I was hooked from the beginning. I learned about the first season of Serial from a recommendation on the latest episode of This American Life. I stopped what I was doing, downloaded the first episode, and started listening. At the time, I lived on the island of Eta Jima, Japan, which is across the bay from Hiroshima, the city to where I would go to every Friday from Eta Jima and stay in my second apartment for the weekend. I would listen to new episode of Serial as I walked from my work to the ferry port, take the ferry to Hiroshima, and the trolley to apartment. The commute took around 90 minutes, and in that time I would have listened to the latest episode, thought about the episode while I leaned my head against the window of the trolley, and talked about over Okinomiyaki and beer with my ex-pat friends.
I wanted to feel this way about second season of Serial, which explore the particulars of Bowe Bergdahl’s, who walked off his post in Afghanistan and who spent the next five years as a captive of the Taliban. And I should have.I’m a military veteran. I like military stories. And I like stories that explore the expansiveness of its subject, the good and the bad, and the in between. Season two checks all of these boxes. So why my tepid feelings?
I posited this question to my friend Matt, who is a Captain in the Army, to which he responded, “too divisive.” And then, “In class.” Matt would get back to me later.
But as far as the “divisive” comment, I think Matt was onto something. The novelty of the show and Sarah Koenig’s narrative chops are two reasons the first season was so popular, but the main for the difference in popularity between the first and second seasons seem as simple as story choice: murder sells; a prisoner of war deserter does not.Everyone knows that Bergdahl walked off his post—he admits to as much—so one of the mysteries that Sarah Koenig sought to answer, among others, was why he walked off his post. And she does an excellent job of reporting on this. She has access to interviews with Bergdahl and she seeks to confirm or deny his story through interviews with his platoon mates, his commanding officers (the ones that will speak to her), and, even, the Taliban. She seeks to find the truth as to whether the search for Bergdahl directly contributed to the death of American soldiers. She even reports on the Rose Garden ceremony that included the appearance of Bergdahl’s parents, a last-minute add and PR mistake that had major political repercussions for the Obama administration. This is good good shit. It’s a nuanced, in-depth portrayal that varies in scope from the internal psychology of Bowe Bergdahl to the lasting effects that the physical manifestations of his psychology has on the diplomacy and military of the United States.
But it’s not simple. And where it is simple, it perhaps isn’t intriguing: Bergdahl walked off his post because war sucks and perhaps of mental health issues. He shouldn’t have walked off his post because he had a duty to his country and his fellow soldiers. But he did. The hook brings you back. Maybe Bowe Bergdahl’s story doesn’t have one.
In an article for NYmag, Scott Beauchamp interviewed producer Julie Snyder about why people weren’t as interested in season two.
There’s not as much to fight over. It doesn’t feel as gossipy. There could be a gossipy element to the first season when people talked about it. I recognize that. I’ve talked about other stories that way too. This one felt like a series of realizations. For me it felt like it was saying, We don’t understand this thing that we all pretend we understand.
Although ethically dubious, it was fun to think and discuss a show that revolved around a murder mystery. Bergdahl’s story isn’t like that. We learn more about Bergdahl, and we learn more about the war, but there is no central mystery for the listeners to figure out. I didn’t talk about this season with anyone else, not people who listened to the season, and not people who didn’t listen to the season but already knew the basics of the story, and whose minds about the situation were already made up. There was nothing to talk about. About the first season, I’ve talked for hours with people about it. On online discussion boards, we argued about the facts, morals, and ethics of season one in one of my current classes. This doesn’t make Adnan’s story better than Bergdah’s, but it does make it different, and it says something about why certain stories appeal to the American public, civilian and otherwise.
Matt texted me back: “The Bergdahl story is juicy…but this season of Serial magnifies the civilian/military divide in this country.”
“And for a lot of vets,” Matt continued. “It causes pain. We all know someone who is better than us, who came home in a casket…Life isn’t fair, we accept that. But c’mon…it’s hard to support a guy like Bergdahl.”
Fair enough. And Matt isn’t the first veteran to refuse to listen to Serial based solely on its subject matter. When the news of season two popped up on the Military Times and its affiliates (Navy Times, Marine Corps Times…) etc, the Facebook comments displayed a lot of outrage that someone like Bergdahl, a “traitor,” would get such attention.
I disagree with their logic, but I understand. Serial by no means sets out to paint Bergdahl as a hero. It seeks to find the truth. Sarah Koenig is a dope reporter. She wouldn’t have it any other way. I would challenge veterans to listen to Serial’s story of Bergdahl because it doesn’t set out to portray him in a flattering light by cherry picking facts. At times Bergdahl comes off as sympathetic. At other times, he doesn’t. That’s what good journalism is. And Koenig is a good journalist. She goes after the real story, unencumbered as she can possibly be by bias or agenda. It may not be as interesting as season one. And for some people, especially veterans, it may be painful to listen to. But they should still listen to it. But if they don’t want to, I understand. I’m a veteran, but I wasn’t in the Army, like Matt is. I never saw combat. Not even close. So if the veterans that have seen combat don’t like Bergdahl, even without all the facts, I don’t quite understand, but I get it.
The causes and consequences of war are complex, including how it affects the soldiers who serve in that war. The story of Bergdahl does not represent the entiriety of the soldier experience, but it does give insight into how a war affected a man, and how he affected it back. You don’t have to agree with what Bergdahl did to find value in season two, even if it’s not as bingeworth as season one. In fact, it may be more interesting if you hate Bergdahl’s guts. Better still, is to be on one side or the other, but not to be so entrenched in an opinion that well-reported facts can’t sway you a bit. Before listening to season two, I thought Bergdahl was in the wrong, and I was sympathetic to his cause, but I didn’t know why. I feel pretty much the same way now. But as least I have a solid reason to back that up.
Matt ended his texts to me by saying this: “so while I don’t know exactly why this season has been quiet, my guess—uneducated as it is: we as an American society continue to ignore the divide that exists between civilians and our military. Couple that with near universal hatred of Bergdahl among our Veterans, and you have a recipe for silence.”
I didn’t respond.