Jonathan Groff takes on the role of an FBI agent whose obsession with violence comes to mirror that of the serial killers he’s supposed to catch.
What’s the least suspicious way to satisfy your morbid curiosity about serial killers?
Watching a prestige TV show, of course. (Rooting around online for gory crime-scene photos and listening to the audio of the BTK killer confessions on YouTube are red flags and should be reported.) In the past few years alone, we’ve enjoyed Hannibal, True Detective, and The Fall with a strong defense of plausible deniability: We can gape at extreme examples of sadism without seeming like deviants. But where exactly is the line between garden-variety fascination with murder and unhealthy obsession?
Mindhunter, the new David Fincher show on Netflix, tosses the question “Is it weird to be this interested in serial killers?” from the viewer to the protagonist, an upstart FBI special agent named Holden Ford.
Holden, played by Jonathan Groff of Looking and Hamilton (he was dopey King George in the original Broadway cast), dedicates himself to interviewing incarcerated serial killers, trying to think the way they think so that the FBI can track other killers down. Under the guise of professional progress, Holden blows right past unhealthy obsession and breaks into a whole new arena of serial-killer fandom, borrowing techniques from the psychopaths — playing their game of power and control — both in his work and at home with his girlfriend, Debbie, played by Hannah Gross.
“He starts as a wide-eyed, intelligent, inexperienced FBI agent, asking all these questions,”Mindhunter star Groff tells me over coffee in TriBeCa. “As the season goes on, he doesn’t become a serial killer. But he does become more self-obsessed, narcissistic.”
When Holden brags to Debbie, in a world-class tracking shot through the extravagantly fluorescent light of a grocery store, that he got a man to admit to the rape and murder of a 12-year-old by talking about teenage hair with him, Debbie finally calls him out on what’s becoming clearer with every interrogation: Holden “gets off” on his ability to code-switch between polite society and the world of serial killers. That’s a Fincher-ian story arc if ever there were one.
Groff’s character is based on John Douglas, who worked at the FBI for 25 years and wrote the nonfiction book Mind Hunter, the general plot of which this series roughly follows. In the early 1970s, when the show is set, the Behavioral Science Unit wasn’t prepared to address the kind of mayhem unleashed by the Ted Bundy types that started showing up after Vietnam, Watergate, and all those assassinations. “The world barely makes any sense,” Holden says at one point. “So it follows that crime doesn’t, either.”
The historical basis helps deconstruct what Groff calls the “capital S, capital K, mustache-twirling serial killer.” Fincher explains that “part of what was interesting to me was getting into the mundanity — the mundane aspects of who these people are and how they hide in plain sight. How unremarkable they are as opposed to [being] an opera aficionado, gourmet chef, sommelier.” (Though without the real-life Behavioral Science Unit, you never would have had Will Graham romancing Hannibal Lecter through bars — his character on the NBC series Hannibal is partly based on Douglas, too.)
“In reality, most serial killers have average IQs,” Groff says. “They’re not geniuses. They’re sad, dark human beings. They’re all narcissists. The idea of Mindhunter is to humanize — not humanize their actions, but show them as messy, disgusting humans — instead of romanticize.” One way Fincher does that is by not showing any of the murders — there are virtually no depictions of physical violence on screen, apart from one grisly scene in the first episode.
Instead, “Co-ed Killer” Ed Kemper, fat and bespectacled, will placidly describe decapitating his mother and having sex with her head. The by-product of this “humanization” is that you, the viewer, are the one deciding to imagine a nightmare scene that David Fincher isn’t showing you. Like Holden, you’re now complicit.
The result is a series in which the drama comes from two people sitting in a room and talking. The tightly wound scenes sometimes blow open with what Groff considers to be Fincher’s special talent: “a light brush of twisted hilarity.”
Fincher actually had trouble getting Groff to stop laughing on set. “At a certain point, talking about dismemberment is just too serious, and things get silly,” he told me. “They’d be trapped in a car because we’re shooting on green screen, with tears streaming down their face, bright red, howling with laughter. It was like, ‘The crew may now leave the stage while we wait for Silly Time to end.’ ”
It’s sweet, thinking of the baby-faced Groff getting the giggles. The slow curdle of his initial innocence is why the show works — in one scene in the premiere, Holden comes home from a hard day and literally drinks from a bottle of milk. And at first he’s obsessed with Debbie. But then he meets all these famous serial killers. The chemistry, the intrigue, and the electricity that’s happening is now between Holden and these horrifying people, not Holden and his girlfriend.”
In Mindhunter, Holden is complicit. We’re complicit. And that’s a genuinely subversive twist in a genre that was running out of ways to chop people up.