By the time Serial Season Two debuted its second episode this morning, events on the ground had already overtaken it. The Army announced on Monday that Bowe Bergdahl will be court-martialed for desertion and “misbehavior before the enemy,” a serious charge that could earn him a life sentence. Sarah Koenig spent the opening minutes of the podcast detailing this turn of events—an outcome that both the Army as an institution and hawks like Sen. John McCain have backed for some time, but which, she says, flies in the face of the opinions of officials who’ve gotten to know Bergdahl personally. For the purposes of Serial, though, the decision is largely immaterial, since it will likely be weeks before we reach this point in the narrative Koenig and company have constructed.
That disconnect is revealing. When presented a choice between focusing on the facts at hand and wandering back into its rambling slow-reveal structure, Serial chooses the latter every time. No wonder the show settled on Bergdahl for its subject this season: When it comes to wild schemes that leave you lost in the wilderness, no closer to the truth you set out to expose, they’ve got something in common.
Entitled “The Golden Chicken,” after a member of the Taliban’s description for their one-in-a-million prisoner, this week’s installment focuses on Bergdahl’s capture by the enemy and the American military’s massive initial attempts to find and free him. It spends time wandering through Bergdahl’s hazy memories of that time period—a clumsy escape attempt, an inability to properly communicate with his captors, the experience of being blindfolded almost all the time. It shares colorful details about the hardships faced by the soldiers hunting for him around the clock with no time to rest or re-equip: shit-stained pants, rotting socks, disintegrating underwear, low morale, high risk. And it briefly, too briefly, explains the number-one difficulty facing the Americans during their quixotic quest: The Army’s counterinsurgency doctrine depended on winning the hearts and minds of the populace, gaining intimate knowledge of the enemy, and unraveling the “web” of connections between different segments of a society as complex as any other, all in a country where no American spends more than a year at a time.
But this last bit is mentioned almost in passing; more time is spent on the question of whether or not Bergdahl was in a nomad’s tent when he was captured. On this point, Koenig remains characteristically agnostic—“probably we’re not going to get to the bottom of it,” she announces helpfully—noting the uniformity of Taliban accounts but also pointing out they’ve alleged Bergdahl went AWOL to score drugs or meet a woman or because he was drunk. But those are the kind of lies and exaggerations any soldier might tell about a captured enemy. Why on earth would they care whether or not he was in a tent when they nabbed him? Of the two sides of this particular story, only one has reason to lie about whether Bergdahl was wandering alone through the desert as he’s always claimed or attempting to make contact with locals of dubious loyalty, and it isn’t the Taliban.
Even more notable is what remains completely undiscussed: the specifics of the allegations Bergdahl has leveled against his commanders. After all, their supposed abuse or misuse of authority caused him to concoct his plan to go on the run in order to draw attention to in the first place. A more conventional journalist would get to those charges and the facts behind them as quickly as possible, since determining whether Bergdahl’s motive held water would also help listeners sort out the truth of the rest of his tale. Koenig has held off, first emphasizing a desire to “get inside Bergdahl’s head,” then focusing on the chaos of his capture and the search and rescue attempts. It’s all frosting and no cake.
And the frosting’s not evenly applied. Once again, Koenig spends an inordinate amount of time on the scatological plight of the American soldier in Afghanistan, though she at least fleshes out the diarrhea stuff by discussing the great physical risk, and the undermining of attempts to win over the locals, inherent in the Army’s hastily organized, all-hands-on-deck, round-the-clock search of every town and village. But her characterization of her own audience’s reaction to this is frankly bizarre. “Cry me a river,” she imagines us saying. “They’re soldiers, and it’s war, and this is what they signed up for.”
She’s right to imagine objections, but the emphasis is all wrong. No one can blame soldiers for hating such a strenuous, dangerous duty, especially one that’s ultimately futile since Bergdahl had long since been removed to relative safety in Taliban-held Pakistan. Koenig, however, advances three false premises back to back: First, that it’s shocking to hear that war is hell; second, that we’d lack sympathy with those forced to experience it; third, that this hell does not extend to the people who live in this country, who have no home overseas to return to every seven to twelve months, in any way worth discussing. Detailing the harsh conditions for the American troops wanders too far away from the central story she should be telling—Bergdahl’s story, from start to finish—yet it also doesn’t wander far enough, stopping short of both the toxic underlying assumptions that got us there and the reaction of the Afghans themselves. (No, calling the Taliban on the phone doesn’t cut it.)
The result is a warped vision that consistently portrays the local population as backwards, naive, and alien. At different times during the episode, we learn that Bergdahl’s captors had likely never seen an American, a non-Muslim, or a drunk person; that his pale skin and blue eyes made him an object of fascination and possibly fear; that part of what made the Taliban so frightening is that they conduct public executions and won’t hesitate to kill prisoners (Laquan McDonald and Freddie Gray were unavailable for comment); that they were rilling to risk losing dozens of fighters to hold Bergdahl because as an American prisoner “he was worth more than 5,000 individuals.” But we also consistently hear how terrifying it was for Bergdahl to be a stranger in a strange land, how he clumsily aped local fashions in an attempt to blend in, how his fellow soldiers were so pissed off they were ready to kill him if they found him, and how the entire American military stopped everything else it was doing, up to and including hunting for Osama Bin Laden, and risk the lives of thousands to find him, because that’s how much value they placed on a single soldier. The ignorance, the culture shock, the violence, the prizing of some lives above others—these are universal human attributes, but they’re ignored or excused when Americans display them and emphasized among the other side.
If you want to address this, and let’s give Koenig the benefit of the doubt that she eventually does, you simply can’t tell this story in Serial’s blind-men-feeling-the-elephant style, doling out bits of information in chunks until a larger, clearer picture emerges. It’s your responsibility to make the picture clear from the start.