Warning: Mindhunter spoilers ahead.
Sex lives at the heart of everything in Netflix’s buzzy new serial killer drama Mindhunter. The David Fincher-produced series reveals how these serial killers’ sexual foundations eventually lead them to kill (and usually rape) their women victims. Yet, the only people we actually see have sex in all of Mindhunter season 1 are Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), our obsessive FBI special agent main character, and his girlfriend Debbie Mitford (Hannah Gross). Over the course of the psychothriller’s first season, viewers see how interviewing serial killers for a living completely changes who Holden is and how he views sex. Spoiler alert: the results are decidedly not good.
We get our first Mindhunter sex scene before premiere “Episode 1” even hits the 30-minute mark. The introduction to Holden and Debbie’s sex life shows how easy it is to shock the FBI agent, since he’s only starting his descent into darkness. At this point, he hasn’t even knowingly spoken to a serial killer. Before we get a glimpse of Mindhunter’s leading couple in the bedroom, we see the pair leaving a movie date. Holden and Debbie had just finished watched 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon, which centres around a gay romance and a transgender storyline. Holden explains he “really liked” the Al Pacino-starring film, but found it “mixed up,” because the FBI agent is a total square. That’s when he explains the Bureau academy has a list of “deviant terminology” students have to memorise. Curse words like “fuck” have a starring role on the no-go list, along with phrases for average sex acts like “blow job.”
That set-up is what makes Holden and Debbie’s first sex scene both fun and illuminating. “Fuck, shit. Finger my pussy and I’ll give you a blow job,” Debbie very explicitly sighs in the middle of sex, using each of the so-called “deviant” words. Holden is struck, but laughs with his whole body. While he’s not offended by Debbie rattling off all the taboo words, he is a little scandalised. Only a few instalments later, in “Episode 3,” Holden is altering the curriculum to toss out “pussy,” “dildo,” and any oral sex terms.
It's worth noting exactly when Holden chooses to take a stand for giving head. Holden’s first conversation about ditching certain allegedly “deviant” terms, which are actually just sexual, comes right after a scene insinuates he performed “cunnilingus” on Debbie in a bathroom. It’s also the first moment Holden starts doing some soul searching about how talking to serial killers, who view sex as a show of dominance and women as objects, all day might change how he sees intimacy. “I can’t let this guy rub off on me,” he tells Debbie. “They way they view sex…” So, he goes down on Debbie to prove he’s not like his murderous subjects, and updates the curriculum to confirm his own sexual behaviour isn’t deviant in the way his interviewees are. All of this serves, in Holden’s mind, to separate himself for the literal rapists and murderers he has surrounded himself with.
Yet, altering the list also happens to be Holden's own show of dominance. He doesn’t actually have the clout to make such an official change to Bureau practices until “Episode 3,” after his and the rest of the behavioural science unit’s research helps track down a budding serial killer. Holden doesn’t want to show sexual dominance — no, he would rather be submissive to prove he’s not a bad guy — instead, Holden is looking for career dominance.
Speaking of Holden’s more submissive behaviour, the first time we see him going down on Debbie, it’s proof he’s willing to learn. “Up a little. Over a little. Left,” the grad student guides Holden; he asks, “My left, or your left?” It would have been easy for the FBI agent to simply decide which left Debbie actually meant, rather than ask for any direction. But, he doesn’t. “You want me to throw in something? Play with your nipples?” he asks. “To move it along.” Although that addition is deeply selfish of the apparently tiring Holden, at least he’s asking about Debbie’s preferences rather than choosing them for her, to hell with the consequences.
As Holden starts spending more time with serial killers than his girlfriend, the agent’s “empathy,” which Debbie says he has a lot of in “Episode 1,” starts to plummet. By “Episode 7,” viewers realise just how much spending time in the darkness of mass murderers has gotten to him. In the instalment, Debbie tries to seduce her boyfriend with some sexy black lingerie, fishnet thigh-high stockings, and black patent pumps. Unfortunately, the shoes look almost identical to the ones serial killer Jerome Brudos (Happy Anderson) masturbated to mere feet away from Holden. So, as Debbie is putting the movies on the agent, all he can do is think about the perversion of “trophy king” Jerome and the murderer pleasuring himself. Now, far from the communicative, empathetic person he once was, Holden blames Debbie for his lack of performance, saying he can’t get in the mood because of all her sexy accoutrements. “This? It’s just… not you,” he accuses her. It’s no wonder Debbie storms out of the room in her heels.
But, it’s not like Holden’s ability to have sex is the only things that changes about him over the course of Mindhunter — we also see how disturbingly he now speaks about sex. In “Episode 2,” infamous serial killer Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton) tells Holden, “You gotta make it with that young pussy real quick before it becomes Mom.” Holden looks horrified by Ed’s sexual theorising, only saying in response, “Yeah…”
However, in finale “Episode 10,” Holden quotes Ed nearly word for word to would-be serial killer Gene Devier (Adam Zastrow) as a way to trick the murder suspect into opening up. He passes the disturbing opinion about women off as his own and doesn't even mention its origins, only dropping the “real quick” portion of the sentence. This time, there’s no horror in Holden's face — just steely resolve to break a violent killer. He truly doesn’t care what he has to say, or which murderer he has to find inspiration in, to get what he wants. All that empathy? Thrown at the window for talk of “young pussy” and the “ripe cunts” of “Episode 9.” Vomit.
Holden spends a lot of Mindhunter trying to convince everyone around him his macabre obsession with serial killers is not affecting him in the slightest. But, once you start following the breadcrumbs of Holden's bedroom activities, it’s impossible not see the signs of doom written on the wall (probably in blood). If only Debbie had known how far gone her boyfriend was — she wouldn't have had to waste her time spicing things up with nail files and unappreciated new shoes.
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