True crime fans have been chomping at the bit for the second season of the David Fincher produced Netflix original series Mindhunter for a little under two years–a pretty brutal wait in today’s rapid fire binge-watch culture. But thankfully, the long hiatus has turned out to be more than worth it. The critically acclaimed show returns without even a whiff of a sophomore slump.
The core cast has returned with the FBI’s newly bolstered Behavioral Science Unit led by agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) as well as their academic consultant Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) all taking center stage once again. Things were left a bit ambiguous in the finale of Season 1 as a major breach of trust splintered the group, but luckily, Season 2’s premiere episode focuses almost entirely on resolving the fallout and bolstering the group’s continued forward momentum. The team, reestablished as a united front (at least, in a professional sense), is then thrust headlong into the FBI spotlight thanks to a new Assistant Director who, unlike Season 1’s AD Shepherd, believes the BSU to be the bleeding edge of the FBI’s future.
On paper, it’s everything the team had fought for back in the first season–the bureau is finally taking them seriously–but in practice, it turns out they’ve all been given exactly what they want at exactly the wrong time. It’s this unexpected source of tension that makes Season 2 feel genuinely fresh–it doesn’t retread the same beats ad nauseum or attempt to completely reinvent itself in concept or practice. Instead, it finds a way to thread the needle, shifting the goal posts for Ford, Tench, and Carr just enough so the challenges they face feel both in keeping with the flavor and aesthetic that made Mindhunter great to begin with, and also completely new.
Some of the familiarity is bolstered by a handful of returning faces. Cameron Britton is back doing his bone-chilling rendition of real-life serial killer Ed Kemper and Sonny Valicenti returns as Dennis Rader to continue Season 1’s mysterious BTK Killer subplot. But the rest of the real-life killers and cases featured this time around are brand new–though they’re no less uncanny than Season 1’s roster of deeply unsettling serial killer lookalikes.
But the exciting new bits and pieces of real-life history and true crime inspiration are really only part of what makes Season 2 work as well as it does. Thematically, Mindhunter seems to be completely conscious of where serial killer “fandom” exists in the pop culture zeitgeist, a concept it weaponizes time and time again across its nine episodes. Ford and Tench are perpetually surrounded by people who can’t contain their morbid curiosity, treating their work as spectacle despite the grim realities. The effect is harrowing, especially given the constantly escalating stakes.
At the core of this season is the real-life Atlanta Child Murders case, which dominates the latter episodes in focus and pits the big themes against one another. The obsession of FBI higher-ups to prove the BSU’s methods get results butts up against the public’s fascination (and fear) of serial killer “war stories,” with Ford and Tench caught in the eye of the storm. Meanwhile, their personal lives are imploding, with Tench’s family providing one of the most interesting and gut-wrenching subplots of the season and Ford constantly hopping back and forth across the line between bright eyed do-gooder and insufferable self-obsessed savant.
The only major critique to be found is that the later episodes zoom in a little too closely on the season’s main arc, leaving side plots and characters behind, particularly Dr. Carr. Once the Atlanta Child Murders become the sole focus, Ford and Tench spend their time in Georgia while Wendy’s own subplots and personal arcs diverge from the case entirely back in Quantico. It’s not that her stories aren’t interesting–quite the opposite, actually–but her lack of physical proximity to the case makes the character feel like an afterthought, which is hugely unfortunate given how magnetic Torv’s performance consistently is.
Thankfully, at no point does it feel like the show is forced to pick up the slack whenever any of its powerhouse actors aren’t featured in scenes. Mindhunter’s tradition of impeccable casting, from its fictional characters to its historical doppelgangers, is immaculately maintained through Season 2, without a weak link to be found–though Albert Jones’ entirely made up Agent Jim Barney and Oliver Cooper’s definitely not made up David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz are two standouts.
At the end of the day, Mindhunter Season 2 is a home run for the crime thriller genre that manages to juggle fictionalized drama with bleakly real historical anecdotes, shot with a clear (and methodically precise) vision that keeps the entire thing cohesive and engaging. It may not always feel traditionally satisfying–especially when it comes to those fictional/non-fictional intersections where it consistently aims to err on the side of being too faithful to history rather than too narratively clean–but by the end of the nine episodes, the bleak, left-in-the-lurch lack of satisfaction that crops up again and again feels more like a feature than a bug.