'Serial' Season 2 finale recap: 'Present for Duty'
After three and a half months of sometimes-gripping, sometimes-infuriating storytelling, the second season of Serial has finally come to an end. But don’t expect closure. There is none. Not for the show’s listeners, not for host Sarah Koenig and the podcast’s reporting staff, and certainly not for its subject, Bowe Bergdahl. We knew there wouldn’t be going in. That’s the deal we signed up for. So all that can be asked at this point is, are you glad you tuned in? Despite frequent bouts of hair-pulling exasperation, I am. But it’s taken some time to realize that – and a recalibration of what I expect from long-form investigative storytelling. After all, it was a season that defied most of our conventional expectations of narrative. It wasn’t a story with a beginning, middle, and, most importantly, an end. It was more like one of those dramatic TV episodes that ends with a maddening “To be continued…” Because while Serial’s second season is now over, PFC Bowe Bergdahl’s is far from it. His fate, for now, is open-ended.
In an exclusive interview with EW.com this week, Koenig and executive producer Julie Snyder said the download numbers for season 2 (50 million) were higher than they were by the time season 1 ended its run. But I wonder how many of those listeners have felt… sated. I mean, Avengers: Age of Ultron is one of the top-grossing movies of all time, but how many people honestly walked out feeling that it was also one of the best? There’s no other way to say it, this season has been infuriatingly light on answers to the questions posed by Koenig back in December. Why did Bowe Bergdahl walk off his base on June 30, 2009? Was he a whistleblowing hero, a hapless victim, or, as some have claimed for their own political reasons, a traitor to his country? I think the folks at Serial understand that in some way they’ve failed to come up with the goods and only raised more questions. But there’s a kind of honesty in that too. Not all cases get solved. Not every trial ends with a conviction. The journey’s more important than the destination.
I think that’s why in the finale, Koenig doubles down on one of the peskier questions – one that she can come close to successfully resolving. “This is our last episode this season,” she says, “and so I want to try to answer this now: What exactly should we blame Bowe for? What’s his fault and what isn’t?” She’s specifically referring to the claims made by many in the military that Bowe’s disappearance led to the deaths of other American soldiers. It’s an excellent question. And it’s frankly a little disappointing that it’s taken 11 episodes to ask it. But here we are, and it turns out that Serial’s reporters have done yeoman’s work.
It turns out six U.S. soldiers died during the period they were looking for Bergdahl. There’s an important bit of wording in that last sentence. Did they die looking for him, or did they die in other day-to-day operations and missions during the five-year time frame when he was missing? That distinction may not matter to some. Once people get the idea that Bergdahl is at fault, it’s hard to put that genie back in the bottle – especially if you’re the parent of one of the deceased soldiers. Grief and anger are emotions that are desperate for scapegoats. Still, Koenig & Co. jump on some important facts that are fleshed out and debunked for the better part of the episode, landing on the conviction that there was no real causality between Bergdahl’s actions and these deaths. But just when you think that things are finally cleared up, she concedes that other platoon mates were seriously injured – their lives and the lives of their families forever altered – while looking for Bergdahl. Again, just when things appear to be coming into focus, we don’t know how to feel. Maybe that’s the most important lesson of this season: the truth is rarely as black and white as we want it to be – it’s usually a slippery shade of gray.
The most clear-headed argument that comes in the episode – in the whole season actually – comes from Lt. Col. Paul Edgar. He says that when we, as a nation, signed up for war after 9/11, what we were also signing up for is everything that comes with war. All of the unforeseen tragedies, all of the unpredictable mistakes, all of the Bowe Bergdahls. And there were other Bowe Bergdahls. There were other soldiers who wandered off their bases or officially went AWOL (quite a few actually). They just weren’t captured by the Taliban, held prisoner for five years, and traded for five prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. In other words, they weren’t news. “When you sign up for war as a society, you sign up for this,” Edgar says. “You sign up for all of the things that attend war.”
Toward the end of the episode, Koenig asks Mark Boal (the screenwriter who’d conducted the show’s interviews with Bergdahl) what his biggest unresolved question is from all of this. He replies, “I think the biggest question I have is: What’s the appropriate punishment for what he did? How do you treat a guy who was put through the wringer by the Taliban because he was a U.S. soldier?” Is Bowe Bergdahl really nothing more than a troubled kid who was caught in the chaos of war, did something stupid, and is now being punished for our larger frustrations with how badly this engagement overseas has shaken out? That sounds about right to me.
The second season of Serial is done. But for Bergdahl, well, his story is hardly over. His court martial hearing is scheduled to start in August. Until then, he’s still a soldier on a base in San Antonio who’s listed as “Present for Duty.” Koenig poetically sums up that until then, he waits. “But waiting is something Bowe knows how to do.”