Review:Mind Hunter

Originally published in the print edition of

By interviewing imprisoned serial killers, they hope to better understand criminals to be able to help with ongoing cases.  

Have you ever pretended to be someone else? Erving Goffman wrote The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, published in 1959. The book discussed how we play a performance in our day to day lives, and play a role with the different people we interact with. Before we get to why I bring up Goffman’s work, let’s discuss why Mindhunter is one of the more nuanced crime television series; and why you should watch it.  

Mindhunter is a Netflix original that is a cross between Criminal Minds and Lie to Me, infusing the elements of behavioural psychology from Lie to Me, and the sociological and behavioural pattern elements from Criminal Minds.

If you appreciate long-form storytelling focusing more on human drama than on action scenes, and you’re a bit of a science nerd, then Mindhunter is for you. One of the show’s producers, David Fincher, is known for his great serial killer-centric dramas. However, if you’re expecting something along the lines of ‘Se7en,’ you might be disappointed, but if you enjoyed ‘Zodiac’, then you’re in for a treat.

Set in the 1970’s, Mindhunter follows two FBI agents, Holden Ford and Bill Tench, along with psychologist Wendy Carr. They want to improve the FBI’s understanding in criminal science and behaviour, known now as criminal psychology. Goffman distinguishes between two approaches to acting out social roles – sincerity and cynicism. 

Cynical individuals do not invest ‘themselves’ in their roles, they are acting with a means to another end, which can either be for self-gain (like a con-man) or for the benefit of the people around them, like a strict  teacher, or in this case an FBI agent. 

Ford is such a straight-laced individual that there’s a recurring joke in the show that no one can believe he was born in New York. When we first meet Holden Ford, it’s at a hostage situation that goes awry. Ford fails to prevent the suicide of Cody Miller. When Ford returns to his FBI base in Fredericksburg, Virginia,  his unit chief considers the “negotiation” a success as Ford prevented the loss of innocent life. 

Shepard makes Ford a hostage negotiation teacher. While at the academy, a class which delves into the minds of killers such as Son of Sam catches Ford’s interest.  It was through this interest of understanding the minds of criminals that Ford is recommended to talk to another agent, Bill Tench. 

Goffman would describe Bill Tench as a sincere individual, the audience might consider it as cynical. Goffman postulated that sincere individuals actually believe their act is an expression of their own identity, and truly want others to believe this too. Tench comes across as a hardened agent, he’s not. This is an important factor within the team’s dynamic when investigating their subjects. 

Goffman would refer to Ford’s characterisation as a “shill,” a member of the team who “provides a visible model for the audience of the kind of response the performers are seeking.” 

The individual assumes a front that is perceived to enhance the group’s performance. It is these successes that causes problems for the team and their dynamics. Especially Ford’s relationship he develops with a certain serial killer. 

Mindhunter has different elements that make it less formulaic than more conventional shows like Criminal Minds. It has been renewed for a second season, which is great news. The show has set up many interesting storylines that leaves audiences wanting to kill for more. If you have the time and patience to sit back and discover the men behind the monsters, you’ll start to realise that everyone in this show has a performance to play.


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