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‘Serial’ Season 2 Is Better than You Remember and an Unexpected Time Capsule Worth Revisiting

A few years removed from impossibly high expectations, the podcast's telling of Bowe Bergdahl's capture and return still stands as a valuable lesson about facts and context.

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WBEZ/This American Life

When “Serial” Season 2 entered the last week of its 11-episode run, one of its central closing questions was, “Can we prove that anyone died in the search for Bowe Bergdahl?” In trying to determine the answer, host Sarah Koenig spoke to a high-ranking military official about the circumstances surrounding the rescue mission to recover the Army Private kidnapped by the Taliban in 2009 and returned home after five years in captivity.

This high-ranking military official, contrary to the record of any official military investigation, states unequivocally that the effort to bring back Bergdahl cost the lives of American soldiers. He gets combative when Koenig presses him on details. She asks him about the decision to continue the search for Bergdahl in Afghanistan when a number of signs pointed to him being held in Pakistan. He takes a legitimate question about the burden of proof in military intelligence and uses it as an opportunity to push back against a journalistic inquiry.

That last episode of the season was released on March 31, 2016. That high-ranking military official’s name was Michael Flynn.

Though that final episode was released just two and a half years ago, this telling interaction is just one instance of how “Serial” Season 2 now exists in a far more different context than when it was first produced. Flynn is just one name that carries a much different connotation now than it did in the early days of 2016. Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and even Duncan Hunter (who sought to amend U.S. hostage policy around the same time he was misusing campaign funds), all play a part in the retelling of the Bergdahl saga.

At the time (and, anecdotally since then) “Serial” Season 2 was seen as somewhat of a misstep among fans. The story of Adnan Syed in Season 1, which had vaulted the show to mega-popularity the year before, had been framed around a guilty/innocent binary. Though the show eventually arrived at a non-definitive answer, “Serial” helped springboard a true crime cottage industry podcast that built on listeners’ amateur sleuth penchant for dissecting and discussing the tiniest details of any individual case.

But almost instantly, Bergdahl’s story seemed built around a fundamentally different “Why?” that evolved in several different directions: why Bergdahl left his post, why his various escape attempts were unsuccessful, why the U.S. opted to send five Guantanamo Bay detainees in exchange for Bergdahl, why his return became a significant political issue.

The ultimate legacy of “Serial” Season 2, in a similar way to its inaugural season, is the difficulty of finding any certainty in any of these answers. This one story became enmeshed in a wartime landscape that existed in the shadow decades (centuries, even) of cultural, religious, and geopolitical history. It was impossible to ascribe definitive intent to the actions of one person, at least without an overview of Bergdahl’s story that even went beyond his military service.

With testimonials from men Bergdahl served with, to a reporter who knows the inner workings of the Guantanamo Bay facility better than some military officials do, Koenig, producer Dana Chivvis and the rest of the “Serial” team dug into the prelude to and aftermath of a crisis. What they found had value not just in offering insight into a single decision, but looking at how the ripples from that single action can inform how we process information. In a story that, by Koenig’s own on-mic admission, certain details can’t be fact-checked, “Serial” became a precursor to a mammoth shift in public attitudes to what can and can’t be constituted as absolute truth.

Julie Snyder_Sarah Koenig_Ira Glass (Credit Sandy Honig)

Julie Snyder, Sarah Koenig, and Ira Glass

Sandy Honig

One person whose actions that “Serial” recognized but could never have fully anticipated the scope of was the GOP presidential nominee who at the time was using Bergdahl’s return as campaign stump fodder. A Trump clip appeared in the series’ opening credits. The penultimate episode draws an implicit connection between demonizing Bergdahl at rallies and the quick politicization of the uncertainty around what had actually transpired.

If “Serial” Season 2 felt circuital, part of that seems by design. Looping back around the details of Bergdahl’s kidnapping, zooming in and out at strategic points for microscopic and global views buttresses the idea that all of them are key when looking at the ramifications of what happened. Understanding Bergdahl’s Coast Guard training years before enlisting in the Army is just as crucial to processing his decisions as looking at large-scale diplomacy efforts across Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Those efforts help to underline another idea that runs through Season 2: Words can sometimes be just as important as actions. Bergdahl describes in taped interviews the shortcomings of translating between the Pashto of his captors and his own responses. Discussion over the single term “Islamic Emirate” comprises a significant portion of the “Serial” overview of regional diplomatic talks. Susan Rice’s use of the phrase “honor and distinction” on a Sunday news show is cited as a significant motivating factor for many military servicemen — some Bergdahl’s colleagues — to be vocal and public in their pushback to the official White House response to Bergdahl’s return.

Even when it comes to answering that question posed at the top, to what extent Bergdahl is responsible for what happened during the efforts to find and rescue him, the subtlety of asserting the truth in certain situations comes down to key distinctions. Koenig delineates between punishment and blame when looking at the human cost of the search. When Mark Boal (whose interview tapes formed a major part of piecing together these disparate narratives) asks Koenig whether or not she thinks Bergdahl is lying, there’s a very long pause. Within that silence, there’s a great parsing of everything that the show takes nearly nine hours to unspool. Speaking with authority, particularly when it comes to the inner workings of someone’s mind, is not a responsibility to be taken in haste.

It’s one that also bears out in the show’s spiritual descendants. “S-Town” took advantage of the podcast form to reframe one man’s journey in a way that eschewed stereotypes of similar stories. APM’s “In the Dark” has taken a big-picture look at the American judicial system, even while retracing the details of multiple decades-old felony cases. The recently released Season 2 of the Netflix show “American Vandal” took a similar risky step in trading in an easier-to-digest, season-long question for a wider consideration of what’s really at the show’s heart. Hopefully, when “Serial” returns for its third season later this week — this time, highlighting a year inside a Cleveland courthouse — it can maintain that same thorough passion.

We’re now in a media environment that incentivizes speed and sensation over thoroughness and nuance. The value of “Serial” isn’t in the length of the investigation, it’s in the volume of perspective. For a show that soared in listenership due in part to the inherent draw of a murder mystery, the show has an admirable meticulous devotion to context. In some ways, March 31, 2016 sometimes feels like ancient history. But “Serial” still stands out as something worth going back for.

“Serial” Season 3 premieres Thursday, September 20.

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