The ridiculously addictive Serial podcast “tells one story — a true story — over the course of a season,” a season in which host Sarah Koenig and you, the listener, “follow a plot and characters wherever they take us.” The low-key, exploratory approach screams NPR, and neither Koenig nor Serial make any attempt to hide this fact, even when the show tackles a high-profile subject like Bowe Bergdahl, the Army deserter who was captured and held by the Taliban in Afghanistan for five years. The first episode, “DUSTWUN,” was released on Thursday, and a few Uproxx writers have lots of thoughts about what it suggests about the show’s format and Bergdahl’s story.
Dariel: I think one of the first things to remember or to keep cognizant of is that Serial — like many forms of storytelling — comes with inherent twists and turns in the narrative. Listeners will undoubtedly have suppositions early on in the aural journey, and it’s best to keep it as that, as opposed to cemented ideas on what the real truth is. I know that sounds a little abstract, but from what I gleaned after listening to the first season, it’s the best way to approach the series.
Andrew: Kudos for using the word “aural.” And yes, suppositions will fly from readers and Koenig alike, but I’m curious as to how one major difference between Bergdahl’s story and the first season’s focus on Adnan Syed will play out in this regard. That is, Syed’s trial was over and done with — whereas Bergdahl’s legal proceedings are ongoing. It’s easy to suppose things when court decisions have been made, but what about when they’re still in-process? Cue the NPR listener-cum-detective hordes.
Charles: That Koenig has chosen to embark on this investigative report while Bergdahl’s fate is still up the air might just elevate this from journalism to vigilante justice; she played both lawyers, judge, and jury when poking through Adnan’s trial in season one, taking it upon herself to get Adnan a fair shake from the legal system. And though the popularity of Serial would earn that ruling a closer look, Koenig has the capacity to actively affect the outcome of this trial. At this point, I start to wonder: Is this too much power for a journalist to wield, even one with the scruples and hypnotically uninflected voice of Koenig?
Dariel: You make an excellent point there, Charles, and to that, I think we should also take into account what the motivations might be with the various voices telling the story this season. Koenig and NPR are producing this narrative with the help of filmmaker Mark Boal, who’s using interviews and material gathered during the investigation to construct a movie. Because of that, I tend to think that we might not get the whole story during this season, with the film acting as a sort of second part of season two, especially since the events are still playing out. If that’s the case, will Boal hold back some of his research in order to bolster his own project?
Andrew: I guess it depends on the kind of film Boal wants to make. Koenig stressed that he and his production team’s reporting was done not so much to ascertain the “truth” of Bergdahl’s story, but the “why.” So, it seems Boal is less interested in Bergdahl as a person-he-can-support than an artistic muse. (So far, at least.) Then again, this still begs the question as to what Koenig’s motivation is in deciding to tell this particular story. One of the things that rubbed me the wrong way about Serial’s first season was the fans’ insistence that they, too, were helping to solve the case, whether that meant condemning Syed further or freeing him from an unjust conviction. Koenig’s positioning as “lawyers, judge, and jury” fueled that, and I suspect it will happen again with season two.
Charles: Serial’s first season was, at its core, a whodunit (even if we never did learn who dunned it). By its very nature, these types of narratives invite audiences to play detective and follow along to sleuth out the real culprit. That’s all good fun, but the listeners in the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area who took it upon themselves to get out into the world and start snooping for real (I’m referring mostly to the bustling efforts from Reddit to get to the bottom of this before Koenig could) are an entirely different kettle of fish. There’s a reason journalists are journalists and other people aren’t. Meticulous research, fact-checking, consulting with sources close to the story — these are the elements that make for a well-assembled report, and Koenig has experience with them. Jamokes on Twitter do not. So, our girl S.K. occupies a strange middle-zone, not as authoritative as an actual court, but certainly more qualified than the lugnuts with a camera-phone and consuming need to be able to post “FIRST!” on the solution to a hot-button murder investigation.
Dariel: The voice of the story is one thing, certainly, but the subject is another. What are your first impressions of Bergdahl? He’s seems like a divisive character.
Andrew: In terms of first impressions, I find it difficult to gauge him without passing some kind of judgment. Not so much because of the politicized press his rescue initially received, but because this is just the first episode. It’s just too early to tell. Then again, his excuse for why he deserted his post in the first place — wanting to force a DUSTWUN, thereby calling out the army, the rest of the military, and so on — is… It’s weird. He says he wanted to bring attention to major command issues, but all that anyone has focused on — both in the press and with Serial’s story selection — is his disappearance, release and the resulting political fallout. It’s selfish, and he doesn’t seem to mind that at all.
Dariel: The thing that grabbed me is when he said he wanted to be like Jason Bourne in his actions — that it’s, basically, the ultimate pinnacle to be mentioned in the same sphere as a fictional character. I think that says something quite profound about who Bowe is and the type of person he either sees himself as or wants to be perceived as. There’s something frightening about that.
Before we sign off here, though, we have to address the elephant in the digital space: that phone call at the end of the episode.
Charles: Serial wouldn’t be as popular as it is if it wasn’t also roundly entertaining, and Sarah Koenig casually inserting “This is me, calling the Taliban” right before the episode concluded might just have the most dramatic heft of any Serial moment thus far. It’s a great line, almost surreal in how ordinary Koenig can make establishing contact with America’s foremost enemies sound. Big journalistic gets on this level, like John Oliver’s jaw-dropping sit-down with Edward Snowden or Laura Poitras’ paranoiac Snowden documentary Citizenfour, make for nice reminders of how gripping dogged reportage can be.