When we last left off (if you can remember that far back), Serial explored Bowe Bergdahl’s reasons for walking off his base in Afghanistan in the summer of 2009, which would lead to his capture and five-year imprisonment at the hands of the Taliban. We heard him talk about how he felt threatened, unsafe, and mistreated by his superiors – a situation that ultimately made him want to trek across the desert and tell his higher-ups’ higher-ups. It was one of the better episodes in a season that’s been extremely hit-and-miss because we finally got to hear more than just a couple of drive-by sound bites from Bergdahl. For the first time, it felt like we got inside of his head. And once there, it was hard to know what to make of his thought process. Was he delusional? Swept up in some messianic quest to save his brothers in arms? Was he being a good soldier making a hard decision? Or was he just lying about everything?
Now in this week’s episode – actually it’s two episodes (“Hindsight, Part 1” was released Thursday; “Hindsight, Part 2” was released Friday) – Serial host Sarah Koenig digs deeper into Bergdahl’s psyche. And, at least to me, it began to feel like the podcast was just spinning its wheels, stalling for time, telling us things we’ve already been told. I think it’s been clear in my recaps this season that I’ve had some serious issues with Serial’s sophomore effort. But my biggest beef at this point is that the show seems to be doing everything it can to make it hard for listeners to get in a rhythm with their investigation. First, it’s presented every week. Then, every other week. Now, we get two svelte, half-hour episodes (which, frankly, could have just as easily been one single episode) in two days. Sometimes it feels like they’re daring us to keep listening.
In the first half of this week’s episode, Koenig cedes the stage to Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers, many of whom remain skeptical of his explanation. After all, one of them says, he had five years in a Taliban prison to craft a pretty solid alibi. Doubts are raised about Bergdahl’s intentions for deserting, with some platoon mates suggesting he was a little too chummy with the Afghan police forces on their base. Was he in league with them? Was going AWOL part of some traitorous plot? Koenig raises the point that a pair of Afghan policemen went missing around the same time that Bergdahl did, which is interesting. But then, she doesn’t bother to really follow up on it or its implications.
Others who knew him in Afghanistan suggest more mysterious possibilities for his disappearance. One mentions that Bowe would look at the Afghan mountains and dreamily talk about just disappearing into them. Another says that Bowe once mentioned faking his own death and heading to India, where he fantasized about becoming some sort of mercenary or gangmember affiliated with the Russian mafia. Either way, it’s clear that anyone in uniform in the theater of combat halfway around the world was bound to be wound pretty tight. As one of his fellow soliders puts it, “Fear plus stress plus boredom plus war zone” can lead to some weird thoughts.
Koenig then pulls back and explores Bergdahl’s childhood in rural Idaho, suggesting that the seeds for his bizarre behavior may, in fact, lay there. There was a stern father who meted out unpredictable discipline and homeschooling, which made him socially awkward. He grew into a watchful, judgmental teen with an unarticulated code of lofty expectations for himself and others. With the same thirst for adventure that would eventually make him enlist with the Army, he set out to see the world. Maybe he’d fit in better someplace else. He took a job salmon fishing in Alaska, he took a charter boat course in Florida, he made a half-hearted attempt to hitch up with the French Foreign Legion. He was restless, seeking. But more than anything, he seemed to be conflicted – part of him wanted to be seen as unique and special and part of him wanted to not be seen at all.
In 2006, at age 19, Bergdahl enlisted with the Coast Guard. This was before he signed up with the Army. And it didn’t go well. After a brief training stint, he was psychologically discharged after being found curled up on the ground in a fetal position with blood covering his hands and face. It turned out to be nothing more than a bloody nose, but Bergdahl says he didn’t remember the incident. It was labeled as a panic attack and his cause for dismissal was “adjustment disorder with depression.”
It’s hard to listen to stories like that one and not feel sorry for Bergdahl. This is the point in the story where someone should have taken him aside, showed him some compassion and love, and got him some help. Instead, the Army basically overlooked his troubled history (if they didn’t know about it, they didn’t want to know about it), gave him a uniform and a weapon and sent him to the combat zone in Afghanistan. After all, it was surge time, and soldiers were scarce. Bowe Bergdhal slipped through the cracks…
The second half of this week’s episode, “Hindsight, Part 2,” isn’t as good. Actually, I found it a little maddening. Taking off from the question of whether the Army screwed up by accepting Bergdahl and shipping him off to Afghanistan, the half-hour is full of insensitive asides and cheap quips at the expense of journalistic professionalism. I get that Serial isn’t supposed to be 60 Minutes, but that doesn’t mean it has to be snarky. After hearing from Bergdahl (who we’ve already pretty much determined was an unstable young man with paranoia and delusions of grandeur), Koenig lays out some of his obsessions as if they’re obvious warning signs of a troubled mind. He liked Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Well, so do millions of other people who’ve read the book. He studied the samurai Bushido code. So do a lot of people who like Kurosawa films. She readily accepts his defense team’s diagnosis that he suffered from “Schizotypal Personality Disorder” without really questioning why this might be a smart legal maneuver for someone who’s facing a very long prison sentence. Where is the journalistic rigor? It’s an episode that’s richer in editorializing than reporting.
Then, there’s an exchange between Koenig and Mark Boal, the Zero Dark Thirty screenwriter who exclusively interviewed Bergdahl after his release from the Taliban, which I found kind of shockingly tone deaf. The two are talking about what to make of Bergdahl’s Schizotypal Personality Disorder diagnosis and how that clouded their views of his testimony. As if we should really care what their views are. Boal says, “I keep going back to something that somebody said to me a long time ago, which was like, ‘I kind of agree with everything he says, but I still want to punch him in the face.’” Wait, what?! Then Koenig chimes in as part of her narration, “It’s like that line from The Big Lebowski …’You’re not wrong, Walter. You’re just an a–hole.’” I had to go back and listen to the exchange three or four times. Each time I thought, “How did this make it onto the air exactly?”
Look, I get that maybe Koenig and her producers are frustrated that this season of Serial hasn’t been as well-received as last season. I also get how dispiriting it may be that the reporting of the Bergdahl case has become knottier and trickier and more time-consuming than they expected. But they chose to take this deep dive into Bergdahl’s story and there’s a man’s freedom and future that’s hanging in the balance. I’m pretty sure that trying to score some cheap laughs by being cool and funny and glib isn’t the way to 1.) tell this particular story, 2.) win another Peabody Award, and 3.) keep listeners who are already getting antsy to keep coming back. If I wasn’t recapping Serial this season, this would have been the week I said Adios.