‘Of Course I Have An Ending’: On The First Season Finale Of ‘Serial’

Note: Spoilers ahead. If you don’t want to find out how Serial ended the final episode of its first season, stop reading here. Shoo. Scram.

The funny thing about Serial is that most of the concerns about achieving closure at the end seemed to be getting ahead of the issue. Like, I heard a lot of “people are gonna be so pissed if there’s no answer at the end” or “people are gonna flip if they pull a Lost in the finale,” but surprisingly little “I’m gonna be pissed if there’s no answer at the end” or “I’m gonna flip if they pull a Lost in the finale.” It’s like everyone is so conditioned to outrage over ambiguity — The Sopranos being the most notable example — that they’re already bracing for a flood of furious responses that hasn’t materialized yet (and may never materialize). I’ve done it, too. It’s a weird place to be.

Which brings us to the final episode of the first season of Serial. It turns out that even the subject of the investigation, Adnan Sayed, was concerned that creator Sarah Koenig might not have an ending. Not to worry. “Of course I have an ending. We’re gonna come to an ending today,” Koenig assured the audience. And come to ending she did. Whether you liked it or not is up to you.

First things first: Yes, of course the first season of Serial ended somewhat ambiguously. It became pretty clear that’s where we were headed by the third or fourth episode, and by the end it had kind of become the point. The case was interesting because there were so many questions surrounding it and so many things that felt two or three degrees away from where they should have been. Couple that with the fact that this is a 15 year old case being investigated more or less in real time, and the odds of it being wrapped up swiftly and smoothly with a dramatic reveal in the final moments were a long shot at best. Would it have been cool if Koenig did the audio equivalent of pulling the mask off of one of the players to reveal old Mr. Jenkins from the haunted amusement park as the real culprit, a la Scooby-Doo? Well, yeah. And she sort of did, with the help of Deirdre and her class, who identified a now-deceased career criminal with a track record of similar crimes as another suspect, and are seeking DNA samples to flesh the theory out. But more than that, at this point, was probably never going to happen.

And with all that to consider, Koenig went the only way she could have with the conclusion. After an episode spent laying out all the evidence again, as well as re-examining some of it from a with a more informed pair of eyes, she said this:

“As a juror, I vote to acquit Adnan Sayed. I have to acquit. Even if, in my heart of hearts, I think Adnan killed Hae, I still have to acquit. That’s what the law requires of jurors. But, I’m not a juror. So just as a human being walking down the street next week, what do I think? If you asked me to swear that Adnan Sayed is innocent, I couldn’t do it. I nurse doubt. I don’t like that I do, but I do. I mean, most of the time, I think he didn’t do it, for big reasons like the utter lack of evidence, but also small reasons. Things he’s said to me just of the cuff, or moments when he’s cried on the phone and tried to stifle it so I wouldn’t hear. And just the bare fact of, why on Earth would a guilty man agree to let me do this story, unless he was cocky to the point of delusion?

“I used to think that when Adnan’s friends told me ‘I can’t say for sure that he did this… but the guy I knew, there’s no way he coulda done this.’ I used to think that was a cop out, a way to avoid asking yourself uncomfortable, disloyal, disheartening questions. But I think I’m there now, too, and not for lack of asking myself those hard questions. Because, as much as I want to be sure, I am not.”

The important thing to remember in all of this, and the primary difference between Serial and your aforementioned Lost and Sopranoses, is that this was never Koenig’s story to tell. It was Hae’s and Adnan’s and Jay’s and everyone else’s that was involved. She was just reporting it. (From her perspective, but still.) It got a little easy to forget that sometimes as we all got wrapped up in the twists and turns, but it was definitely very real. Sometimes uncomfortably real. And since it was real, she didn’t have the luxury of options that storytellers like David Chase or Damon Lindelof had, including wrapping it all up neatly if she saw fit. Doing that in the face of conflicting evidence would have been irresponsible and unfair to both the suspect and the victim.

It’s not like this is all over, either. Koenig’s part is, sure. But Adnan still has an appeal pending, and a class full of law students poking around the DNA evidence, and a lot of people now looking into a case that was always a little murky. We still don’t know if he did it. He may have. We might never know. But maybe that’s not the takeaway here. Maybe, in the end, Serial wasn’t about the answers. It was about asking the questions.