Many thoughts on the season 1 finale of “Serial” coming up just as soon as I use Mail Kimp…
Last month, I noted that the enormous, unprecedented popularity of “Serial” had people viewing it through the lens of a serialized TV drama – heck, I'm even doing a season finale review for a podcast like it was something that just aired on AMC – and wondered if the audience was going to hold this inherently messy true story to the standards of scripted fiction when it came time for the ending. Was Sarah Koenig holding something back from us for all this time? Would there be a definitive ending, or just a poetic meditation on the ambiguous nature of truth? And if it was the latter, would “Serial” fans react with the same outrage that fans of “Lost,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “The Sopranos,” et al did when those shows didn't wrap things up in a neat and tidy bow? As NPR's Linda Holmes put it the other day:
Three days until we find out whether Koenig gets Lindeloffed.
– Linda Holmes (@nprmonkeysee) December 16, 2014
The questions about what kind of ending “Serial” might have grew so pervasive that it led to this wicked Funny or Die parody, with Michaela Watkins as Koenig, featuring the best joke yet about the obsession with both this show and its sponsor, as a Mail Chimp exec exulted, “This child murder has been really great for Mail Crimp!” Even the final episode acknowledged the pressure to stick the landing, with Adnan himself asking Sarah if she had an ending for the podcast, which prompted the show's producer and host to tell us, with some exasperation, that of course she had an ending.
That ending, though, wasn't as definitive as some fans might have asked for, even if it was the best Koenig and “Serial” could do under the circumstances.
Structurally, today's episode was kind of a mess, in a way that couldn't be helped given the ongoing nature of Adnan's appeal – much of that set in motion by the existence and popularity of “Serial” itself. (More on that in a bit.) There was a whole bunch of new information – notably the Innocence Project team's discovery that there could actually have been a serial killer operating in Baltimore at the time of Hae's murder, and that the appeal would now hinge on DNA results – some of it gathered very recently (Sarah only heard from one of Jay's co-workers within the last few weeks), some of it not able to be confirmed until recently. That's just the way this kind of thing goes, and the new developments butted up against the team's desire to wrap up the story now(*), leading to an episode that felt very rushed at certain moments, particularly in the introduction of this new alternate theory, and in Sarah's concluding monologue.
(*) I go back and forth on that decision. On the one hand, Adnan's next appeal happens in January, and that feels like a huge part of the story. On the other, “Serial” was clearly running low on material in the last few episodes before this one, and unless the DNA matches the late would-be serial killer Ronald (which still wouldn't explain how Jay knew where Hae's car was, or many of the other things Jay said and did), the results of the appeal won't change the larger conclusions about guilt and innocence that the show comes to. Maybe there's a bonus epilogue episode at some point to fill the gap between seasons?
But there was also a lot of really strong material here, like producer Dana Chivvis being outed as the Spock of the project, looking at the case from a purely logical standpoint and noting the enormous number of terrible coincidences that would have to have befallen Adnan if he was innocent. Even if Sarah and some of her expert consultants ultimately disagree with this take, it was an important and valuable perspective to put in here, especially giving the thematic notes the season closed on, with Sarah concluding two things:
1)Based on the legal standards of reasonable doubt, and all the contradictory testimony and evidence in the trial, there's no way Adnan should have been convicted of Hae's murder.
2)Sarah couldn't swear that Adnan is innocent, and may never know with 100 percent certainty what happened, but she comes down on the side of his innocence.
The first point is one that I doubt many people who listened to “Serial” would disagree with. The legal case against Adnan was flimsy, his lawyer did a poor job at the second trial, never followed up with Asia about the alibi, etc., etc. The second is at the heart of the thing, and the one where everyone will have their own reaction. My own take aligns more closely with Dana's – that even if Jay lied or was wrong about certain details, too many things point to Adnan's involvement in this (whether as single actor or collaborator with Jay). I haven't spent a year poring over the case files and interviewing witnesses like Sarah, Dana and Julie Snyder have; that's just my takeaway from the last few months of podcasts.
That Koenig disagrees with me doesn't seem unreasonable. The old-school journalistic transparency of “Serial” meant she had to constantly own up to her biases, her jumbled feelings for and about Adnan, and her own limitations as a criminal investigator. She admits at one point in the finale that she and her partners thought the case would be so easy to crack, and they became less and less certain as the year went along, and acknowledges that she could be easily pushed one way or another in her belief, depending on the latest piece of evidence or testimony.
Sarah also noted at various points in the season the impact that the podcast's success had on the investigation, with new witnesses coming out of the woodwork because they had been listening to the show. Here, she tries to argue that the podcast itself is a point in favor of Adnan's innocence, because what guilty man still appealing his conviction would be foolish enough to invite a reporter to dig deep into the case like this, and risk finding evidence of his guilt? I don't know that I agree with that – the Baltimore crime reporting of David Simon is riddled with anecdotes about criminals acting against their own best interest for reasons that defy any logical explanation – but it's yet another way in which the popularity of “Serial” itself wound up altering perceptions of the story “Serial” was telling.
The elusive nature of the case made it impossible for Sarah and her team to get the definitive answer they wanted, or that some fans might have hoped for when they started listening. But I also think that, ultimately, the very messiness of the case, which all the experts talked about in the finale, is what made “Serial” such a compelling listen. If Adnan were clearly an innocent man who was railroaded due to racial profiling, a friend acting in bad faith, etc., then “Serial” season 1 isn't a mystery. It's a legal procedural, and one where the producers could have gone down some of the paths they did here (trying to disprove Jay's timeline, for instance), but ultimately a very different show, and without those basic narrative hooks: Did Adnan really do it? If not, who? How and why did this all happen? A more straightforward case gives you a definitive conclusion – even if the appeals process doesn't go in the subject's favor – but I suspect it also prevents “Serial” from turning into the phenomenon that it did.
We can keep holding “Serial” to the standards of a scripted crime drama – and the bit about how often Sarah was swayed about the case made her sound very much like another Sarah, gullible “The Killing” cop Sarah Linden, who always believed with 100% certainty whatever theory of the crime was suggested by the very last thing she learned – but this was non-fiction. You can try picking over every word said as having the same level of weight and meaning as theatrical dialogue – parsing, say, the pause Adnan makes as he says of the idea of certainty of his guilt or innocence, “The only person in the whole world who can have that is me… and, for what it's worth, whoever did it.” – but that's not how this works. This is a true, complicated, tragic story, without the neatness we expect from the likes of “Breaking Bad” or “The Shield.”
The show couldn't invent an ending, but had to build one around the facts on hand – which meant that the only reasonable conclusion to this season was for Sarah to invoke a TV cop of a much older vintage, “Dragnet” hero Joe Friday, and say that she no longer wants people to tell her speculative theories, but, “Just tell me the facts, ma'am, because we didn't have them 15 years ago, and we still don't have them now.”
It was the best ending we could have gotten under the circumstances, and one that takes nothing away from the pleasure I got listening to “Serial” over the last three months.
What did everybody else think? Did you expect or want more closure? Where did “Serial” leave you on the question of Adnan's guilt or innocence? Would you want “Serial” season 2 to be another crime investigation, or would you rather Koenig and company go in a completely different direction?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org