Sometime after midnight on June 30, 2009, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl walked off his remote Army outpost in Mest, Afghanistan. He was carrying a camera, his compass, a knife, and some vacuum-packed chicken. He headed northwest in the direction of a large American Forward Operating Base nearly 20 miles away. The pitch-dark terrain was open desert – open desert that belonged to the Taliban. After 20 minutes of wandering, the magnitude of what he’d done hit him like a ton of bricks. He panicked and thought to himself, “Good grief, I’m in over my head.” Bergdahl considered turning back and returning to his base, but worried about getting shot by sentries. So he kept going… and going. The next morning, Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban. He was held captive for nearly five years.
Why did this 23-year-old soldier from Hailey, Idaho, leave his post? Was he a deserter? Or worse, a traitor? After all, his whereabouts prompted a manhunt that may have led to the deaths of other U.S. soldiers. Or, was he a well-intentioned whistleblower eager to prove himself a real-life Jason Bourne, risking his life to inform his superiors about a crisis in leadership back at his base?
Bergdahl was released by his captors in May 2014. In exchange for five Taliban members being held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Bergdahl was handed over to U.S. special-operations forces who whisked him off in a Blackhawk helicopter. After his harrowing five-year captivity Bergdahl was gaunt, haunted, and the keeper of a mystery only he knew the answer to.
That mystery is now the subject of season 2 of Serial (the first chapter of which was made available Thursday morning at serialpodcast.org). And thanks to the massive popularity of the first season (which was downloaded more than 100 million times and earned a prestigious Peabody Award), Bergdahl’s story comes with both enormous anticipation and impossibly high expectations. Will Serial host Sarah Koenig and her team get to the bottom of the case with a climactic, Durstian confession? Or will they just draw us in with the tantalizing time-suck lure of longform radio storytelling that leaves us exactly where we started: in the dark? It’s easy to say that it doesn’t really matter – that the journey is more important than the destination. But, of course, that’s baloney in the post-Jinx era.
Episode 1 is titled “DUSTWUN,” after the military radio signal that goes out when a soldier is missing. It stands for “Duty Status, Whereabouts Unknown,” or, as Koenig explains, it’s basically the Army equivalent of “Man Overboard.” The show opens with a tiny audio clip of men speaking heatedly in Pashto. It’s taken from a 2014 video the Taliban made of their hand-off of Bergdahl to U.S. Special Forces. Koenig describes the video to listeners and lets the scene unspool in what’s become the This American Life house style: a cocktail of poetic physical detail with a splash of cavalier hipster wit (a little of which goes a long way). For instance, she describes Bergdahl’s emaciated and tattered appearance in the video as being like that of a “cult leader of a ‘70s movie.” After laying out the bare bones facts of Bergdahl’s story, Koenig gives one of those pregnant, Chekhovian public-radio pauses and lets the familiar clinking piano-key theme music of the series kick in. Welcome to season 2 of Serial: One story told week by week.
Bergdahl’s story is an interesting and unexpected choice for the podcast’s encore go-round. After all, what made the first season so intriguing and addictive (like a super-sized episode of CBS’ 48 Hours Mystery told by the star member of the AV squad) was that it peeled back the layers on a case that few listeners knew anything about. Its subjects, Hae Min Lee and Adnan Syed, were blank canvases onto whom we could project just about any version of the truth. But the Bergdahl story hasn’t exactly gone unreported. A quick search of the New York Times website shows 592 results for “Bowe Bergdahl.” It’s hardly arcane. And it’s not unreasonable to ask what Serial will bring that’s new.
Fortunately, Koenig & Company make with the goods right away. Ever since Bergdahl’s release, he’s remained silent as he awaits the results of a military criminal investigation that may put him in jail for a very long time. Politicians and pundits haven’t been stingy with their opinions on the case. But Bergdahl stayed tight-lipped. Or so we thought. What no one knew was that he had been talking. A lot, it turns out. Mark Boal, the screenwriter of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, had conducted more than 25 hours of intimate, personal interviews with Bergdahl in the course of researching a movie about the soldier’s experience. Afterwards, Boal and Bergdahl handed the tapes over to the folks at Serial. It’s a blockbuster get, to be sure. But without passing judgment on their motives, I’d say it’s at least wise at this point to consider what Bergdahl has to gain by allowing his side of the story to be told this way and through this venue.
Listening to snippets from the Boal-Bergdahl conversations in the first episode, it’s hard to know what to think about the enigmatic soldier. It’s tempting, but foolish, to pass judgment on the actions of a confused, frightened 23-year-old in the hostile theater of combat. Not that others have the same concerns. John McCain said Bergdahl was “clearly a deserter.” Donald Trump scored cheap, red-meat applause from a crowd of supporters by calling Bergdahl a traitor (audio of which can be heard in the episode’s opening). Even the folks in his Idaho hometown canceled plans to celebrate his release when the facts around his story became inconveniently murky. In a lot of ways, what Bergdahl did on that summer night in Afghanistan five years ago makes no sense. Which, I’d argue, is why it seems kind of believable. Who thinks calmly and rationally in a situation like his?
It’s too early to tell much about the second season of Serial at this point. Which is fine by me, and just as it should be. This first episode’s job is simply to set the table and get our mouths watering from the scent of the 10-course meal we’re about to be served. What I like about this season’s subject is that (I hope) it gets people to step back, take a breath, and reconsider their feelings about Bergdahl and his story, even if they end up with the same opinion they held before.
The kick-off episode ends with Bergdahl recounting his capture by the Taliban. And what’s most chilling is the cool, resigned, matter-of-fact tone with which he recounts the story. When he’s done, Koenig, using an interpreter, places a phone call to a Taliban spokesman. It’s unexpected and sort of shocking. Who even knew you could call the Taliban? Then she leaves us on the lurch with a doozy of a cliffhanger: “The Taliban’s version of Bowe’s capture? Next time on Serial.” As they used to say in the pre-podcast era of investigative journalism, stay tuned… I intend to.