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Serial recap: Explaining the psychological, physical ordeals of captivity and torture

After taking a week off during the New Year’s holiday, Serial is back with its fourth episode. Fortunately, it was only a one-week hiatus because if it had been longer, I wonder if people would have begun to realize that they didn’t miss the show that much.

Did you think about Serial — or more specifically, the Bowe Bergdahl case — during the holidays? Compare that to last year, when people freaked out because there wasn’t an episode over the Thanksgiving holiday. We’d have to wait two weeks for the next one? But that gave some (like me) an opportunity to catch up on what I’d been missing. More importantly, it provided all of us with a chance to talk with friends or see what was being said online about the Adnan Syed case.

One year later, most of the talk about Serial seems to be about whether the show is as good or satisfying as season one.

The circumstances surrounding Hae Min Lee’s murder and Syed’s conviction and incarceration made for great weekly soap opera. The story took place in high school. There was young love, along with all of the joy, confusion and heartache that comes with it. The cast, if you will, included memorable characters like Jay the drug dealer, his girlfriend Stephanie, the two police detectives investigating the case, the guy who discovered the body, along with several other people who provided helpful or false information.

Most importantly, Sarah Koenig’s investigation was building toward a conclusion. It was reality TV in podcast form.

Does season two have that same kind of pull? I would argue it’s equally compelling, but for obviously far different reasons. We could relate to the events taking place in the Syed case. (Well, for the most part. Not all of us had pot dealer friends. Maybe I was a sheltered teenager.) But everything going on with Bergdahl is literally in another country. Being in the military is a foreign enough experience for many of us. But being kidnapped and held captive by the Taliban? That is a completely harrowing, alien existence to everyone by a very select, unfortunate few.

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Episode four begins with Koenig reminding us that everything we’d heard about Bergdahl leaving his post in Afghanistan, his dissatisfaction with his commanding officers, being captured by the Taliban and his imprisonment took place within the first year of his ordeal. Bergdahl was a captive for four more years after that. And it certainly did not get any better for him after he tried to escape (which he learned about in episode three). In fact, his life got a whole hell of a lot worse.

Bergdahl was kept in a cage. He was tortured psychologically by being deprived of any type of routine. Though Bergdahl admits in his conversation with producer Mark Boal that he willingly avoided any sense of time, because knowing that days, minutes or even seconds were passing made the experience unbearable because that was all he could focus on. (Most of us can’t even handle those last 10 to 15 minutes of work.)

And he was tortured physically. This season of Serial has described some gross and uncomfortable situations, but explaining that Bergdahl was handcuffed with someone sitting on his legs as his chest was being cut with a razor blade was horrifying. And if that didn’t sound agonizing enough, Bergdahl tells Boal that it wasn’t just one or two cuts at a time; it was 60 to 70.

Prior to that, Koenig reminds us that the man who debriefed Bergdahl after he was released testified that the soldier had endured worse treatment than any prisoner of war since the Vietnam War. That statement was illuminating enough, but hearing about Bergdahl’s torture shines that light right in our faces.

That really does seem to be the point of Serial‘s season two and Koenig’s reporting to this point: The war in Afghanistan is a story so many of us chose to avoid when consuming our news, and media coverage generally complied with that in terms of what was featured on the evening news, cable news shows and newspaper front pages. And Bergdahl’s case fell into the binary, black-or-white debate that so many issues and stories seem to be shoehorned into these days. He was a deserter and traitor. Or he someone who made a mistake and paid horribly for it.

Of course, the truth is rarely that simple. That may be Serial‘s chief objective this season. This isn’t an investigation, though it may turn out to be. We haven’t heard all sides of the story. But we’re getting there. This is a lesson.

Was Bergdahl a deserter and eventual Taliban sympathizer? His attempts to escape demonstrate otherwise. Accounts of his captivity show those circumstances were the complete opposite of friendly. And just in case you think he might be making any of this up, Koenig speaks to former New York Times reporter David Rohde, who was held captive by the Taliban for seven months before he was able to escape. His experience was very similar to Bergdahl’s, but minus the torture. It’s even possible that Rohde’s escape resulted in Bergdahl’s imprisonment being more strict and severe. The Taliban wasn’t letting another hostage get away.

No, season two of Serial may not be easy to listen to. But it’s not supposed to be, nor is that the intent Koenig, Boal and her staff. This is stuff we need to know. Maybe the story isn’t as lurid this time around, but it’s no less compelling.

Ian Casselberry

About Ian Casselberry

Ian is an editor for The Comeback and Awful Announcing, also covering baseball at The Outside Corner and pop culture for The AP Party. He has written for Yahoo! Sports, MLive.com, Bleacher Report and SB Nation, and provides analysis for several sports talk radio shows each week. He currently lives in Asheville, NC.

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