Based on the book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit, Mindhunter chronicles the early days of said unit, before we even had the term "serial killer." Nowadays, we take a lot of the psychology behind these people for granted, but this show is set during a time where they felt like a new kind of criminal. And so Ford posits that you need a new kind of FBI agent, a new way of thinking. If he can understand why they do what they do, maybe he can develop ways to identify them before they hurt anyone.
Not unexpectedly, Mindhunter is at its most compelling when the characters are in the room with serial killers, most notably Ed Kemper, Ford's personal Hannibal Lecter. Much of the dialogue in these scenes is taken directly from real interviews, and the actors (Cameron Britton in this case) deliver chilling performances of men driven to kill, who feel no remorse. No two are alike either; though they sometimes share commonalities that help categorize them, each killer feels like a distinct individual rather than a general sociopath. Ford and Tench try to get what they need from their interviewees, but often their subjects are less than forthcoming, so they must resort to...unorthodox methods. It's fascinating to watch them—with the help of Dr. Carr—attempt to get into the heads of these men and use what they learn to solve some other crimes as they travel the country.
While Mindhunter succeeds in occasional moments with serial killers, it is less than compelling as a serial narrative. It does not give the audience much to grasp onto in terms of a long-term plot arc or any sort of narrative momentum. It rarely builds to anything in any given episode, let alone the season. Hell, the cryptic cold opens following an unidentified man—I did not even realize it was the same man for about half the season, that is how obtuse these scenes are—do not build to any satisfying punch. It is as if the show does not care about sustained tension or audience investment. Plotwise, I suppose the focus is on the trials and travails of the unit itself and Holden's relationship with his girlfriend, but only in the last few episodes did I ever feel into the story, truly wanting to know what would happen next. That's also when the strongest thread begins to reveal itself, as we see how much Holden Ford has been affected by his work.
Mindhunter has an excellent cast and atmosphere to burn, but it doesn't seem to know what story it wants to tell, if it wants to tell a story at all.