Season 2 — Wrapping It All Up, In a Tidy Bowe
We weren’t told that episode 11 of Serial season 2 was our last until it started. I would bet that Serial didn’t even know, two weeks before, that they were wrapping up. Who plans to go out on eleven episodes? An even twelve, like last year, would’ve made sense. Thirteen episodes makes a cable TV series or a suit of cards. Eleven is the world’s least notable number; nothing stops at eleven.
Knowing Serial, if they really intended to end on eleven, they would’ve broadcast it throughout the tenth episode. Disclosure of intent is a Koenig trademark. Instead, she kind of threw it away, like she hoped we wouldn’t notice. It makes sense that the scheduling of the last episode should be as loose as the rest of the season, with the skipping or doubling of weeks.
Despite the abrupt finale — and despite one especially inappropriate Koenig giggle — this episode was very good. I was surprised to be enjoying Serial again so fully, after last week’s possibly Worst Episode Ever, which begged me to have pity upon a teary-eyed Republican Congress. In fact, the finale was so tidy, it almost had me convinced that Season 2 had a cohesive purpose. In case you haven’t been reading these missives, I have been consistently arguing the opposite. It’s like Serial took the time to do a little extra credit on its Suddenly Final Episode. I felt some of the old Serial magic. I was curious, and I trusted Koenig again. She also gave me a lot of what I’d been bitchily pining for all season, including:
More soldiers, at last. The various soldiers that made up Bergdahl’s company, and their various levels of commanders, are the Woodlawn High School alumni of Season 2, the most charming, honest, and interesting characters. Even with the legal and soldierly restraints on what they could say, they come to life in Episode 11 — their justifiable anger, misplaced grievances, ghosts, guilt, PTSD, and evolving attitudes towards Bergdahl. There is so much more to army culture that could’ve been explored this season. Maybe I just crush on soldiers.
Koenig also finally fulfills my aching request for a theme, kinda. In a recent post, I discussed how season 2 has seemed to be torn between two questions — “Why does Bowe Bergdhal really walk off his post?” and “How does the Bergdahl story reflect the problems in our War in Afghanistan?” I couldn’t see the justification for “one story, told week by week-ish” without more of a focus.
In Episode 11, Koenig reveals what this has all been about: “What exactly should we blame Bowe for?” Hmm. Actually, this does cover a lot of the season’s ground, but not all. It feels like a retroactive thematization of the season, like a fifth paragraph conclusion on a high school student’s standardized test essay. (“It only needs to sound conclusive,” my teacher would say.) It could’ve been a great overriding question to explore, but I don’t think Serial had the time to get ahead of what they were doing. As noted, they were under pressure to release a new season in 2015 and so squeezed it out around Christmas.
Theme aside, we do have a clear investigation in the finale. Koenig 1.0 is back on the scene, asking questions, expressing skepticism, and getting to the bottom of things. The first question she asks is, “Did any soldiers die looking for Bowe?” Given how much this has been used to justify attacks on Bowe and nasty T-shirts, it’s important. Koenig looks into whether there were any deaths or injuries during rescue and other related missions. She explores the possibility that the diversion of resources towards Bergdahl left soldiers vulnerable in other situations.
Koenig discovers that there were no casualties during the missions directly related to Bergdahl, just after he disappeared, but there were some serious injuries. The missions that did result in the deaths of soldiers were apparently not Bergdahl-focused. Leadership would tell the company, on those missions, to look out for “any signs of Bergdahl.” But they also told the company to distribute crayons, get out the vote, and win hearts and minds. It sounds more like they were checking boxes off of a list than seriously seeking a missing soldier. “No one in the army is ever going to say, we stopped looking for [him], okay?” the commander explains, basically admitting the opposite. It was generally understood that Bergdahl was in Pakistan anyway, out of their range.
Koenig 1.0 delivers her final word: “I have to go with not guilty.” Okay, that was what she said in Season 1, but this episode is kind of a throwback. The “causality here is tenuous,” she says this time. Almost everyone, including family members of slain soldiers, comes to the same basic conclusion: We wanted someone to blame; it’s too hard otherwise; it’s the fault of the “tragedy of war” itself. They don’t point the finger at the government, of course, or failed war strategies.
Koenig could have taken the argument in Bowe’s favor even further. Let’s say there were clear casualties of the Bergdahl rescue effort. How much could have been be blamed on him? If he gave the enemy information, or if he left a post where he was supposed to be guarding or backing up someone and that person was killed, I could see the link. It sounds like the army’s leadership made choices that put the company in harm’s way, both before and after his escape. “People stopped doing the arguably conducive things,” we learn about what was happening in Afghanistan at that time. Maybe Bergdahl wasn’t just a paranoid quack, which is Mark Boal’s point. I still want my whistleblower moment, I guess.
Without saying it directly, Koenig does argue that Bergdahl has been used unfairly as a political pawn. There’s some shady political stuff around what intel the army was allowed to commit to paper and how the anti-Bergdahl story got so much immediate attention. The best evidence is the fact that there have been many cases of desertion, which have rarely been punished severely, including one fellow with a story a lot like Bergdahl’s. I hope the politicization of Bergdahl is finally blown wide during the trial. I’m not sure that Serial — the most listened-to podcast of all time — actually brought enough attention to it, based on how little media this season has generated.
What makes Episode 11 good as gold for me is the thoughtful lyricism. I really enjoyed the first few episodes of this season, because they were so well-written and produced. Later on, some of the quality withered as the focus became dispersed and news-oriented. There were still moments of grace throughout, such as Bowe hiding firearms in an Idaho tea house or learning how to sit in chairs again after his release. But there were also handfuls of interviews that felt lifeless.
At its best, Serial doesn’t actually investigate that well. I think most avid listeners came to this conclusion after season 1’s story was broken open wide by the actual investigators of the podcast Undisclosed: The State vs. Adnan Syed. At its best, Serial entertains. Like most great entertainers, it has a distinctive voice — Koenig, with the curiosity of a child and the reflective wisdom of a poet, bravely conquering a strange new world. Her writing, at its best, encapsulates time and place in one fresh description.
At her best, Koenig also shares the stage with other well-spoken gems. This episode is filled with the quotes of people describing the tragic poetry of war. It is fitting (and moving) that Koenig ends the episode on Bergdahl’s own lyrical profundity, bringing us full circle to Episode 1. He speaks of a moment during his captivity when looked up at the clear sky and stars and realized that
things went so far beyond me, you know? It is just that relief of knowing that the stupidity doesn’t go any further than that little planet, or this little country, or a little house, or whatever it is, you know? If something is as big as that, then it’s almost like you don’t have to be scared.
I know that there is little love for Bergdahl in the world, but his contributions to the season were my favorite parts. Even though Koenig and Bergdahl never spoke directly all season long, I have long pictured them as kindred spirits — two darkly-lit, frustrated poets, confined by the demands of their respective chosen professions to duties they can’t quite fulfill, looking up and out at an impressionistic landscape filled with too many thoughts, feelings, and words.
This season of Serial has had a lot against it. The popular taste for crime stories that Serial helped generate worked against this non-murder story. (Fun exercise: Count how many murder detective shows are currently on the BBC; then count how many of them involve priest-detectives!) Also, Undisclosed and Reddit basically deconstructed season 1, costing Serial some good will. Adnan Syed was a hard act to follow. People are still very interested in him.
Until we meet again, my double-digit readers! Actually, readership soared into the quadruple digits for many articles, which blew my mind so far off that I did what any writer would do — sabotaged myself by forgetting to post on time. I should thank some of my favorite podcasters for sharing my early posts, including the hosts of Undisclosed and Crime Writers On. I have crushes on the voices of 75 percent of the hosts of these podcasts.
I leave you with one of the most curious moments of the final episode, the aforementioned inappropriate Koenig giggle, the most memorable of all of the odd giggles this season. Please keep in mind that the producers chose to keep this, both on the podcast and in the transcript:
Sarah Koenig: This very thing of like, well, wait, did people die during this search for Bergdahl as a…you know, as —
Michael Flynn: Yes. No, answer…the answer is… Sarah, the answer is yes.
Sarah Koenig: [CHUCKLES] OK. OK.
Death during war, man. It’s awkward.