Blogging Serial, Season 2 — Ep. 3: Be Careful Wishing

By Justine Barron

Read discussion on Eps. 1 and 2 here!

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I don’t remember how old I was when I learned the phrase, “Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it,” but I do remember it resonated with me. It was the first cliché I’d heard with its own built-in cruel joke — that our wish fulfillments might destroy us. It’s like the anti-”Secret.”

It also reminds me of a Jewish tradition my mother taught me of spitting three times when someone shares good news. You go “puh puh puh” to ward off the inevitable comeuppance.

Bowe Bergdahl wished for an heroic moment, in which his escape would set off a DUSTWUN of attention from the world’s leaders and he would finally be recognized. The irony of him getting exactly what he wanted was the price he had to pay in long-term isolation and dehumanization.

So too, I wished in my last entry that Serial this season would take a different approach than last season. Season 2 was shaping up to be another “is he a good guy or a villain?” story without resolution. To be fair, I had just slogged through The Staircase and was a little grumpy about investing hours in tedious courtroom footage in return for no one to blame.

I was happy at first to hear Episode 3 approach the Bergdahl case in a different way. This stand-out episode breaks Serial form, using the whole hour to tell one time-contained story in present tense, namely Bergdahl’s first year as a hostage. This seems like a way of honoring what Bergdahl went through.

The story deserves it. It’s brutally sad. I mean, he was chained up all of the time — “spread eagle” at one point for months — and forced to watch videos of beheadings. The only levity came in some of his interactions with his captors, like how they shaved his mustache but kept his beard, because it looked dopey.

Koenig describes Bergdahl’s endlessly intricate efforts at building towards an escape — counting time in the dark, practicing night after night. It reminds me of a concert pianist playing the same song over and over again in preparation for the big night, but with the added stakes that he would die if he got a note wrong. It’s impressive that Bergdahl figures out his escape plan on his own. The only training that the army gives for being held captive is a superficial “Code of Conduct”: “Don’t cooperate. But don’t die!”

It’s also amazing how much Bergdahl can remember. The Army debriefers praised the quality of his intel. I imagine what a great soldier he could’ve been, if his talents were utilized properly.

Some of Bergdahl’s escape stories are almost hard to believe. It took him under 15 minutes to escape chains and a locked door, run past three houses, climb onto a roof, and cover himself in mud. In episode 1, he described a fantasy of becoming a Jason Bourne-like character. It’s hard to know if his recollections are colored by that fantasy.

But then Bergdahl walked off a cliff and ended up injured, crawling around naked, dizzy, and nearly discovered by a sheep. If this were a movie, it would be more like Jason Bourne meets Buster Keaton meets “Shoah.”

Either way, Bergdahl is a great storyteller. Some of his descriptions are vividly rich. He describes a rooster crowing in the background of a beheading video; an old woman wiping off his mud before his captors took him away; and his saying “oof” when he fell off that cliff, “just like in a cartoon.” Bergdahl is like Koenig’s counterpart in lyricism and detail, with a sprinkle of colloquialism. She says “shit”; he says “good grief.” I wonder if we aren’t leading up to meeting between the two of them, like how season 1 culminated in Koening admitting to Adnan Syed why she cared about his case: “It’s you.”

Besides in its structure, Koenig breaks with Serial form in episode 3 by stating clearly her opinion. Last year, a strong Koenig statement was something like, “Hmm. Maybe. But then again…” This year, she firmly “puts to rest” the rumors of Bergdahl having Taliban sympathies. Officers on both side of the war agree that he resisted.

It’s as if, thematically, “The system is rigged against the individual” is the new “Did he, or didn’t he?” One of the more interesting parts of this episode is its focus on how “they [the Taliban] are like us.” Their soldiers sound like ours: resentful of their jobs. Wouldn’t it be amazing if Serial arrives at a story of a parallel person on the other side, a Bizarro-Bowe?

Any lingering doubts about Bergdahl seem to come from his interviewer, Mark Boal. Boal doesn’t think Bergdahl is a traitor, but he’s confused about some facts. Some of the soldier’s story is confusing to me too. His promise that he was intending to be a whistleblower would be more believable if he was at his post for more than a few months.

What I don’t understand is Mark Boal having trouble with Bergdahl’s state of mind. He finds his story “hard to take” and questions why he isn’t a “total vegetable,” as “95 percent of people” would be after facing that much trauma. Shock and distance are completely relatable and normal reactions to PTSD. Analytical description is a perfectly adequate tone to take in describing terrible events. The victim owes nothing to anybody in how the story is told.

The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt isn’t about a former “mole person” crying and rocking back and forth all day. The best moments are when Kimmy, usually filled with hope and joy, suddenly twists her face while having a flashback. What seems unfathomable to one person is not shocking to another who has dealt with it for five years.

It’s well known that Bergdahl was discharged from the Coast Guard for psychiatric reasons. I assume that will be discussed on a future episode, hopefully more thoughtfully than the “Is Adnan a psychopath?” discussion in season 1. We don’t know that Bergdahl’s mental health condition, if any, played a role in what transpired Afghanistan. Maybe he is no stranger to PTSD and has coping mechanisms that run deep.

I should’ve been careful when I asked for something different, because I think Serial might be really depressing this year. I think it might be exploring how unfair, unproductive, and destructive the military system can be. A young man with troubles makes one dumb mistake under tough conditions, and he paid for it from all sides. The Taliban imprisoned and tortured him. They assumed he was lying about whatever he said. He couldn’t win with them. The Army located him, then blamed him for the effort it took to find him. They took his intel, congratulated him for it, then looked for reasons to lock him up for life.

I took an unfortunate peek at Reddit, and it looks like Bergdahl can’t win with much of the audience either. The responses mostly seem to range from “He’s lying” to “Yeah, okay, he was tortured for five years, but I’m bored.”

I was feeling better after this episode, then I read a quote from Koenig in Vulture about this season:

“I want to say, ‘Nobody read ahead!’ Everyone wait for us to be done. ‘Nobody read anything, just listen to what we do and make your measured, calm judgments.’ But that’s not the world we live in, obviously… Can’t we just wait? I’ll get there, I’ll get there.”

I’m sure Serial Season 2 will be masterfully written, taken as a whole. But this is a very active, pending, prominent case. They’re releasing episodes weekly, while things are happening, in a man’s life.

The Vulture article mentions how there was pressure to have a Serial season debut this year, which explains the odd timing of the first episodes around the holidays and the breaks between episodes. Apparently, the Serial team was still deciding on a story this summer. I wish instead the Serial team had taken their sweet time and Mad Men-ned us with a long overdue but deeply investigated season.

I don’t want to join the growing chorus of people hating on Serial for its flaws, especially as investigative journalism. As long as they keep delivering good episodes like this one and don’t do any damage to the Bergdahl case, then I’ll be happy. (Puh puh puh.)

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

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