Communication, Through The Lens of Netflix’s “Mindhunter”

While the show examines the birth of criminal psychology and criminal profiling, the key to it all, as well as the show, is communication.

The first scene of the first episode of Mindhunter is a hostage negotiation between FBI Agent Holden Ford and a distraught man holed up in a small warehouse. Several other key scenes in the episode involve Holden teaching a hostage negotiation class at the FBI Academy in Quantico, talking to experts in criminal psychology and behavioral science, and lectures at rural, small-town police precincts. The subject being discussed in all those scenes is the psychology of a killer, but they are really about is communication.

Mindhunter is based on the real-life story of the early days of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, criminal psychology, and criminal profiling. This birth was the product of a series of interviews conducted with individuals who have a unique level of insight into the mind of a killer: incarcerated serial killers. The show is entirely made up of people talking to one another. Because of this, it might seem dumb to say that the key to the show is communication, but “talking” is not the same thing as “communicating.”

When we talk, what we say is primarily driven by what it is we want to say. When there’s a message that we want to communicate to someone, we take into account, whether we’re aware of it or not, how we say it. This is to say that while talking is content-driven, communication is driven by the process and effect of talking. Where there’s talking, there isn’t always communication, but Mindhunter is all about communication.

On more than one occasion, Holden and his partner Bill, the jaded veteran to Holden’s driven idealist, reach an impasse with the people they’re talking to, law enforcement and serial killers alike. They don’t chalk it up to the comprehension of those on the other end, but the communication on theirs. After a precinct of officers all but boo Holden out of the room just for suggesting they try to understand Charles Manson, Holden posits that maybe the key to getting past that communication barrier is common ground:

“What do we have in common? What unites us? What keeps us all awake at night?”

In the latter quarter of the season, after Holden has become comfortable talking to brutally and sexually violent killers, he starts adopting a more aggressive approach to his interviews, a “speak their language” approach that gets him in trouble, but is undeniably effective. He doesn’t explicitly explain the reasoning for his approach, but it’s all grounded in this belief that the best way to communicate with somebody is to find commonality.

While Holden and Bill talk to serial killers, to the viewer, Mindhunter then becomes about how to talk about talking to serial killers, which is to say that it’s really about communication. Holden and Bill’s goal is to help spread awareness of the fact that the best way to stop serial killings is to prevent them, and the best way of preventing them is to understand them, to “get ahead of crazy”, as they explain. And that, they believe, is best accomplished by talking to those who have committed similarly heinous acts. Their goal is to find a way to communicate the value of this practice.

When Holden first decides to interview a violent serial killer, Edmund Kemper, his decision is frowned upon. The feeling was that people of that nature were beneath the FBI’s contempt. “What message does this send?” is the concern that shadows over the tension that surfaces as a result of Holden’s decision, and boils to the surface once more after their work on a case is publicized and Holden is framed as being “friends” with Ed Kemper.

Holden disregards this because his objective is to establish communication, which he believes can only be possible if you operate as if nobody is beneath your contempt. Early on in the season, while teaching a hostage negotiation class at Quantico, he informs his class of recruits that:

“Coming to anyone with an attitude of ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ assumes that they’re of rational mind. We must establish communication. Non-threatening communication. Ascertain demands. Concede nothing. Reject nothing. Just listen. Listen to what he has to say. Try understanding him instead of trying to dominate him.”

Listening, he believes, is just as important to understanding these serial killers as it is to speaking to them, if not more so, and it’s this belief that executive producer and director of four episodes, David Fincher, operates with. He also directed Zodiac, another serial killer cult-classic that heavily features people-in-rooms-talking. It’s clear Fincher believes in the value of communication and listening. With any other director, the large and bulky recording device that the team uses would be an afterthought instead of being so regularly highlighted. Look no further than the title sequence of the show.

Even when he isn’t explicitly advocating for communication and listening, Holden’s actions reflect his beliefs. He is the one who is always carrying around and operating the bulky recording device he and Bill uses. He is the one who sees a need to edit the vocabulary they use to describe the new ideas they encounter. We know that communication can also be non-verbal, and Holden is also the one who makes the clearest allusion to this, at one point confessing that “I looked at him. I asked him to lie with my eyes.”

A show that so heavily revolves around people in rooms talking has the potential to be quite uninteresting, but Mindhunter avoids this with its dialogue. The penitentiary interview scenes are particularly gripping because the dialogue between Holden, Bill, and the serial killer they’re interviewing is not just a straightforward Q & A. Questions are asked with specific framing, responses are used to assert control. It’s a game of chess, played out via words and gestures, and what a thrilling game it can be.

I strive towards a career that ends up leaving me somewhere between Howard Beck and Howard Beale.

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