Season 2 — Ep. 4: Manic Pixie Dream Torture

By Justine Barron

Read previous episode discussions here!

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For two whole weeks in a row, Koenig has remained consistently #teamBowe. She hasn’t pulled a Koenig and flipped the script, as she did with Adnan Syed in season 1. She continues to dispel negative rumors. Last week, Berghdahl wasn’t treasonous. Now, he’s not crazy. Even the army will give him points for maintaining his sanity and not turning into a shaking drooling zombie after so many years in Taliban captivity.

Army leaders and politicians want Bergdahl locked up for life. Reddit largely characterizes him as a crazy treasonous liar from a kooky family — and yet, somehow also boring. He was homeschooled, the social media haters declare, as if that is a sign of essential derangement.

Bergdahl is still this season’s charismatic potential. He’s no Adnan Syed— I don’t want to smoke a blunt and pray with him — but he is intriguing. Some of the things he says are positively Tibetan Book of the Dead-esque:

“You’re not in tomorrow. You’re not in next week. You’re not in next month. You’re in this second, and it can last an eternity.”

It’s quite alluring, this man in uniform, with oceans of depth, Johnny Cash on his mind, and a voice as calm as a sunset.

More Gangsters, Please

Episode 4 zooms out one level from last week to view Bowe’s captivity from the perspective of anyone who witnessed it, and it ends up being scattered and without dramatic focus. The first half focused on David Rohde, a journalist that was also held captive by the Haqqani Family.

I think Koenig lost an opportunity in the less-than-riveting first part of this episode when describing the Haqqanis, the powerful Taliban associates that captured Bergdahl — aka the “Sopranos of the Afghanistan war.”

I want to hear more about the Afghani Sopranos, for sure. How many family members did the boss have to kill to stay on top? Which one is the Paulie Walnuts, the number 2 and comic foil? Are there any closeted gay men? Surely the goods on this family are available somewhere. Unfortunately, Koenig kept it dry.

I hope this season gets messy, and the real world interrupts. I hope Koenig digs so deep into the Haqqanis, they leave her a bloody gift in her foyer.

The New Girl

I think Koenig knew the first half was a little dull. So she giggled, a lot. Sometimes, Koenig is a wise, literate narrator. And sometimes, she’s Zooey Deschanel.

I gotta say, I’m just confused. Like, what, are they gonna bomb us right now? (Giggle) Seriously. Woah.”

This persona worked great in season 1, because last year was The Sarah and Adnan Show. This year is not about her. It’s about torture. (Giggle.)

I’m no sexist, uptight, upspeak-hating purist. I’m down with natural voices on the radio. But more than once, I screamed “Cut!” when Koenig included audio of herself making a joke or laughing after a serious moment. There’s just so much gratuitous giggling.

Who Are We to Judge?

I wrote last week about the subtle theme of “They [Taliban] are like us.” Subtle no more! Koenig hits this much harder than I thought she would, given that Serial’s audience is broad. It’s not just composed of NPR liberals in their recliners, sipping camomile and nibbling on conspiracy theory.

Koenig reveals that the captors viewed Rohde as a “dirty animal.” It’s not a big leap to think about how brown-skinned Muslims are implicitly viewed in our country, as if their physical bodies carry danger and amorality.

Then, Koenig takes it further. She talks about our history of torture at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. She gives voice to the Taliban’s logic of anger. She reveals that we sent Afghani poets to our torture centers and may have helped turn one guy, who wasn’t so bad, into a Taliban recruiter.

Best of all, she reminds us that the U.S. government gave millions of dollars to the Haqqani family when they fought the Soviets. So we helped build the Taliban’s best war machine. It’s a bold stance for her to take, but it’s a bit confused how it ties into the Bergdahl story, which loses steam this week after last week’s gorgeous, intimate look at his years in captivity.

The Elders

Last week, I nearly cried hearing about the old woman who cleaned the mud off Bowe before his captors took him away. This week, we have two older people — the old man who challenged the soldiers to be kind to David and shared spit with him to prove that he’s not unclean; and the chef who brought Bowe extra items. It’s so crushingly sad, because I assume that these people remember the Afghanistan and Pakistan of yore, before the violent rule of fundamentalism.

I have been researching the Middle East in the sixties and early seventies for a writing project. The subject is the “Hippie Trail” that ran from Turkey to India, crossed by thousands of young people from the West every year. At the time, the Middle East was thought to be among the most welcoming regions in the world, and Islam one of the most peaceful religions.

After decades of Soviet and U.S. occupation, fundamentalism, and sectarian warfare, young Muslims may not even know what came before. What can an old man do, with all the knowledge and goodness in his mind and heart, but nobody around to validate it? He can survive.

Crime, politics, culture, personal essays, humor (but I’m sad). Twitter: @jewstein3000.

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