Blogging Serial, Season 2 — Eps 1 and 2: The Koenig Charm Offensive

By Justine Barron

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Serial is back! After what I went through with the first season of Serial, I wasn’t sure if I would appreciate another year of the Sarah Koenig charm offensive, pulling me into obsession over somewhat misdirected drama.

It turns out, I don’t mind! I love it.

I enjoyed season 1 of Serial, of course. I’m not a heartless monster. A bloody, interracial teenage love triangle set in Baltimore in the 1990s? A middle-aged woman discussing class notes, break-ups, and overlapping cliques? Prison phone calls? That all amounted to ten kinds of high Q-rating.

What frustrated me about Serial was trying to figure out the facts about this real thing that happened. Nothing on record made sense, and Koenig’s manner of storytelling didn’t help. According to Serial, a young Adnan Syed possibly strangled his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, when she gave him a ride after-school, in under a half-hour, but this was not counting the 20-plus-minute drive time to Best Buy, of all places, to show off her body to a guy named Jay Wilds. Adnan was very nice and universally well regarded, but just maybe he was a psychopath. And he was not at all good friends with Jay, but he did lend Jay his car and phone… and they went to the mall together to buy a birthday present for Jay’s girlfriend, astuffed animal. And Jay helped Adnan bury his dead ex-girlfriend, but he lied and changed his story several times. But he must have known something, because he knew where to find the body and car.

This much confusion stopped being fun for me. I required at least an Act 3 resolution. It never happened during Serial.

Koenig’s storytelling process during season 1 involved building assumptions, turning them over and questioning them, then approaching them from another angle. A great example was when she wondered about the testimony of “Mr. S.,” the witness who discovered Lee’s body. She posited the question of how far into the woods he would’ve had to walk in order to see her body. So I started to doubt Mr. S.’s account. Then, Koening visited the site, and it wasn’t actually that far! There was no need to doubt Mr. S.

Another example was the Best Buy telephone. Jay said that Adnan called him from that phone, but nobody could remember a phone in Best Buy. It was not in the construction plans. Or was it? Wait. There may have been a phone.

The audience hardly had a chance to build our own assumptions, and we couldn’t figure out the whole truth.

On the recent season of the Real Housewives of Orange County, the producers kept the audience guessing about whether or not Vicki Gunvalson’s unfortunate boyfriend had cancer. The producers knew that he was a con artist, but they dragged out the mystery, because they needed a show.

Koenig is a better artist than the Housewives producers, but she likewise trafficked in unknowability and teasing. “Omigod, you guys. I heard this rumor. If it’s true, like woah, game over. I wish I could tell you, but I can’t. Sorry.” (This is a paraphrase of something she actually said at one point, but it’s very close). For months, during and after listening to Serial, I would arrive at some level of certainty about Adnan’s innocence and then wake up in a sweat, thinking, “Oh God. What if he’s guilty? What have we all done??”

Then, I started listening to Undisclosed: The State vs. Adnan Syed, the most popular of the Serial spin-off podcasts. The hosts are three attorneys who have taken the time to study the Serial case as if it were their own. Their work has blown Adnan’s case open and contributed to him probably getting a new trial.

This Undisclosed podcast does go deep into the facts— so deep sometimes that it works most effectively as a sleep-aid. It’s not so much gripping as informative. After listening to Undisclosed, I no longer am trying to determine if a viable theory is that Jay killed Hae because she saw him cheating on Stephanie with Jen. Instead, I’m furious at a disgusting system of corrupt cops and greedy lawyers that ruined so many young lives.

“What’s the deal with Jay?” Koenig asked during Serial. Undisclosed’s sister episode was titled “The Deals with Jay.” It revealed Jay’s plea arrangement to avoid his own prosecution. He would’ve been tried as an adult and sentenced to murder.

I’m not confused anymore: Jay was coached by the police. His story was made up to fit the prosecutor’s narrative based on the cell data analysis. My favorite moment of Jay’s official testimony, after secret, unrecorded meetings: When the cops ask Jay to repeat what color tights Hae was wearing in the trunk, he was led to answer, “Uh, taupe. Yeah. Taupe.” The police wanted us to believe that your average 21-year old straight male with tattoos, who worked in a porn shop, knew “taupe” from “mauve” from a car part.

Also, Undisclosed proved that the cell phone data wasn’t close to reliable. Even AT&T said as much, in a cover sheet that Adnan’s terrible lawyer failed to read. There has been so much more. I am grateful for the sweet clarity of pro-bono lawyers.

All of this information was available to the Serial producers. I don’t know why they didn’t share it. The most cynical reason is that it made the case too easy, taking away from the drama of guilt or innocence. More likely, Koenig was protecting the team legally from any claims of bias. Another possibility is that she didn’t look that deeply. She is more of a storyteller than an investigator.

Season 2 of Serial is about the very current, well-known story of Bowe Bergdahl, who deserted his post in Afghanistan and was captured by the Taliban for five years. So, there would seem to be a Serial formula: Young man faces serious criminal charges; he might not be a bad guy; or he might be the worst! I started listening to season 2 as if I were meeting up with an ex-lover who used to manipulate me — at arm’s length, not wanting to get burned again. I hoped that I wouldn’t end up so confused and frustrated this time.

A few minutes in, and I didn’t care! Serial can hold me in its gorgeous, manipulative arms forever. All of the season 1 tricks are back. Already in the first two episodes, we are made to feel like it could go either way with Bergdahl. Episode 1 roots for him; episode 2 creates doubt. There are already tons of uncertainties. Did he, or didn’t he leave a note before deserting his post? He definitely did, says one soldier. “I definitely didn’t,” says Bergdahl.

The new season is so reminiscent of Season 1 that it could almost be Woodlawn High School’s production of “Afghanistan, the War!” In the place of Stephanie, Jay, Aisha, Asia, and “not her real name Kathy,” we have “Josh and Ben and another Ben and a guy I’m calling Scott — it’s not his real name…” In the place of the pulpy teen romance genre, we have pulpy wartime adventure.

I’m not mad at the genre tricks, because the first episode is so well written. We learn that the soldiers of “OP Mest” have to burn their poop and move it around in the fire, and it’s all we need to establish time and place. Even Koenig’s description of a video that I’ve seen a dozen times makes it feel new to me. Again, so much of the fun comes from hearing this middle-aged, bookish white woman perform as a fish-out-of-water. “Dudes, I’m calling the Taliban!” she says at the end of the episode, and that is a very modest paraphrase. Koenig’s own character reminds me of Detective Columbo dealing with psychics or magicians.

My favorite season 2 moment so far is when we first hear Bergdahl’s voice: “Naturally I have a very large sense of humor,” he says to Mark Boal, his interviewer. Then Mark lets him know, “Even with me, you don’t crack many jokes.” It’s the perfect introduction to an elusive guy who may or may not understand himself. What’s the deal with Bergdahl? I’m sold.

Bergdahl has charming moments, but he isn’t as immediately likeable as Adnan was. One of the biggest criticisms of Serial season 1 was that Koenig was too smitten with Syed. That wasn’t my criticism. I loved it. Koening pursued him, begged for his help, laughed at his jokes. Then it all built to that moment, at the end, when Syed asked, “Why do you care?” and Koening replied, “Oh Adnan, it’s you. You’re my reason. It’s always been you!” (Very paraphrased.)

So far, this season doesn’t seem as much to be the Koening show. As she uses interview tape from the filmmaker Mark Boal, she has no direct contact with her subject. This might’ve been a conscious choice to move away from the intimacy of season 1, but I’ll miss it.

Koenig keeps promising that the season is going to be just as amazing as season 1. Bergdahl is one of the most interesting people she’s ever encountered! This case is such a puzzle it requires a metaphor from a children’s book!

My hope that it doesn’t merely live up to season 1 but offers something else entirely. I hope that Bergdahl turns out not to be the best guy, a true patriot, or the worst guy, a traitor, but just really, really weird. I’m hoping that there’s even more of Koenig, not less. I hope we hear more about her kids, which she mentions in the first episode, and maybe how she once dated an Afghani and took Lexapro. I hope that by the end, she hires some private investigators and digs up some stuff on a general that changes the game…

Otherwise, if it remains a game of mysterious facts that don’t add up. I will worry too much about real people. Indeed, immediately after episode 1 aired, the Army issued more serious charges against Bergdahl.

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

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