Serial Recap: Where in the World Is Bowe Bergdahl?
By Chris Chafin
Hello! After a week off to all recuperate and become disillusioned with Making a Murderer (maybe he really did it after all!), we’re back with your original love—the one who’s been here all along, biding its time, dreaming about the day when you wake up and find that what you’re looking for has been here the whole time. That’s right! SERIAL! We’re back!
Why did we go away? In a short update last week, Sarah Koenig announced that Serial was going bi-weekly for the rest of season two, with a great deal of apology and positive spin. “This story is indeed zooming out,” she said in an audio update last week. “We’re adding new material, because as we’ve been releasing episodes we’ve gotten access to more of the key people close to Bowe Bergdahl’s case, and access to more information than we initially thought we would. Which is great!”
Also last week, there was a bit more news in the world of Serial. Koenig was a guest on The New Yorker Radio Hour, where she talked a lot about the process of assembling season two. Sanctimonious voices all over the internet seized on an exchange where Koenig, speaking with host and New Yorker editor David Remnick, said “it’s not [her] business” what filmmaker Mark Boal’s arrangement with Bergdahl was. (Remnick had pointed out that usually money is exchanged if a filmmaker obtains someone’s life rights.) There’s nothing assholes on Twitter love more than sniping at journalists, for whatever reason (we respond?), so there was a lot of online hand-wringing around this quote. I haven’t waded into it, but I’m sure if you confronted one of Twitter’s moral crusaders, they’d tell you that it’s “actually about ethics in podcasting.”
The truly telling bit of the interview came just before this. Remnick asked Koenig what she was looking for in a story for the second season. “We didn’t know what we wanted,” Koenig replied, her voice simultaneously trailing off and becoming incredibly high-pitched. “We were really floundering around for a while.” It’s this admission—that the show honestly couldn’t find a focus for season two—that makes a lot of the problems with this one come into focus. Why take on a story where you can’t interview the main subject? One where the story honestly gets a little thin after a while? Where you have to change your entire publication schedule just a few episodes in? Well, because it was the best idea they could come up with. Really, this is the hidden secret behind a lot of media that average people don’t seem to get. Why is there this bad movie? This stupid joke? This bad editing? Honestly? It was the best they could do.
That said! This week, the show is back with perhaps the best episode of the season. It’s the kind of thing I’ve been yearning to hear all season—a complex story about howa bunch of people, all doing their best, still can’t quite accomplish what they set out to. This week, we hear about the official efforts to free Bowe Bergdahl.
Much of this week’s episode features a woman named Kim Harrison, a longtime friend of Bowe Bergdahl who was living in Portland at the time of his disappearance. Kim was the person Bergdahl had listed as his emergency contact, and was notified of his disappearance. Not someone to sit around and trust that the army was doing everything it could, she contacted a friend who happened to be relatively high up the chain at Interpol, the international police organization perhaps most famous for being an eternal menu option in Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? Her Interpol friend, in turn, told her that they might actually be able to help. It’s a nongovernmental organization, and has a freedom of movement and impartial reputation that a body like the US military doesn’t have. The military, as we hear later in the episode, is actually very constrained in what it can do when it doesn’t “own the battlespace.” In other words, if we’re not actively at war somewhere, there’s not a lot our military is officially allowed to do. That’s why the military could put forth that huge effort we heard about in this season’s premiere, but that search had to stop at Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan.
In a lot of ways, Interpol is a fantastic organization to help find Bowe Bergdahl. There was just one catch: Kim had to establish his disappearance as official police business somewhere in the world. That’s how she ended up at the Portland police station, where Koenig introduces her to us, trying to file a missing persons report for someone 5,000 miles away.
Improbably, the police allow her to file her report. Success! The last stage is just a formality, really—the army has to sign off on Interpol’s search. They reply unusually quickly: No.
“A certain colonel calls [Kim] and tells her that the DoD is working in concert with the FBI and the CIA and that Interpol involvement could complicate, jeopardize, and delay the search,” Koenig tells us.
“They were just incredulous that I was causing so many problems for them,” Kim says. “I was just this squeaking, nagging—wah wah wah—woman.” She keeps going, contacting her congressman, and senator, but gets nowhere. The military isn’t interested in letting outsiders in.
But what was the military itself doing? We pivot here to a rare inside look, provided by a host of people going by pseudonyms for fear of professional repercussions (or going to jail for almost-but-not-quite revealing classified information). A lot of this action takes place in and around US Central Command, located on the west coast of Florida (and giving us this episode’s name, “Meanwhile, in Tampa”).
The real meat of the episode is following two intelligent analysts working in PR (“not public relations, but personnel recovery,” Koenig helpfully tells us), who go by the names Andrea and Michelle. We hear how they had to trick, cajole, and bribe with expensive whiskey the senior military figures supposedly overseeing Bergdahl’s rescue efforts, but who in fact didn’t give a shit about him. He was either a traitor, or just not important enough to warrant a lot of resources thrown at his recovery, let alone some kind of rescue effort that might endanger our relationship with Pakistan. They’re constantly running into generals who should be well versed in Bergdahl’s case who’ve literally never heard his name before.
This episode is very dense with information. There are spies, terrorists, bored bureaucrats, and the first appearance of Bergdahl’s parents. They’ve declined to speak with Koenig for the show, but we hear about their work to learn the customs, traditions, and politics of Pakistan, which culminate in Bergdahl’s father making a direct appeal to members of the country’s government, via YouTube. This is presented in the show as some kind of monumental step in the episode—quick, someone tell my dad that someone cares about old white men putting videos online—but we don’t hear about any results it actually achieved. Maybe it will come back later?
Honestly, one of the parts of this episode that hit me the hardest was when Andrea and Michelle spoke about the pushback they get on their work, which isn’t just looking for members of the military who are taken hostage, but also civilians and journalists. A common reaction, they tell us, is that these people were behaving like idiots and got what they deserved. Hiking in Afghanistan? Just go hiking in Colorado. Reporting in a conflict zone? Well, that’s dangerous, and you know what might happen to you. It’s not unlike the attitude you’ll hear from a cop after a bicyclist is killed here in New York: You were riding a bike in New York City, dumbass. You got what was coming to you.
I’ve had some of this same attitude in these recaps, making fun of Bergdahl’s seeming inability to walk around without getting lost in the dark, and the tragicomic episode where he literally stepped off of a cliff. I feel bad about that. Even if you disagree with someone’s actions, or think they’re misguided, that doesn’t mean you should abandon him to his death. He’s still a human being, and someone you could potentially help. So, why not?
That’s the question lurking at the edges of this week’s episode. Why didn’t anyone want to help? We never get a definitive answer, but Koenig seems to think it was a relatively simple story, familiar to anyone who’s ever worked a big corporation. Imagine Bowe Bergdahl not as a person, but as a headache of a work task; he’s a massive report that theoretically needs to get written, but that no one important really cares about. If you can put it off, you do. There’s no reason to move forward. So things… languish. In Bergdahl’s case, he languishes in a literal cage. For five years.
In two weeks, we’re back with more from the team on the ground searching for Bergdahl, and from the man himself.