Holden: What are you reading? The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Sounds interesting.
Debbie: It is interesting.
H: What’s it about?
D: Please, Holden. You promised and I really have to finish this.
H: It could help with your homework to describe what you’re learning.
D: Okay. It’s by Erving Goffman. He posits that life is like theater. We tailor ourselves to fit the parts that we’re playing.
D: For instance, there’s the expectation that girls should be nice, that they should smile.
I’ve always been fascinated by the inner workings of the human mind. What is it that motivates us to do the things that we do? Why are some people so much more outgoing or charming or nefarious than others? That’s probably why I decided to major in psychology. People are complicated and they can be incredibly difficult to study. There are just so many variables you cannot control.
And it is precisely this kind of mindset that drew me to the original Netflix series Mindhunter. Based on the real interviews that real FBI agents conducted with real serial killers, the show isn’t really about the actual act of murder. It’s much more about getting inside the heads of the men who committed these horrendous crimes. As such, the show has a lot of talking. But oh what incredible talking it is.
The excerpt above is taken from a conversation between FBI special agent Holden Ford (played by Jonathan Groff) and his girlfriend, grad student Debbie Mitford (played by Hannah Gross). It continues thusly:
Debbie: You know, I once tried not smiling for a day, and it was really weird.
Holden: Why? You’re not much of a smiler.
D: Even so, it made me feel really odd and it freaked people out. Strangers kept asking, “Are you okay?”
H: Did you want to smile?
D: No. Not once I realized what I was doing. Goffman says we wear these masks to make everyone else comfortable. Like you and your suits.
H: We’re not talking about my clothes again.
D: Your suit is your uniform you wear to fit in at Quantico.
H: I don’t want to fit in.
D: Everyone is trying to fit in.
The grim, tension-filled atmosphere of Mindhunter is immediately reminiscent of films like Se7en (1995) or Zodiac (2007), both of which were also directed by David Fincher. While it’s true that a picture can be worth a thousand words, words can also paint remarkable pictures in our heads too.
What’s great about Mindhunter is that it’s not only the interviews with the serial killers that are so engaging; the conversations between the “normal” members of society are equally fascinating. The exchange above really got me thinking about why we behave the way we do. We think that we are always in full control of our actions, and yet we are also the products of our environments.
We are all just actors trying to control and manage our public image, we act based on how others might see us.
In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Erving Goffman talks about precisely this phenomenon and how our actions are predicated on societal norms and expectations. All the world’s a stage, as a famous playwright once wrote, and we want the audience to adore us.
We inevitably reply with “fine” or “good” whenever someone asks how we are. With rare exception, we’re hardly ever completely open and honest, because we’re simply following a social convention. The person isn’t really interested in how you are, are they? And yet you’ll still smile back at them regardless, because that’s what you’ve been trained to do.
If you also enjoy incredible dialogue and psychological thrillers, and you’re not completely put off by remarkably vivid descriptions of truly appalling crimes, give Mindhunter a shot. It takes a few episodes to get going, but it’ll hook you in. The interview with Richard Speck in episode nine is easily among the best sequences on television I’ve watched in quite some time.
I’m very much looking forward to season two.