capitalize on what those guys down in the basement are doing with his Behavioral Science shit." Like "Oh you know what, the president just had a speech about about how we can stop killers. We should move money into this department to show that we align with the president. Oh yeah someone's cousin is getting assigned to this."

That style of decision-making is what aligns with progress, in the sense that whatever's new and shiny can get attention. So it's not a fantasy of police improving themselves either. I think it's a fantasy of transparency, a fantasy of "What if we knew why things happen."