I think I knew Mindhunter would be my shit in the first episode where the surly sociology grad student asked Holden what he thought about Durkheim’s labeling theory of deviance, which did two things: (1) Made me happy to finally hear Durkheim mentioned by name in a piece of media, and (2) indicated that this would be a show that wanted to really ask some questions. And on that latter element, I think it mostly pulls it off. It’s definitely not quite at The Wire’s level of demystifying structural influence at the micro level, but it certainly makes a sincere attempt at doing so, which I always appreciate.
But what I appreciate most about it is how surprisingly accurate its portrayal of the social scientific research process is – particularly in regard to qualitative research. (I don’t know for sure, but I always got the sense that at least someone on the writing staff is very familiar with this particular field.)
From the often petty arguments about how to set up a methodology/vocabulary for their study, to showing how legitimately difficult it is to do in-depth interviews in a consistent/non-intrusive manner, to the major emotional toll this sort of research can take on a person. Like, I know Holden is (intentionally) an absolute asshole throughout this show, yet I completely empathized with his complete mental breakdown at the end of season 1. My own research projects require me to rationalize/categorize the thoughts and behaviors of incredibly abhorrent groups, and it can be so, so easy to get lost in their world if you don’t keep yourself in check. It’s like you willingly surround yourself with this horrid worldview so much so that it’s easy to forget that there are other, less bad belief systems outside it. So much of the discourse within sociologist circles revolves around how to balance being able to accomplish research while still coming out of it with most of your mental health intact, and Holden does not do that. Not only is he totally inductive with his investigative lens (which, as this show points out, is bad), but he simply does not have the training someone like Carr does with understanding the merit to not allowing personal reflections to enter into the researcher-subject relationship. And hell, even with that training, she’s shown to be susceptible to that complication as well. The sort of research Mindhunter shows is incredibly messy for everyone involved: for the subjects, for the eventual publication’s readers who might take away dangerous ideas from it (i.e. profiling ‘works’), and to the people who perform the research itself – none of whom seem like they’ll come out of this show as whole as they once were.