The paranoia that underlaid the professional changes and interpersonal conflict of Mindhunter’s season-two premiere continues to seep through its second episode, and even the show’s most square-jawed paragon of midcentury masculinity is rattled. That, of course, would be Bill Tench, whose no-nonsense exterior only began to show signs of the haunted man within towards the end of the first season. The premiere made a point of showing Tench at home with his family, and although he was clearly annoyed at his wife Nancy’s (Stacey Roca) attempts to get him to socialize, things seemed to be going reasonably okay. His son is speaking and socializing with other kids, and the other dads in the neighborhood are clearly intrigued by his FBI war stories. Tench’s work is disturbing, but his home life is settled. Then a basement in Kansas undoes all of that.
Following another cold open in which Dennis Rader’s (Sonny Valicenti) wife puts him out on the couch with a kiss on the forehead and a copy of Therapeutic Approaches To Sexual Deviances, we jump to the Wichita airport. There, Tench is met by Detective Drowatzky (Jeb Kreager), a local police lieutenant seeking advice on an unsolved series of murders that have gripped the community for years. The killer calls himself BTK—“Bind, Torture, Kill”—and models himself after other famous serial killers, as Ford cannily observes later in the episode. But first we accompany Tench to the scene of what authorities believe to be BTK’s first kill: The sloppy but successfully executed murder of four members of the Otero family on January 15, 1974. (Rader eventually confessed to all four murders in 2005.) This is the first truly creepy sequence of the season so far, and director David Fincher incorporates crime-scene photos into Drowatzky and Tench’s tour of the now-abandoned house in a way that effectively conveys the flashbulbs of carnage that must go off in Tench’s mind when he sees ordinary household objects—like the pipe in the Otero’s basement on which 11-year-old Josephine Otero was hung and killed.
I was also very taken with the way Fincher filmed the scene where Tench questions Kevin Bright (Andrew Yackel), a victim who survived his encounter with the BTK Killer. Kevin’s sister Kathryn was not so lucky. Kevin is still so shook up from the experience three years later that he only agrees to meet with the lawmen in an empty parking garage in the pale blue light of early morning. (I think—the light’s pale blue a lot of the time on this show.) Bright refuses to talk to Tench unless Tench agrees not to look at him, and the way Fincher frames and focuses the scene so we never get a good look at Bright’s face puts an unsettlingly cold, impersonal spin on his highly emotional story. It’s vintage Fincher, and Holt McCallany’s facial expressions as he registers the horror of what’s being described is wonderful, subtle acting.
The same can be said for the subsequent scenes where Tench comes home to find his back door ajar, then sits down on the couch for a beer and a cigarette. The fact that we can read discomfort, and even fear, into Tench’s stoic expression is a testament to McCallany’s performance, as is the fact that he is able to project a closed-off, defensive wall onto a similar expression when Detective Art Spencer (Nate Corddry) comes to inform the Tenches of a murder in the neighborhood at the end of the episode. Now, I wasn’t alive in the 1970s, but people seem a lot more aware of, and paranoid about, crime now than they were during my childhood in the ‘80s, when our parents just let us wander around the neighborhood unattended all day. (Ironically, in contrast to this increased fear, serial homicide rates have been steadily falling since their peak in 1989.) But at the time, I don’t think many would have replied, “It happens everywhere, Nance,” as Tench does to Nancy’s shocked statement that things like that just don’t happen where they live.
I won’t go into a Media Studies 101 lecture on the role 24 hour cable news networks—which were nonexistent in the ‘70s—have played in ramping up that sense of paranoia. In short, it’s been significant. And that ties in with the team’s new interest in figuring out how serial killers use the media “to build their own mythologies,” as Carr puts it. David Berkowitz, a.k.a. the Son of Sam, is key to developing the BSU’s understanding of this phenomenon, given that he corresponded with police in an attempt to rebrand himself after being dubbed the “.44 caliber killer” in the media. And so Tench and Ford are off to the Attica Correctional Facility in New York state to interview Berkowitz, eerily portrayed here by Oliver Cooper.
In real life, Berkowitz himself called a press conference in February 1979 to declare that he was faking his initial claims of schizophrenia. On the show, this revelation comes as a result of a particularly clever interrogation by Tench and Ford, who get Berkowitz to open up by playing on his insecurities. He can’t stand the idea of being seen as “the guy who let a Labrador land him in jail for the rest of his shitty life,” or the idea of a copycat being more important than him, as a dismissive Tench implies at the beginning of their meeting. A chastened Holden is quiet at first, but once he starts talking, his judgements are incisive and swift, as they were when he discussed BTK with Tench in Tench’s office earlier in the episode. And given the grudging admiration in his voice when he said BTK “managed to overcome his own panic” in the Otero murders, it looks like ol’ Holden didn’t learn that much about establishing boundaries between himself and his subjects during his fateful trip to California at the end of last season.
As for Carr, things still seem promising between her and sexy, sarcastic bartender Kay (Lauren Glazier). If anyone’s arc goes as planned this season, I hope it’s hers.
- Kevin Bright is still alive, and has spoken publicly about what happened to him and his sister in the years since the questioning scene in this episode. You can see his victim impact statement from Rader’s 2005 sentencing hearing above.
- Detective Bernie Drowatzky was also a real person. He died in 2017, 12 years after Dennis Rader was finally brought to justice. He remained obsessed with the case up to its conclusion, and told The Oklahoman in 2004 that his failure to catch the BTK Killer was the biggest regret of his career.
- “I don’t see how anything lasting 19 seconds could provide sexual gratification”—I’ll let you all make the jokes on that one.
- Cooper appears to be wearing prosthetics on his cheeks and chin for the show, compared to his IMDb profile photo. Berkowitz—who is still alive and only 66!—does have that weird Robert Z’Dar-type look in real life, though, as you can see in Cooper’s tweet above.
- I wasn’t able to identify the Willie Nelson song Drowatzky pops into the cassette player en route to the Otero house, so if anyone has a real keen ear and could tell what it was from just a couple seconds of audio, do tell. This was also a very nice use of “Tusk,” whose lyrics, although they’re about cheating and not murder, still set an appropriately suspicious tone.