Serial Recap: Learning to Accept the New Season of Serial for What It is, Not What We Want It to Be

Bowe Bergdahl

There’s a great article on Kotaku called “The Five Stages of Video Game Disappointment,” which is something you probably know something about if you’ve ever played video games. The article is pegged to Fallout 4, last year’s much-anticipated entry in a very popular series from a very talented bunch of creative people. However, pretty quickly, a consensus emerged that it didn’t quite live up to expectations. The fourth step, the article says, is “Acceptance OR Rejection,” where you either appreciate the game for what it is and have some fun in its world, even if it you know it’s not as good as it could have been. Or you just give up and toss it in a dusty stack somewhere. 

Dear readers! I have accepted Serial Season 2: The Ballad of Bowe. This week, in its fourth hour, I found myself laughing along with Sarah Koenig during a confusing interview, listening closely to a surprising personal story, and honestly learning something about the world. Hey, fantastic! I must be listening to Serial!

A lot of this is down to David Rhode. In 2009, Rhode was on leave from the New York Times to write a book about Afghanistan when he was kidnapped by the Haqqani network (the same group of people who held Bowe Bergdahl). So, in a sense, Rhode can tell us about a very similar experience. However, he had a few advantages that Bergdahl didn’t. For one, he had a wealth of knowledge about the region from his reporting that gave him insight and context for what was happening to him (he even knew individual members of the network by sight). He also was captured along with his Afghan driver and interpreter, who could translate his captors’ conversations for him.

Little things make Rhode’s story interesting–like Bergdahl, he was taken to North and South Waziristan, also sometimes called Pakistan’s “tribal regions.” But David had done enough reading and writing on the area to have formed an idea of what it might look like—rugged, inaccessible, mountainous—and then be surprised when it didn’t match those expectations. He was shocked to see paved roads, schools, large buildings, and to get regular products on a regular basis—bottled Nestlé-brand water, copies of English-language newspapers only a few days old, and more.

“This was a Taliban mini-state that functioned openly,” he said.

Further proof of that was the heart-sinking moment when Rhode is in a car with the Haqqanis. As they drive along, they encounter a Pakistani army convoy. Civilians are forced to pull over and leave their cars when they see these convoys, which is exactly what the car in front of them does. Rhode has a moment where he thinks he’s about to be saved. But then the Haqqanis just wave at the patrol as it rolls by, never leaving their vehicle.

“The word ‘impunity’ is leaping into my head,” Koenig offers at this point.

And this is the other advantage Rhode’s story has. He’s actually being interviewed by Koenig. As ever, she does a fantastic job, is lively, personable, funny, and probing.

Rhode escaped with his Afghan friends after seven months of captivity, and tells Koenig he remembers worrying that whomever the Haqqanis captured next would be treated poorly, since eventually he’d been treated relatively well, and it had helped him escape. Bergdahl was captured ten days after David’s escape.

We hear more about these conditions on this episode, and, honestly they’re hard to comprehend. Not in a logical sense, like what’s going on here, though we do get some more advance apologies from Koenig on that point.

“At some point, I realized, I don’t exactly understand what’s going on,” she says in the introduction  to this week’s episode. “The whole thing was overlaid with a scrim. Where exactly is he, who exactly is holding him? I couldn’t tell what Taliban and the Haqqanis wanted or expected. Why is he being moved? Why is he being ignored? I couldn’t tell if his treatment was senseless and haphazard, or if it was part of a plan.”

These are certainly questions Koenig would like to have actually answered with reporting, and not simply asked rhetorically. But, the great shortcoming of this season is that she was not actually able to personally speak with the person at the center of her story.

But this isn’t the problem this week. It’s that his treatment was so barbaric that it’s hard to comprehend. This episode, we learn that we’d been focusing so much on Bergdahl’s first year of captivity because he hardly remembers the rest. After the major escape attempt we learned about in Episode 3, Bergdahl’s captors built him a collapsible iron cage, where he spent the next four years. He estimates it was about 6 feet square. The reality of this—the physical pain, the boredom, the despair, the terror—I find literally incomprehensible. I can just about get my mind around this, but I start feeling tight in the chest and I stop thinking about it. If this episode got you worked up that the Taliban can be this inhumane, it’s worth your time to read about the ways we do basically the same thing here in America.

What we don’t do here is strip someone’s shirt off and cut their chest with a razor blade 60 or 70 times in a sitting, as we hear happened to Bergdahl. They don’t ask him any questions when they do this; they just want to hurt him. He came close to execution several times, but never quite crossed the threshold. We also hear in detail about one night Bergdahl made another escape attempt by pulling up the particleboard his captors had put down in his cage. He quickly realized he couldn’t get it back down again, and was terrified about what might happen to him if they saw he’d attempted another escape. So he spent the entire night, terrified, trying to undo his escape attempt. He did it, eventually, but we hear him say, “That night burnt something out of me that never came back.”

So, he just . . . waited. He got so good at waiting, we hear, that he had a hard time adjusting to the idea of time-keeping again when he was freed. He’d totally, totally unlearned it. And he didn’t really want to pick it back up.

Next week, we’ll hear more about what the military and other agencies were doing to find Bergdal—or, what they weren’t doing.

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