Season 2 — Ep. 10: The Worst and the Best
“I wasn’t just bored; I was aggravated.” This is not only what I plan to put on my tombstone, but it describes my feelings about Episode 10. This is possibly Serial’s Worst Episode Ever. It is saved by some graceful writing and production towards the end, dealing with Bowe’s reentry into society. That part is quite beautiful actually; that is Serial at its best. But up until then, this episode crystallizes some of those aspects of season 2 that have made it far less successful than season 1.
Politicians gets a lot of unquestioned airtime. Last week, Hillary Clinton was given a platform to sound impressively presidential. This week, GOP leaders are filled with seemingly righteous anger at the Obama administration and its handling of Bowe. There’s also Trump, who wants him shot dead. Koenig’s “investigation” of the validity of the GOP’s claims amounts to not much more than 1) asking them if they’re really, really sure they feel that way; and 2) presenting whatever excuses the White House offers in return, “off the record.”
Both sides get almost no critical inquiry. If I wanted to hear politicians spin events, I have a few other options lately. It’s as if Koenig just read aloud Adnan’s and Jay’s statements to the police and said, “I can see it both ways.”
The voices of soldiers on the ground are minimized. Koenig interviews some soldiers, who are upset about Obama’s warm-hearted welcoming of Bergdahl back to the U.S., with a televised press conference in the Rose Garden. They are pissed off when his National Security Advisor says that Bowe served with “honor and distinction.” According to the Obama administration, neither of these gaffes were thought out; politicians were acting in buzz of excitement around their work finally paying off. The soldiers just want Bergdahl’s dishonorable desertion to be acknowledged. Some of them risked their lives looking for him. They have no general criticism of the President or any bigger point to make.
Compared to the politicians, these soldiers always come across as thoughtful and honest. I wish we’d had more time with them to tell them apart from one another.
Koenig actually helps the politicians spin their political stories. Next, We hear from Republican members of the Senate Intelligence and House Armed Services Committees, upset that they were left out of the loop about Bergdahl’s return. We hear from Republican members of Congress, who are upset about the release of any Taliban prisoners at all. We don’t hear from any Democratic members of Congress, because what for, right?
We hear Koenig’s soft, understanding responses to the angry GOP pols: It is true, she says, that the White House “didn’t consult Congress, because here Congress was hearing it on the news”:
Mac Thornberry (House Armed Services Committee): All of that was a…was a surprise.
Sarah Koenig: Just how blatantly —
Thornberry: Yeah, how blatant and intentional misleading Congress was as part of this.
Thank you for helping him find the right word, Koenig. And later:
Koenig: Like, you just feel like you don’t trust those guys anymore?
Republican Staffer: Yes.
Thanks for spelling it out so easily for them, Koenig. I’m sure there was a lot of trust with the White House, flowing in both directions, before Bergdahl came along. And finally:
Koenig: They sounded to me surprisingly, genuinely upset by what had happened to their once collegial relationship with DOD.
Good interpretation, Koenig. Because politicians would never be able to fake such indignation for some underlying political gain.
These are just a few examples of Koenig validating the over-the-top feelings of reactive politicians, mostly GOP but also the Obama administration. There are so many in this episode, an embarrassment of riches from which to chose. About half of the episode is comprised of her delivering their soundbites, without skepticism or investigation.
The excerpt from the Congressional hearing on Bergdahl was the last straw for me. Hasn’t Koenig seen the Planned Parenthood or Benghazi hearings? The Republican Party approaches hearings the way my brother used to approach after-school play time: bully her, then make it seem like her fault. Their practiced technique, repeated here against the Defense Secretary, involves asking the witness leading questions, interrupting him before he can get out half a sentence, and then accusing him of not answering the question. But Koenig 2.0 has nothing to say about the politics of this.
It wasn’t Koenig’s intention, and I’m sure it’s not her politics, but the overall impression that this episode gives is of an opaque, bumbling Democratic administration verses a righteous, neglected Republican Congress. I still have no idea what they are really fighting over — Bowe’s fate, the Taliban detainees, not feeling heard? Regardless, the end result is that, because Congress didn’t get their warning about the exchange within 30 days, the GOP will fight to block the release of any people out of Guantanamo.
I don’t know why the administration covered up the exchange. They lied and violated the rules. Koenig doesn’t investigate this either! But it’s not hard to guess why, given how these politicians act. It may have had something to do with the fragility of relations in Afghanistan. I also don’t care. I might’ve cared, if there was any real inquiry.
I do have one good thing to say about the first part of this episode. It finally made me aware of a theme that ties the season together: Singular moments have big global consequences. Bergdahl takes a walk off his post; Bergdahl falls off a cliff trying to escape; Holbrooke dies; The Taliban flies that religious flag; and so on.
In this episode, Bergdahl’s parents happen to be in D.C. when Bowe is returning, so the White House over-hypes his return with a fancy press conference. If his parents were not in D.C., Bowe may have had a quieter return. His fellow soldiers may not have felt so disrespected. The whole ripple effect might have been avoided that will probably result in Bowe, and the Gitmo detainees, spending more time in prison. That is, unless the White House is lying about this coincidence. Who knows? Not Serial.
Just as this episode couldn’t get more suffocatingly inside the Beltway, we travel to Germany… There, we witness Bowe’s reintegration into society. The pressures of time cease, and organic process takes over. The podcast quiets down. Bowe is surrounded by teams of men and women eager to observe, assist, and test his progress — the irony of him getting the amount of attention he always wanted, but not the kind.
As usual, Koenig handles Bowe’s captivity and mindset with care, much like how the reintegration specialists handle Bowe. I love the details here, like Bowe getting his choice of seating and choosing the floor. There’s a quiet eeriness to this section, helped along by the spooky background music.
It’s a profound break. Too quickly, we pivot back to D.C. Congress puts pressure on the military to send Bowe back home. They don’t respect the organic process of reintegration. They need it codified around deadlines. To them, five years of unimaginable solitary torture is fixable in some defined percentage of that time. The politics all play out on Bowe’s body, another season theme.
The episode ends with a question and a promise for the next episode: Did anyone actually die or get seriously injured rescuing Bowe? Nobody has actually investigated this. Whatever will we do? If only we knew some journalists. Wait! That’s us. Serial to the rescue! “We’re journalists!” Koenig declares. Hmm.