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The Mindhunter season finale is frustrating as hell—and that's a good thing

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Wayne Williams, to use a phrase I’ve heard detectives say on TV, looks good. His stories are inconsistent, his movements suspicious—seriously, who goes out at 3 AM to “scout out” a vague address of someone you’ve never met, or even talked to on the phone?—and, most importantly to Agent Holden Ford, he fits the profile. He’s got the means to lure kids into his car with this “talent scout” business, and as Agent Tench says when interrogating Williams, “you know what I call a child talent scout who makes no music and no money? A fucking pedophile.” Yet, by the end of the episode, Williams’ guilt is far from certain, and the only ones satisfied seem to be the suits who didn’t really want these murders investigated in the first place.

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It’s undoubtedly a frustrating season finale of television, but that’s how the Atlanta Child Murders case went down in real life. As the title card at the end of the episode reads, no one was ever charged with the remaining 27 murders. Those cases were reopened on March 21 of this year—though not because of Mindhunter, which is just one of several pieces of media about the once-obscure case that have come out in the past several years. The more likely impetus was an Investigation Discovery docuseries on the murders executive produced by influential Girls Trip producer (and Atlanta resident) Will Packer, which debuted just two days after Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced that evidence from the cases would be re-tested using modern forensics techniques. Nothing’s come out of that just yet, although redoing the forensics is a good idea considering that the FBI’s fiber and hair analysis—the best evidence they had to convict Wayne Williams—has since been proven to be deeply scientifically flawed. That being said, there are no other suspects, and the murders stopped after Williams was put in jail. He’s still there today, maintaining his innocence while serving two life sentences.

At the end of the season finale, Assistant Director Gunn—who, if he’s as suspicious as I found him to be in the season premiere, hasn’t shown his true face just yet—tells Tench and Ford that their work in Atlanta has put the BSU on the map at the FBI. But the Atlanta Child Murders case also puts the entire concept of profiling into question, not only because Williams confounds aspects of Ford’s profile of the killer, but also because that profile was used for political ends, an excuse to zero in on Williams as the “Atlanta Monster” while ignoring other leads. Ford’s idealistic ideas of profiling as a pure science were seriously challenged in the endlessly complex real world this season, and he’s going into his next case rattled, if not completely disillusioned with his work.

No one is really happy as the season draws to a close: Not Ford, not the newly single, professionally frustrated Carr, and not Tench, whose devotion to his work has indeed cost him everything. I personally feel like maybe he dodged a bullet not having to deal with the Bad Seed anymore, but losing Nancy is a real blow to his spirit. Most tragically, though, Camille Bell is not satisfied with the investigation into her son’s murder, telling Ford, “Wayne Williams didn’t kill my boy. I know it in my bones.” Bell has disappeared from the public eye in recent years—she did participate in two documentaries about the murders produced in 1985 and 2010—and wasn’t consulted for this season of Mindhunter. I do feel like her side was portrayed sympathetically and given a real airing in the season, though. I wonder what she thinks of the TV version of herself, if she’s even still alive.

Well, one person is happy: The BTK Killer, who is still free and has moved his cross-dressing autoerotic asphyxiation show to a motel where he can choke himself while looking at souvenirs of his crimes in peace. BTK wasn’t caught until 2005, and killed three more people between 1985 and 1991. Like the many questions surrounding Wayne Williams’ connection to the Atlanta Child Murders, that’s really frustrating from a narrative perspective. Audiences want to see bad guys caught and good guys win. But that’s not how things really work. So while the show landed with a big splat in its finale, I actually prefer the ending we got to a neat, made-up conclusion, and I’m happy to see it after that silly subplot about Tench’s son. By embracing ambiguity and disappointment, Mindhunter stayed true to itself as the most realistic serial killer show on TV. If that’s irritating, blame the serial killers, not the show.

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Stray Observations

  • The vocal rendition of the theme music at the beginning of the episode proves once again that nothing is spookier than wordless choral music.
  • You’ve got to give it to him: Wayne Williams is smart. He knows how to play a situation to his advantage, from bringing the agents a bag of fast food (I laughed out loud when Tench ate the fries) to looking directly at Agent Barney when he talks about “brothers” in the interrogation room.
  • He’s also an annoying know-it-all. Even his own father doesn’t seem to like him very much. But does that make him a murderer?
  • One bit of trivia that didn’t make it into Mindhunter season two is the interview John Douglas gave to People magazine early in the ATKID (the FBI’s code for the Atlanta Child Murders) investigation, in which he restated his belief that the killer was a young Black man. That interview made Douglas famous, leading eventually to the Netflix series we’re discussing today.
  • Douglas was also censured by the FBI in 1981 for talking to a newspaper reporter about Williams, saying he looked “good” for several of the children’s murders. In his book Mindhunter, Douglas calls it “typical of government bureaucracy.” He later received a letter of commendation from the bureau for his work on the case.
  • Holden’s never heard of Barry Gordy, huh? That’s odd. But he’s an odd dude.
  • Bill Tench, Grillmaster is one of my favorite Bill Tenches.
  • The timeline of this season has been pretty loose, picking up immediately after the first season, which was set in 1977, and including events that took place up through 1981. Women’s Health, of all places, put together a very succinct timeline of the real-life investigation.
  • As evidenced by the CNN vans parked outside Williams’ house, by 1981 24-hour cable news was becoming a thing. It’s played a crucial role in shaping public perceptions of crime in the decades since, and will continue to complicate things on Mindhunter going forward.
  • Speaking of, Mindhunter hasn’t been officially renewed for season three just yet. But Holt McCallany said in a recent interview that David Fincher has planned for five seasons of the show, and there’s definitely more story to tell.
  • In the meantime, check out director Carl Franklin’s 1995 neo-noir Devil In A Blue Dress, if you haven’t already. It’s very good.
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