When Mindhunter aired its first season back in 2017, true crime fans were quick to identify that the mysterious ADT security worker played by Sonny Valicenti–who haunted the opening moments of every episode–was in fact the BTK Killer. Named after his M.O. (“Bind, Torture, Kill”), Dennis Rader viciously murdered 10 people in the Wichita area between 1974 and 1991, but went unidentified and un-captured until the 21st century.
In the second episode of season two, Holt McCallany’s Bill Tench travels to Kansas to interview Kevin Bright, a young man who survived a home invasion in which his sister was murdered by the BTK Killer. Bright was shot in the head, but survived. “That young gentleman was the only victim of Dennis Rader that ever survived,” McCallany tells Esquire, adding that the scene was just as compelling to shoot as it is to watch unfold on screen. “It’s a particularly well written scene, one of [head writer] Courtenay Miles’s best in the entire season.” Understandably on-edge and paranoid, Bright has agreed to speak to the authorities only on the condition that Bill not look at his face, which gives the scene a unique and surreal quality. Bill sits in the passenger seat of an unmarked police car, gently questioning Bright who is in the seat behind him. Without ever turning around or making eye contact, he establishes enough trust to extract Bright’s entire, unspeakably horrifying story.
“I can’t look at him, but nevertheless as a detective I’m paying very close attention to everything that he says, and not only the words that he chooses, but his intonations, and the way that he phrases things, and the emotion behind it. Bill is trying to glean every ounce of information he can out of that interaction,” McCallany explains. “That, for me, was the scene that turned that case into something that would continue to haunt me for the rest of the season.”
In fact, it could continue to haunt Tench well beyond the ending of this season. Though BTK was active for almost two decades, committing murders from 1975 through 1991 before going dormant, he was only captured in 2005. Even more soberingly, he was only caught thanks to his own sloppiness–in 2004 Rader started writing letters to local press taking credit for his crimes, and shortly afterward he communicated with the police via a floppy disk, which allowed them to trace his location.
Now that Mindhunter has introduced BTK as an active investigation for Tench, he’ll become a representation of a sobering truth: that no matter how advanced the FBI’s profiling techniques or how sophisticated their insights, there will always be monsters who evade capture.
“One of the things that I think separates our show from other shows is that we show the reality of police work,” McCallany points out, “and the reality is that they don’t always get the guy! They didn’t catch the Zodiac. They didn’t catch Rader until 2005, and only because he made a really stupid mistake, sending a floppy disk that was traceable, directly to the police department in a kind of Son of Sam style quest for notoriety.”
John Douglas, the real FBI agent who wrote the book on which Mindhunter is based–and is the basis for Jonathan Groff’s Holden Ford–did interview Rader following his arrest, McCallany says. “They had to do it by video from different rooms, it was really weird the way that they set it up. It wasn’t face-to-face like the interviews we conduct [in the show].” Fincher reportedly has a five-season plan for Mindhunter, so could the show hypothetically jump forward into the 21st century to chronicle Rader’s arrest? “We’re pretty conscientious about being accurate with timelines,” McCallany says. “It would be a very big time jump, and Bill…. Bill’s gonna be pretty old in 2005, let’s face it!”
Bill is drawn into investigating a horrific crime that strikes literally close to home, after a child is murdered in his Virginia neighborhood–in a house for which his wife, Nancy, is the realtor. That case and the BTK investigation mirror each other in ways that are deeply unsettling to Bill, and McCallany notes that one of Rader’s most unusual traits is that he was able to live a normal life as a family man in his community. “He lived for all those years, quietly in that little house with his family, going to church on Sundays, he was a member of that community. And he would plot and plot and plot for years before he acted again. He was a really complex murderer.”