Does Bowe Bergdahl have blood on his hands? Yes—his own. “Present for Duty,” the eleventh and—surprise!—final episode of Serial’s second season, begins with a flashback to the day he flamed out of Coast Guard boot camp. Spurred on by hearing about the incident on the podcast, several of his fellow recruits recall a far more intense version than the one recounted either by Bergdahl or the military and medical authorities. To hear them tell it, this was no mere panic attack, but a full-blown smash-your-face-into-the-mirror meltdown, leaving Bergdahl a bloody mess on the floor when he was found. How the hell, do they wonder, did this guy wind up in another branch of the military, under pressure-cooker conditions an order of magnitude worse than the ones that nearly drove him insane already?
Last episode, Sarah Koenig promised that this installment would get to the bottom of the story’s central mystery, one the military itself appears to have made a considered decision not to solve: Did the search for Sgt. Bergdahl cost any of his fellow soldiers their lives? With that in mind, the return to Bowe’s Coast Guard crash-and-burn seems like a digression, if not a diversion. And sure enough, Koenig returns to the meat of the matter soon enough—tracking down the sources of popular casualty claims (the most common number of soldiers killed while hunting their AWOL comrade is six), speaking with people who were on some of the relevant missions, attempting to ascertain why Afghanistan was scoured for his presence for so long after his location in Pakistan was both conventional wisdom and common knowledge.
Her answers aren’t the red meat Bergdahl’s harshest detractors are likely hoping for. As best as her team can determine, no one died as direct result of being sent on a mission specifically ordered on Bergdahl’s behalf. Rather, since the hunt was an “umbrella” over every mission—an “oh yeah, if you see something, say something” issued with every day’s instructions—soldiers died under Bergdahl’s penumbra. Others may, to a limited extent, have used the search as an excuse to properly fund and equip otherwise unrelated missions they already wanted to undertake, though Koenig uncovers little evidence for this. The focus on fatalities may obscure consequences nearly as dire—one soldier on a straight-up search mission lost his ability to walk and talk, and he was far from the only injury—but in theory, at least, Bergdahl can be cleared of the most grievous charge against him in the court of public opinion.
But there’s more to consider here. The DUSTWUN Bowe triggered cost a ton of resources and caused a great deal of suffering (not least for Bowe himself), and for that he should be punished. Certainly the portrait that emerged of him as a samurai wannabe is not a particularly endearing one, and this dopey set of ideas had real-world consequences for thousands of people. He may deserve punishment, Koenig says, though she obviously holds out the possibility that his time with the Taliban was punishment enough. But does he deserve blame?
To pin the tail of guilt on Bergdahl leaves an awful lot of jackasses roaming around with their hindquarters un-pinned, camouflaged in the undergrowth of plausible deniability and endless variables. Koenig cites several missions in which multiple soldiers died, in which their deaths might have been avoided had their units been given their requested access to surveillance drones and other supplies that had been diverted to the Bergdahl search. But is that Bowe’s fault, or the fault of the Army for not having enough equipment? Of the commanding officers (like gravel-voiced Ken Wolfe, who blames himself for one such death and emerges as a voice of moderation regarding Bergdahl’s culpability) who ordered the missions to go forward anyway? What about Defense Secretary Robert Gates, or Gen. Stanley McChrystal, or President Obama? What about the Taliban themselves, as one bereaved parent points out? And finally, to bring it back home, what about the armed forces, who let a man unfit for duty enlist despite his previous, proven inability to serve? Meanwhile, other soldiers who fled their bases—including one who did so with a ceremonial sword and battle ax in an attempt to reach Eastern Europe on foot, in an echo of Bergdahl’s he-man Last Warrior routine—escaped punishment entirely, because they were intercepted by allies rather than enemies. Is it fair to take Bergdahl’s failure out on him? To single out Bergdahl for his link in the chain is to let an awful lot involved parties off the hook.
These are questions worth asking. But with Serial’s second season now entirely in the rearview mirror, it’s clear they weren’t worth asking in this format, for this long. Koenig’s closing statement was strong—at least until it drifted off into epiphanic NPR territory, ending on Bergdahl recalling a night during captivity when he felt at one with the universe. But the months of preamble were weak and often dull. They held back critical information for no apparent reason but a failed attempt at surprise and suspense. They spent unnecessary hours getting to the bottom of Bergdahl—a very short trip indeed. Their structure forced their content to contort to its strictures, rather than the other way around. For all its faults, Serial Season One was a promising hybrid of journalism and entertainment, utilizing the frontier medium of podcasts and accessing the same addictive qualities as the serialized drama. In Season Two, that promise wandered off base, perhaps never to return.