Mindhunter expanded our minds about Jonathan Groff’s incredible talent

MINDHUNTER - Credit: Patrick Harbron/Netflix
MINDHUNTER - Credit: Patrick Harbron/Netflix /
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MINDHUNTER – Patrick Harbron/Netflix /

Mindhunter season 1: The profiler across the table

Even the most talented actors can be restrained by lackluster production: what’s intended doesn’t make it onto the page, or what’s on the page doesn’t get onto the screen through any number of behind-the-scenes speed bumps. What sets Mindhunter apart from the pack, and makes Holden such an engrossing character, is the method which the show uses to tell his story—and the way that Jonathan Groff interprets that material.

Mindhunter is to the crime drama genre what Line of Duty is for the UK audience. The heart of the show is its interview scenes between Holden, his more experienced partner Bill Tench (a fantastic Holt McCallany, in his best role since Lights Out), and various serial killers. These sequences are novels of dialogue, but not one word is ever wasted; everything is deliberate, including the pacing and that some of what you hear is close to or directly from the actual interviews.

Of course, part of this is by necessity, since the whole premise of the show is based on how Douglas, Tench’s real-life counterpart Robert Ressler, and later Ann Wolbert Burgess (represented by Anna Torv’s character Dr. Wendy Carr) utilized interviews to analyze and stop serial crime. It’s not much of an accurate show if these scenes didn’t exist. But they’re freaking brilliant. Fincher and Mindhunter‘s writers aren’t afraid to let exchanges breathe for five, ten, fifteen pages—one-part chess match, one-part most awkward conversation in the history of mankind.

The audience has to listen in a crowded TV landscape where our attention is almost constantly distracted. We have to sit in these moments for as long as they take and stew in the unsettling details, the lack of easy answers, the fact that these people who committed these vicious crimes are, well, people. These are interviews, not interrogations, and we learn as much about Holden and Bill as we do the subjects they’re in the room with.

What amounts to essentially small plays are a perfect fit for Jonathan Groff as an award-winning Broadway veteran. He’s able to bring the visceral intensity of live theatre to the small screen. His background and his acting style end up breaking the fourth wall.

It’s all in the finer aspects of his performance. Holden’s not a demonstrative character, which limits Groff’s options for conveying what’s going on in his head. He doesn’t get to throw a chair or have a bang-on one-liner, and while his expressiveness serves him well for the first few episodes, Holden develops more of a level approach. So it helps that Groff is an excellent communicator. He says everything in the slightest changes in his tone, the look in his eyes, and his body language. The now-nicknamed “Groff glare” is an incredible tool because it holds us in a moment alongside him—whether he’s angry, confused or scared, we get it immediately.

An excellent example is Holden’s arrival for his first interview, where it’s one long sequence that’s like stages of his mental awareness. Going into the facility he’s got swagger, then he gets thrown by realizing that he has to turn over his gun and sign an indemnification waiver, and while there’s zero dialogue as he’s escorted through you can tell in Groff’s face and body that this is dawning on him. He’s trying to psych himself up and it’s not working. Even as Holden waits to meet Ed Kemper for the first time, look at how he’s sitting versus how Kemper comes into the room. He’s not down and out; he’s never without purpose or presence, but Jonathan Groff is able to communicate total vulnerability without saying very much at all.

As season 1 goes on, you see him settle into these scenes: there’s more confidence in his posture, more edge in his tone, and that curiosity in Holden’s eyes seems a little more intense than it used to be. He’s learning how to play the game, then running the game, and Groff is constantly growing the character with an incredible attention to detail. Any actor can toughen up a character; rarely is it done so intelligently and so gracefully. It’s one thing here or another there, enough to make sense but never called attention to.

By the time the season reaches its climax, you can look back and see all the clues in Groff’s performance that line up perfectly with Holden’s fate, especially with the infamous Richard Speck interview, which gets a fair amount of its shock value out of the fact that it’s Groff saying those lines. The way that he completely vanishes as Holden takes things to another level is amazing, to the point that when Holden is accused of “f–king with his head” afterward, it feels like he’s messed with everyone’s head. Groff just goes for it with fearlessness that’s a joy to watch.

Sometimes a role hits an actor at just the right time, too, and that’s the case with Jonathan Groff and Mindhunter. It’s not as if he’s never done serious TV before; he was a series regular holding his own opposite Kelsey Grammer in the second season of Boss, and Looking was as much a drama as it was a comedy. Groff knocked out some very difficult scenes in both those shows, too. But he’s done more episodes of Mindhunter than either one of them.

There’s also more maturity and general life experience that comes with being in your 30’s which gives Holden Ford more gravity than Ian Todd or Patrick Murray. Jonathan Groff may be boyishly good-looking, but he doesn’t carry himself like that, even when Holden is eager to chase his next idea. John Douglas was 32 when he officially joined the Behavioral Science Unit in 1977, and that was after a considerable amount of experience with the FBI and the Air Force—while Groff was 32 when Mindhunter made its debut in 2017.

Neither he nor his character comes across as the wide-eyed rookie. Just like Douglas came into the BSU with his own resume, Groff establishes in the first episode (where we see Holden working as both a hostage negotiator and Quantico instructor) that this guy is capable and interesting on his own before he ever crosses paths with a serial killer. He’s able to hold his own with, and sometimes outshine, actors who have more experience or more physical stature because, like Douglas, he’s already been around the block a few times. And he sneaks some humor in there, too, at just the right moments.

If one note falls flat, it’s Mindhunter‘s attempt to show Holden’s personal turmoil through his tumultuous relationship with girlfriend Debbie; through no fault of Groff or Hannah Gross, there’s no chemistry between the characters to the point where they feel like antagonists, making the underlying theme so obvious that it’s a relief when they finally break up. (Perhaps this is because it’s the biggest deviation from the real agent; Douglas was married and welcomed his first child in 1975, two years before season 1 takes place).

The truly telling relationships are Holden’s bond with Bill, which goes on a roller coaster from mentorship to partnership to betrayal by the end of season 1, and what he gets himself into with Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton, who should’ve won the Emmy for which he was nominated, and is equally wonderful in Manhunt: Deadly Games).

Groff and McCallany have a perfect give and take between them that invigorates the traditional “young gun and cynical veteran” partner dynamic. This is the best example of how that’s supposed to work that’s been on TV. Holden and Bill starkly contrast one another but you can see each man change because of the other, and they get some truly funny moments together that provide much needed levity (asked if he can get Holden to shut up, Bill admits “I have not been able to do that, sir” while Holden just stands there not sure if he should be offended or not).

Again, it’s not a novel concept. The differences between the two are obvious. But the execution makes it; this isn’t just Holden getting put in his place by Bill. The two characters genuinely push each other, and change each other’s opinions, and never get too comfortable with one another. It’s as if there’s an inherent understanding that their points of opposition are what make them work. When they fight, it’s because they’re trying to make each other better. The mutual respect between the actors also legitimizes the partnership; even when Bill and Holden are at their lowest point, the performers’ dynamic gives you the sense that they still belong together.

[Sidebar: If someone doesn’t re-team Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany on some other project, no matter if it’s a prestige drama or a broad comedy, it will be a crime against the arts; these two really do shine together. But that’s a discussion for another piece.]

Not only is Britton spot-on as Kemper but you can see clearly how Holden gets pulled into his orbit (just as Douglas admits in his book that he liked Kemper). Their interactions have so much to unpack as Kemper perceives a friend in Holden while Holden sees too much in his subject. It all culminates in that disturbing embrace, an unscripted stroke of genius from original showrunner Joe Penhall that’s so well acted and almost tragic. The real compare and contrast in Mindhunter is Holden looking back at Kemper in the season 1 finale and realizing that he’s either staring into a mirror or his worst nightmare—and not being able to tell which.

An actor’s performance isn’t just about their own work, but how they affect their scene partners, and Groff sets a high benchmark there. You can see how he plays off his co-stars, again in often the most subtle and thoughtful of ways, but he also quietly steps back when it’s their opportunity to lead. Even with Holden’s considerable arrogance making him a more forward character, Groff knows when to do less or how to support someone else’s moment.

His self-awareness actually ends up benefiting the character, because he naturally throws in so many different shades. Holden goes from a lone operator who’s confident in himself but wants to know everyone else, to a team player, to someone who alienates everyone else and realizes he doesn’t know himself at all—culminating in that season-ending panic attack.

Those final few moments of Mindhunter season 1 are some of Jonathan Groff’s best work as Holden Ford. They’re a systematic deconstruction of Holden’s battle armor, until we get him at his most vulnerable, and Groff at his most expressive. Whether it’s the facial expressions, the quiver in his voice, or the unvarnished terror in his eyes, we see him melt the character down from the guy who doesn’t give a damn to the one who is damned in a matter of minutes. And he makes that panic attack legitimately terrifying, as the pulsing 70’s soundtrack rises. He completely decimates his own character, and it’s a gut-wrenching self-destruction as a viewer, but fascinating to take in from an acting perspective.

As Bill Tench points out in the first episode, “If we understood [aberrant behavior], we’d be aberrant too.” Which is a hell of a jumping-off point when Groff returns for Mindhunter season 2.