Three episodes into season two of Serial, I wonder if we’ve been thinking about this show all wrong. Or maybe I’ve been looking at it the wrong way.
Season one was an investigation, essentially re-opening a 16-year-old murder case. Sarah Koenig and her staff were trying to determine if Adnan Syed was wrong convicted for the murder of Hae Min Lee, and in the process, created a crime drama. New characters were introduced or a different aspect of the case was focused upon in each episode.
When season two revealed that Serial would look at the case of Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier who left his post in Afghanistan and was subsequently captured by the Taliban and held prisoner for five years, it appeared that Koenig was undertaking another investigation. Was Bergdahl a deserter, as many accused him of being? Did he abandon the U.S. military and become a Taliban sympathizer during the war in Afghanistan?
But Serial has always sold its premise as telling a story, week by week. And the two most recent episodes of the show have seemingly made it clear that Koenig (along with filmmaker Mark Boal, who interviewed Bergdahl for a film project he’s developing) is more interested in telling the soldier’s story than investigating his motivations. One should lead to the other anyway.
At the risk of using an overplayed phrase, Koenig, Boal and Serial see a teachable moment here and are using the opportunity to educate listeners — including those who were already fans of Serial, anyone not wanting to miss out on the pop culture conversation this time around, and people tuning in for the first time due to interest in the Bergdahl case — on both a person and a war of which the public has largely avoided informing itself.
The news cycle and political discourse in this country tends to frame things in black or white. Some believe the U.S. needs to take the fight to the Middle East to protect itself and vanquish terrorism. Others feel we shouldn’t be involved in war. Bowe Bergdahl is either a treasonous deserter or the product of a senseless conflict. But the world isn’t that simple and stories such as Bergdahl’s are more complicated than often portrayed.
One aspect of this story that seemingly can’t be argued is that Bergdahl was held captive by the Taliban for five years. Regardless of the circumstances that placed him there, he’s the only prisoner of war from the U.S. military during this conflict. Thus, he has a perspective no other soldier can share.
Episode three of Serial goes into further detail of his imprisonment. Someone who debriefed Bergdahl after his release says his imprisonment consisted of three stages: torture, abuse and neglect. In previous episodes, Bergdahl described how being kept in a dark room alone for days at a time broke him down psychologically, making him question his existence. In episode three, he explains what was necessary for survival. Seeming small and weak, so as not to be perceived as threatening. Keeping himself filthy so no one would want to be near him. Answering questions carefully, so as not to raise suspicion. And taking small steps to help facilitate escape attempts.
Bergdahl’s recounting, along with further explanation from Koenig and Boal, convey some disturbing details, such as the sores he developed from being tied to a bed for months at a time. He was beaten with either a rubber hose or copper wire after trying to escape. His hair and beard were pulled out. (At times, Taliban fighters wouldn’t beat him for fear he wouldn’t survive.) He had diarrhea for more than three years.
However, the efforts to escape his imprisonment should dispel one of the narratives attached to Bergdahl, in Koenig’s view. Detractors and skeptics have accused Bergdahl of being a Taliban sympathizer, of converting to their cause during the five years he spent with them. That fits the story created by those who believe that Bergdahl was a deserter. But trying to escape and putting his life in danger disproves such theories.
If Bergdahl appeared to be treated well in the hostage videos released by the Taliban, to be saying exactly what they wanted him to say, it was because he was trying to survive. Some of Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers felt he wasn’t following the Code of Conduct, which is essentially to provide your name, rank and serial number, and nothing else. But it’s not that simple, nor is it truly the military’s expectations of soldiers who are captured.
Some will surely balk at what could be viewed as an attempt to make Bergdahl a sympathetic figure, especially those who truly despise him for leaving his post and causing fellow soldiers to die. But I’m not certain that’s what Koenig is trying to accomplish here. At the very least, it’s too early in Serial‘s season two to make that assumption. As she did with the Syed case, it seems as if she’s trying to lay out all the facts first, telling all sides of the story before drawing any conclusions.
Yet one conclusion that can be drawn at this point — based on the information compiled by debriefers, investigators and journalists — is that Bergdahl was not a willing prisoner. He tried to escape, yet also did whatever he could to avoid having his head cut off. Maybe he still has to answer for his actions, whether with the miltary and government in the real world or even within the context of this show. Take issue with how he got there in the first place. But in listening to him describe the conditions of his imprisonment, it can’t be said that he didn’t suffer.