Serial: Building a Mystery, But Doing a Bad Job of It

i've got a golden chicken

What am I listening to?

That’s what I found myself wondering around the 50 minute mark of Serial’s second episode, and it seemed like a pretty fair question. Sarah Koenig was relaying the story of a soldier who shit in his pants while out on an extended patrol looking for the doofus at the center of this season’s story, Bowe Bergdahl. Because finding him was so urgent, and because he didn’t have any other wearable pants, this guy spent 19 days wearing his shitty pants, out risking his life in Afghanistan, for someone he’d never met, and whom he was pretty sure had broken a grab bag of military rules. Koenig also tells us people searching for Bergdahl had ripped shirts, and were grumpy.

Okay?

We’re on episode two, and we’re already so relatively starved for material, that we’re hearing a questionably funny anecdote (amd let’s be real, one that’s questionably true), from someone who is not at all important to our story, on the tenuous justification that it tells us something bigger about people’s attitudes to our central character. We have basically given up on any idea that there’s a mystery here, or even a compelling core narrative, and are already looking for B and C characters to keep us entertained.

It’s informative here to go all the way back to Serial’s tagline for a little insight: “One story, told week by week.” Not “a thrilling mystery,” or “a suspenseful look at the human condition.” Just one story, week by week. At the height of 2014’s Serial mania, this might have seemed like modesty: now, it seems like some pretty prudent bet-hedging.

This episode didn’t have a lot of narrative tension, but what it did have was a lot of information about our case, much of it funny and interesting. The military really will do anything to get back a missing soldier, and the actual guys who have to do the looking aren’t happy about risking their lives to save someone who voluntarily walked off his base. Sarah Koenig can still quickly slap an intro onto a podcast to react to changes in the real world, as she does in this episode to include the news from just a few days ago that the army is pursuing a general court marshal against Bergdahl. Also, a coochie tent apparently isn’t a form of female birth control, or a very small bathing suit. (It’s an actual tent! and it’s actually spelled ‘kuchi’!)

The best stuff from this episode is about the band of Taliban fighters who first captured Bergdahl, and then ferried him around Afghanistan as the total strength of the American military was unleashed on dusty Afghan villages to hunt for him.

These men had basically never seen or touched an American before, and brought a lifetime of secondhand action movie tropes to him: They thought he was a spy, that he knew kung-fu, that he was always drunk, that his blue eyes meant he was suspicious (a popular Afghan myth), that he was an important commander, and generally that he somehow had powers he was keeping secret. They gave him a wide berth, while painting themselves as swashbuckling daredevils who’d snagged a valuable prize through wit and bravery. One interviewee says it was like, “an animal captured by kids.”

Eventually they figured out this wasn’t the case, and that he was just a scared young man like them. Then we get to her a great litany of Taliban insults: weak, brainless, and “like a small cat baby, with shining blue eyes.”

Still, he was important, this episode’s titular “golden chicken.” The Taliban knew that if they could just get him safely to their base in Pakistan’s tribal regions, the Americans would trade anything to get him back. They didn’t kill him, or (they claim) even especially hurt him. They even took him to a grape orchard and performed a traditional dance for him (though Bergdahl doesn’t remember that). He was their guest, and an important one.

Next week, we’ll find out just how the Taliban treated their guest over the next five years. As Bergdahl describes it, “Picture someone taking a bag, throwing it in the closet, and just forgetting about it.”

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