Ep. 6 & Syed Hearing: Heroes (Asia), Villains (prosecutors), and Bowe

By Justine Barron

Read previous episode discussions here!

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The Adnan Syed Justice League

If you’ve been following the Adnan Syed case for the last year, then you may understand the following reference:

There is a classic trope in the first act of ensemble franchise movies when the ragtag team of unlikely heroes gathers together to work towards a single mission. It’s like in The Avengers or that scene from Mad Men when they start their own firm.

One by one, the classic Adnan Syed players have been arriving this week in Baltimore for a post-conviction hearing that will determine if he deserves a new trial: There’s the legal warriors from The Undisclosed Podcast; fireman Bob Ruff, the propagandist; the throwback characters, like the no-nonsense librarian; and, of course, Ms. Sarah Koenig herself, the one-time leader of the Justice League who we thought had retired into the establishment.

Finally, the courthouse doors open, and in walks (gasp) Asia McClain, our pregnant damsel-in-distress. She will show surprising strength-through-tears against the cartoonishly villainous prosecutor, stick to the truth of her precocious seventeen year-old self, and end up saving the day. It is always the quiet steady ones who bring us home.

The Sarah and Dana Show

Speaking of storytelling, Serial has been releasing some mini-episodes each night of the hearing that are quite interesting.

By "interesting," I do not mean informative. There are a dozen other blog and social media sources that are providing detailed play-by-plays and legal analysis. Rather, Serial’s updates interest me in terms of what they reveal about how the podcast exists within the current popular true crime landscape, which it launched.

The Serial team seems to have put a lot of thought into the production of these fifteen minute episodes. Each episode begins with a phone call sound effect: Sarah shares her daily updates with her co-producer, Dana Chivvis, of “Crab Crib” fame. It is the same sound effect Serial used for the Season 1 calls with Adnan, so it’s evocative. I won't lie: I felt nostalgia, intimacy, and excitement for what was to come — all of the old Serial emotions. Chivvis is (or acts) curious, surprised, and frustrated by Koenig’s daily accounts, as in olden times. Nobody else recording from a Baltimore hotel about the hearing is giving me all that story, beyond the facts of the case.

Koenig comes off as more of an impressionist than a journalist here. She describes the “energy” in the courtroom when Asia testifies more than the details of her testimony. It’s as if Koenig is always reaching for some relatable, personal truth beyond the facts. I just don’t know how much of that is appropriate or helpful here. Neither does Chivvis:

Dana: I have a question which is, was the phone in Leakin park? And I’m very curious to know if you got an answer to that question.

Sarah: (pause) So……. (pause) I don’t know!

Dana: You texted me at lunch time and said you had an answer for me!

Koenig then repeats what the State’s FBI expert said, that the locations were not referring to cell towers but the switches, and therefore reliable. Even I know from reading tweets that there was more to it. The FBI witness was discredited when he couldn’t explain two incoming calls that located Syed in Baltimore and then, 27 minutes later, in Washington, DC. That’s the main thing that happened that day, and she leaves it out.

Similarly, Koenig hedges on whether or not Adnan’s defense attorney did her job by trying to find alibi witnesses: “It was kind of mushy… It felt like kind of a draw or something…. It was inconclusive who won that round.” Not according to everyone else! Syed’s attorney had contacted zero people to be an alibi, it was revealed. That doesn’t seem inconclusive to me. If Koenig really intends to be more impartial, she doesn't have to give any opinion. Calling something a “draw,” when you're Sarah Koenig, is a powerful statement.

Koenig’s return to Serial season 1’s case feels like a strange time warp. It’s only been a year plus since the Syed case was Koenig’s domain, but it feels much longer. We’ve moved on to hard transcripts, legal experts, Undisclosed, and Bob Ruff calling everything “bullshit.”

The Good Guys are the Bad Guys

Twenty-five years of Law and Order, and you’d think that the worst thing that most prosecutors could do is care too much. Thank God for Serial, because it is now a great time for my favorite new popular character — the villainous prosecutor. Pick your favorite:

  • Serial’s Kevin Urick, who blackmailed a young man to lie about another young man’s guilt; withheld important evidence from the defense; lied to an alibi witness, and then lied to the court about her; and let a child molester go free to keep him from testifying. He’s like the Emporer Palpatine of prosecutors — apparently a public servant but actually deceitful, manipulative, corrupt, and selfish.
  • Thiru Vignarajah, the current deputy Attorney General trying Syed’s petition, who attacks the credibility of sincere pregnant women; manipulates a family’s grief to gain public favor; and even has a dumb villain catchphrase (“Would you be surprised to learn…?”). Right now, he seems like the Wile E. Coyote of prosecutors — ineffective, desperate, and using tricky machinery that backfires. We will see.
  • Ken Kratz of Making a Murderer, the pompous D.A. who prosecuted a wrongfully convicted man and his intellectually disabled nephew without real evidence; used his power to gain sexual favors from vulnerable victims; despite being universally despised, still continues to convince the public of facts which aren’t facts; pesters the man in jail whose life he ruined to help him write a book; and won’t go away. Would it be going too far to compare him to Freddy Krueger?
  • Nancy Grace, who I am convinced is a Christopher Guest joke.

Season 2, Episode 6: Bowe Hates His Job

In this episode, we finally get to Bergdahl’s rationale for deserting his post, and it makes total sense. Basically, he hates his boss. So he takes dangerous, thoughtless, and overdramatic action, hoping that he might get the attention of other bosses and be celebrated for the special army flower that he is.

I used to run away from home a lot too. I understand.

To be fair, Bergdahl’s commander sounds like a huge jerk, which is backed up by other soldiers. It does sound like he sent the company on pointless dangerous missions and overlooked its well-being, instead focusing angrilyon their improper facial hair and clothes. And Bergdahl sounds like an otherwise obedient, competent, and highly regarded soldier.

It doesn’t really sound like the commander was sending his company on suicide missions, though, which Bergdahl actually suggests . Maybe the commander shows love by being ruthless and arbitrary, or maybe he was answering to difficult commands himself. So it’s not clear that Bowe is actually whistle-blowing.

And what’s with the extremist thinking everywhere? Not just Bowe, but the second-in-command compares his men taking off their uniforms and gear, for a few minutes in the heat, to soldiers going off-book to shoot people in Mai Lai! Is this part of basic training, that you should always jump as far as possible to extremes?

I draw a couple of conclusions from this episode about Bergdahl. First, he is that type of employee who sees what’s wrong and can’t handle it. I have been that employer but at the Gap, a bookstore/coffee shop in North Carolina, and a nonprofit that was later shutdown. I never did that at the army, where the whole job is falling in line at ridiculous, self-sacrificing orders.

This speaks to some of the interesting contradictions in Bergdahl’s character. He’s a born soldier, who can’t hack it when it gets too difficult. He’s a pretentious pipe-smoking introvert and stoic, who sleeps on a bed of coils, yet he has an adolescent impulse to fight authority.

The other conclusion I draw about Bergdahl from this episode is that he is in Afghanistan at the wrong time. Under General Petraus’ strategy, soldiers were focused on counterinsurgency instead of warfare, like building the trust of the locals through donations and education. The soldiers weren’t trained for this, and the Afghani people weren’t buying it. Bowe had career ambitions. He wanted bloody battle and superhero opportunities. Following orders that had nothing to do with his goals clearly annoyed him.

Koenig ends the episode with powerful questions: Is Bowe selfish or selfless? He is “looking at the same set of circumstances as everyone else,” but he comes to such different conclusions. Why? Does he have a personality disorder? I’m intrigued, but I’m also worried. I’m not sure that this particular exposé will help keep Bowe from life in prison. He’s not a traitor; he doesn’t deserve that.

Out of Order

I really wish this episode had come earlier in the season. This is the story Koenig started telling, before she zoomed this way and that way. Without any clues as to why Bowe deserted his base for so many episodes, the series half-lost my interest.

If it were me, in the producer’s chair, I would’ve put this episode second or third, then followed chronologically to Bowe’s capture (episode 3), the failed rescue attempts during the first year, and then the lone warriors who kept trying to find him (episode 5). I have enjoyed hearing the point-of-view of the Taliban and Haqqani, but I think that might have been more effective later in the season. The parallels between them and us would’ve been more resonant if we had a clearer picture of “us.”

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