“You want answers?”
“I think I’m entitled!”
“You. Want. ANSWERS?!”
“I want the TRUTH!”
“You can’t handle the truth!”
—A Few Good Men
Since the first week of October, millions of listeners have tuned into a weekly podcast that reinvestigated the 1999 murder of a Baltimore high school student. Adnan Syed was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for strangling his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, but the Serial podcast, narrated by Sarah Koenig, has tantalized an obsessive audience with the possibility that an innocent man has been in prison for 15 years. If you haven’t become an obsessed listener, there’s a good chance you’ve been annoyed by an obsessed listener.
Tomorrow, at approximately 6 a.m. eastern, early-birds will download the 12th and final Serial podcast, and it’s bound to be the most polarizing yet. Though Koenig has cautioned that the podcast never promised its own conclusive verdict, fans can’t help but expect a certain amount of dramatic closure. Serial has ventured into uncharted storytelling territory—a multi-episode podcast as riveting and meticulous as a TV drama, like True Detective. There have been startling revelations—Jay’s lawyer was arranged by the prosecutor!—frustrating, contradictory evidence that can’t be reconciled, and mesmerizing, long chats between Koenig and the eloquent and charming Syed, now 35.
Last week, in the penultimate episode, Koenig pulled the reins back on the investigative elements of the podcast and focused on the lingering question of whether Syed is a psychopath. For the entire season, their conversations have evoked the complex, but often manipulative, relationship between Truman Capote and Perry Smith in In Cold Blood, as depicted in Capote—except the roles seemed reversed, with Syed doing the charming. In “Rumors,” Koenig awkwardly confronted him with the unflattering stories that have swirled around him ever since he was a teenager, but in the end, she seemed awfully sympathetic to his point of view, a natural inclination considering their relationship. “I don’t think Adnan is a psychopath,” she said. “I just don’t. I think he has empathy. I think he has real feelings.”
Despite her affection for Syed, she also seemed to be preparing listeners for a less-than-conclusive ending. But modern Internet culture demands a satisfying or shocking finale, which is terribly unfair and silly. After all, this is real life, not some Dick Wolf procedural. Fans can hold out hope that Koenig’s been saving some crucial piece of new evidence that the Innocence Project legal investigators from the University of Virginia unearthed that will break open the case. Or maybe Syed finally lets his guard down to show his true colors, like Col. Jessup in A Few Good Men. Funny or Die did a great parody of Koenig’s dilemma, and unless she produces a smoking gun tomorrow, some stubborn listeners are bound to feel as betrayed as when The Sopranos cut to black.
In January, Syed has a hearing, “the last step” in his appeal process that will determine if he received ineffective counsel during his two murder trials. Though Koenig is not a legal professional, she carefully examined the defense attorney’s performance and made a convincing common-sense case that there were more than a few screwups. Typically, the odds of a friendly appeal ruling are extremely slim, but because of Serial, Syed’s case is anything but typical. Millions of people have listened to him tell his side of the story, something the jury that convicted him never got to do because he chose not to testify at his own trial. Everyone in that Maryland courtroom will know more about this case than what’s just in their filing. Through Serial, Syed has received a public hearing that any prison convict can only dream of, and if the finale turns out to be more St. Elsewhere than M*A*S*H, try to remember that “director” was never part of Koenig’s job description.