An Organized Sequence: The Quiet Queerness of “Mindhunter”

*Contains some spoilers from Mindhunter.


As entertainment continues its current affair with the seemingly boundless genre of true or near-to-true crime stories, it stands to reason that David Fincher’s Mindhunter on Netflix should make a splash at the party, ripe with its director’s distinct style and expert command of intense yet quiet moments.

I had a pretty good idea of what to expect when starting Mindhunter on the cryptic suggestion from a friend (“You’ll love Wendy Carr…”) — I watch Zodiac once every couple of years, and spend a few weeks obsessed with the grit and gristle of the events that unravel, the darkness that wells up in the police and reporters involved, the implications the film has for the current state of society. But for all of Zodiac’s intensity, I’ve always found it very one note, a thriller from start to finish. Its constancy in that aspect is a part of its power.

Mindhunter, on the other hand, throws a few pitches from out of left field, and one of them is this: Wendy Carr, one of the three main characters and a critical voice in the story, is a lesbian.

Much like with Devon’s character in I Love Dick, the promotional materials give no indication that a lesbian storyline is coming. The trailer shows a few glances at Wendy, exhibits a few of her lines that, out of context, are hardly critical. Her position as an academic professor is visually acknowledged, but the journey she’ll take from civilian to Quantico consultant to eventual full-time employee isn’t touched upon. There’s a pretty substantial reason for that — the texture of the trailer is centered around Holden Ford’s journey, and since he serves as the de facto protagonist, the show supports this construction. In episode six, however, Mindhunter quite literally jets off to Boston and follows Wendy Carr home to face her demons.

Every interaction with Wendy at this point has shown a full range of actress Anna Torv’s abilities, from cool and collected to sarcastic, even sardonic. She analyzes, hypothesizes, and rarely loses her head, a steady north star for Jonathan Groff’s unsure yet passionate Holden and Holt McCallany’s gruff yet skeptical Bill Tench. She encourages their research, even before she’s a full part of it, solely for the purpose that this is the sort of exploration that needs to be done in order to try to form a better society, to try to prevent as much disturbed and deviant behavior as possible.

We know little of her personal life — by the time Wendy is posed with the dilemma that will crack the closet door and give us a glimpse of her home life, we’ve seen Holden in bed with his girlfriend at least twice. The question she needs to answer is simple — will she throw away the possibility for tenure at a prestigious university, all in order to chase down and postulate over a new type of killer? The FBI chief, in offering the position, inquires after a husband, children (she denies both), and asks her to “sleep on it”, to take her time in thinking it over. As we follow her home to Boston, it seems like she’ll be doing just that, returning to the solitude and quiet of her own sphere to consider such a life-altering decision.

What we get instead is Wendy showing up at the office of fellow professor Annaliese Stilman (played by Lena Olin), who’s surprised she’s returned a day early and greets her with a kiss. Their intimacy is subtle, refined, the closeness of two intellectually driven women who aren’t running away from the discussion. They take the conversation to a couch, collars loosened a little as Wendy relays the FBI’s proposal.

Annaliese almost immediately shuts her down. It’s a tough scene to watch, her fingers tracing over Wendy’s wrist as she coolly reminds her that she’s three months away from tenure, that she’d be throwing away her career, that she’s wasting her time. When that fails, she tugs at an almost cruel thread — “Do they know you’re lesbian?” “Of course not.” The conversation begins down the path of hiding who Wendy truly is, and then abruptly stops; Annaliese has made plans with another couple for drinks and wants Wendy to join her.

Fincher, however, doesn’t skirt the subject. The topic at drinks is about hiding oneself, their company an apparently fellow gay couple arguing that needing to hide oneself is a treachery that renders any other facet of the discussion a travesty. Annaliese squeezes Wendy’s hand while insisting that there must be quiet spaces where people are free to be themselves, and Wendy responds by excusing herself and leaving — not only the table, but the restaurant entirely. In her next scene, we see her leasing an apartment month to month near Quantico.

Perhaps it’s innocent, but in the two scenes in which she appears Olin’s Annaliese is calculating, borderline gaslighting, the sort of toxic over-concern one would expect from Mad Men’s Don Draper when Betty gets just a little too independent. There’s a tendency to focus so in depth on the beginning of queer relationships (the classic beats of falling in, coming out, pain and finding beauty in spite of it) that few begin in the middle. Olin, at 62, has a good twenty years on Torv, and that adds another layer, an “I know better than you, I’ve seen more than you, I’ve been here before”. It bears repeating, but not every relationship is good, certainly not always a fair balance of power, and so not every representation should be, either. When the relationship between two characters has run its course, even if we were not privy to the details of that course, it ends, and the story moves on.

Wendy’s sexuality is integral to her character, yes, but subtle. In direct contrast to the literal start to finish view of Holden and his girlfriend, Debbie, Wendy’s private life is just that, hidden behind the same reserved curtain as any other aspect of her history. It rarely approaches relevance to the larger plot of the story (a tense moment when zealous religion is brought up is quickly averted by other characters) and yet stakes such a claim in her drive, her hunger, and commitment to the project. In a moment when her loyalty is questioned, it’s a facet to reflect on, that she left not only her home but one of the few people who perhaps can truly accept her, a relationship as much about community and transparency as it is about love or sex.

It’s been confirmed that Mindhunter’s second season is already in the works. Here’s hoping that, as we see more of Wendy’s story, it blooms with the same subtle intensity as it has thus far.

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