The 1970s and ‘80s are sometimes referred to as “the golden age of serial killers,” a period that produced some of the most infamous names the world has ever known: Ted Bundy. John Wayne Gacy. Son of Sam. The Hillside Strangler. And part of the reason those names became so infamous is that law enforcement didn’t know how to catch them, extending the killers’ violent reigns by months or even years. Whether through a lack of communication between agencies, political maneuvering, or just plain incompetence and neglect, more often than not law enforcement—to be perfectly frank—fucked up their investigations of these crimes. And now it seems like our agents at the FBI’s fledgling behavioral science unit are being primed to fumble their way through the Atlanta Child Murders.
It’s politics that brings agents Ford and Tench back to Atlanta in this episode, as ex-CIA director and newly installed vice president George H.W. Bush makes catching the perpetrator a priority. But while Ford finds a buzzing, fully functional unit where once was a half-empty room full of indifferent donut-munchers, the increased manpower doesn’t necessarily translate to institutional support. Over the course of the episode, Ford and Tench manage to piss off both Atlanta PD, the DA, and local politicians. And with media swarming around them, and Tench’s porno-mag gambit leading nowhere, the pressure is now on for Ford and company to replicate the seemingly magical intuition that led to the uncovering of the killer’s burial ground in the woods. (The discovery of the bodies was my favorite scene of the episode, with the combination of flashlights, dogs barking, and the gruesome corpse effects creating some good old fashioned stomach-turning dread.)
Meanwhile, as events in Atlanta continue to deepen, the show’s subplots are flattening. Carr’s in a holding pattern, her increased role in the department (and on the show) fading from significance in the face of the on-the-ground work going on down South. Don’t get me wrong: it’s infinitely more interesting that the show has expanded its lens to include serial killers that don’t fit the “greasy perv who stalks young women” mold. But it seems that, with each passing episode, the show’s thematic interweaving feels less inspired and more obligatory. Take Carr’s interview with Paul Bateson (Morgan Kelly), which draws implicit parallels between Bateson’s assertion that the NYC gay community “can’t be see as eating our own” and the insistence of many in Atlanta that the person killing all these children must be a KKK member. The evocations of BDSM were titillating, but I’m not sure what the conversation really established besides revisiting themes for viewers who are slow to pick them up.
This season’s effort to show Tench and Carr’s lives outside of work—as much as any of them are ever outside of their work—with barely a glimpse of Ford, the clear star of season one, in his off time also continues to produce mixed results. I was interested to see scenes that show things more from Nancy Tench’s perspective; I’d be pissed if I had to stay home and wash pee-soaked sheets while my partner jetted around the country, too. But that goofy scene of Brian staring at the little girl on the playground—well, it reminded me of Lifetime’s The Bad Seed remake more than anything. And while, under kitschier circumstances, that might be a compliment, here it definitely is not. It certainly didn’t work as well as the cut from DA Slaton (Beau Baxter) telling Ford, Tench, and Barney their pursuit of Tench’s lead must be “absolutely silent” to helicopters and sirens making an unholy racket outside the suspect’s house. Mindhunter can be funny when it wants to, but I do hope it’s able to maintain its gritty tone well enough that it doesn’t start becoming funny by mistake as well.
- Fun(?) fact: Paul Bateson, the (alleged—he was only convicted of one murder) serial killer who appears in this episode, also appears in The Exorcist (1973). Bateson was a radiological technician by trade, so director William Friedkin cast him in the role for one of the film’s medical scenes—arguably the most disturbing scenes in the movie, even without the presence of a murderer. He’s the first male voice you hear in the scene above.
- Bateson’s story also partially inspired Cruising (1980), Friedkin’s controversial film starring Al Pacino as an undercover cop investigating a series of murders in the NYC gay leather scene.
- Bateson was paroled in 2003, and disappeared from the public eye as soon as his probation ended in 2008. It’s unclear whether he’s still alive, and if so, where he is now.
- I love the decor in Carr’s apartment, and made an audible gasp of delight when that racing stripe appeared on screen.
- If you’re interested in exploring it further, the Atlanta Monster podcast digs deeper into the rumors that swirled around the Atlanta Child Murders as they were happening, including the child sex trafficking angle.
- Those desiccated corpses mentioned above were created by Fractured FX, whose credits are legion: Westworld, Stranger Things, DC’s Swamp Thing series, the Insidious movies, The Conjuring...
- [Extreme Tommy Wiseau voice] Oh hai, Wayne Williams.