In the olden days — that would be the 1300’s — people woke up before dawn to get hammered and see 50 plays they’d seen a dozen times already. Long before that, our ancestors gathered around the fire for stories they could recite as well as you and I can rattle off our favorite “Simpsons” bits. Shakespeare’s audiences knew how his plays would end before they took their seats: if it’s a tragedy, everyone dies; if it’s a comedy, everyone gets married. How predictable, how dry! And yet, look, Shakespeare still gets produced and people still read the “Iliad,” we gluttons for punishment keep trudging back for more of the familiar. What could possibly be the allure?
The answer is simple: a good story is a good story. And a good story, compellingly told, is an even better story. Which brings us to “Serial.”
The second season of the hit podcast has taken a baffling quantity of flack for investigating the saga of Bowe Bergdahl, the soldier who walked off his base in Afghanistan in 2009 and was held by the Taliban for five years. Critics from Slate to the AV Club bemoan the narrative’s lack of any central mystery, arguing that since we know the basic facts of the case — from Bergdahl’s desertion to his return home — the season has no suspense, and cannot possibly live up to the addictive Whodunit nature of its predecessor. There’s no doubting that. Whereas Sarah Koenig, Julie Snyder and the rest of the “Serial” creative team cast serious doubt on the narrative behind Adnan Syed’s conviction in the blockbuster first season, Bergdahl admitted from the get-go that he indeed left his post. There’s no room for a smoking gun here. The man did what everyone says he did, and the story remains open-ended only in that we have yet to see whether he will face life in prison.
But none of this deprives the story of suspense. No great drama should lose its power just because we know where it winds up. We know at every roadblock that the titular team of “Spotlight” will win the day, that Matt Damon won’t be the first man to die on Mars in “The Martian,” that those prisoners will get swapped in “Bridge of Spies.” There’s more to dramatic tension than just making the spectator wonder whether the hero survives or the mystery gets solved.
At its heart, tension is a feeling of pleasurable excitement (or anxiety!) that arises from a state of uncertainty. Maybe that uncertainty is about how a story will end; in fact, okay, it usually is. But there are other, equally valid uncertainties capable of generating equally compelling tension. Forget the how; the real question is why a certain action yields specific consequences? What sacrifices are necessary to get to an end? Can we live with these sacrifices, or our failure to make them? Should we?
These are the issues at play in “Serial,” which hardly makes it groundbreaking territory. “Hamlet” is largely about a moody dude trying to prove his uncle killed his dad, but the detective story would wither without the moral questions he faces at every turn, the gradual blurring of black and white into a formless grey. This is inherently suspenseful, as it surprises us into reconsidering our own ethical convictions just as a poem might surprise us into reconsidering a familiar image — a red wheelbarrow, perhaps, or some sort of raisin in some sort of sun. Yes, I’m talking about the plot-versus-theme dichotomy, and yes, most good stories put the two in delicate equipoise, but my point is that theme can be suspenseful. It may not always be the most commercially-viable sort of suspense — unless you’re, oh, Terrence Malick or David Foster Wallace — but “Serial” is practically forging a new genre, here, and it would be dishonest to fault Koenig & Co. for avoiding convention.
Bergdahl’s no Hamlet, but his story brims with similar moral ambiguity. The fifth episode, “Meanwhile, in Tampa,” illuminates the bureaucratic and geopolitical realities that hobbled efforts to bring him home. The most promising lead came early in his imprisonment, when a family friend managed to contact a Taliban associate willing to trade information for his family’s relocation. No federal agency wanted the burden of looking after them. But it’s not just that the people in charge didn’t care; many of them didn’t even know who Bergdahl was. Only when an intelligence analyst back-channeled with Bergdahl’s father did the case gain high-level attention among military and government officials. The episode is a portrait of bureaucratic inefficacy, but Koenig takes it a step further in her discussion of Colin Rutherford, a Canadian captive released by the Taliban last month. She cops to a common feeling in reaction to this familiar dilemma — that people who get captured in places like the Middle East or North Korea deserve whatever happens to them.
It’s a difficult reaction to reconcile with a nation steeped in yellow ribbons, Support Our Troops, and Leave No Man Behind. This contradictory impulse is the heart of Bergdahl’s story, and also seems to fuel accusations that the show’s second season isn’t up to snuff. Could we subconsciously harbor prejudice against the story because we hold Bergdahl in contempt? He’s far from the first disagreeable protagonist in the history of modern storytelling, and he’s not even that bad. He’s young, reckless, and deluded, sure, but that’s the stuff that makes a complicated character: A decent guy does a bad thing. Does that make him a bad guy? Even if we somehow agree that he deserves everything he got, that itself makes the story so engaging throughout.
Yes, Bergdahl walked off the base. Yes, he got himself kidnapped. The facts are all there; less clear is the extent to which those facts still matter. It’s easy enough to cast blame on Bergdahl, but the harder and more intriguing question surrounds the consequences he should face. “Serial” has yet to spell out the answer to that one. And that’s what makes the story so suspenseful in spite of itself: as a country, we haven’t seen this conflict played out so publicly before. In the absence of clear moral guidelines like “People should only go to prison if there’s enough evidence,” it’s hard to know what to think. But “Serial” isn’t in the business of telling us what to think. It’s in the business of telling stories.