Guess what? Episode 11, “Present for Duty,” is the last one of season two of Serial. Of course, in true Serial fashion we don’t find that out until a dramatic reveal about eight minutes into the episode.
Sarah Koenig had been discussing some people’s perception of this whole affair, that Bergdahl might have done something wrong, but that he’s already paid his debt for that by spending five years locked in a cage by the Taliban. But, she says:
“That leaves our a reckoning. And that’s what the military wants: a reckoning. To a lot of people who served in Afghanistan, and their families, if you don’t consider the consequences of Bowe’s decision to walk off of OP Mest, it feels as if something important and painful has been papered over. And that doesn’t feel like justice. They want an accounting. This is our last episode of this season, so I want to answer that question now. What exactly cane we blame Bowe for?”
Oh, okay! Last ep wow. Also, wait. Is that what the show has been about? Not who is Bowe Bergdahl and what motivated him to walk off his base. Not the culture of the military in which he was working. Not the quest to get him freed. Not the details of what happened during his five years of captivity. But what we can blame him for?
Not to blow your mind, but the truth is there was never a central question. If last season was Law & Order, this one has been Twin Peaks. Sure, there’s some kind of mystery that’s theoretically animating the action, but in truth it’s about meeting characters and hearing their stories, finding little moments of delight and horror along the way.
And here’s something you might find surprising if you’ve been reading me gripe about this show every other week: I think this season of serial is fantastic. It’s one of the most thoroughly researched, tightly paced, and well put-together pieces of work in a medium in which many of the most popular programs still boil down to unedited audio of two people sitting in a room and talking to each other. This is so much more than that. And it’s free. And you get it every week, or every other week, or sometimes four times in one week. And this season more than last season, you’re never sure exactly what kind of story you’re going to hear when you press play.
Many of my complaints have been small-minded: why are we talking about this, does this merit so much investigation, maybe I don’t agree with the show’s point of view. But, it’s been entertaining and enlightening. If you haven’t listened, I’d recommend it, as long as you don’t think it’s going to give you any actual answers about this case.
And, to quickly fulfill the recapping part of my responsibilities, allow me to tell you that Koenig spends much of the episode trying to see if anyone can you prove, with supporting paperwork, that someone died looking for Bowe Bergdahl. As it turns out, you can’t. Left completely unsaid is that this might be because military orders and after-action reports might be incomplete at best and full of deliberate falsehoods at worst. Or that people’s memories of what happened to them during war might be unreliable and full of bias. Or that military reporting is so difficult that someone like Seymour Hersh can spend his entire adult life doing it, and only get ‘the real story’ at least as often as he’s gaslit by some general or former spook with more grudges and delusions that facts.
We also hear that Bowe Bergdahl isn’t even the first person to walk off of his base in Afghanistan. It happens occasionally, and the army is usually able to scoop the people back up, send them back to America for psychological help, and quietly discharge them. It treats them like they’re suicidal, like “astronauts who take off their helmet in space,” Koenig says.
Why is Bowe different? Well, he got caught by the Taliban and we traded five prisoners for him. I’d argue that it goes further than that, and expands into his misfortune at becoming a right-wing meme during a Congressional election year (see last week’s recap for some detail there).
I guess that’s what’s gotten to me about the last few episodes. The show has put several months of research into finding out whether the ring-wing meme factory allegations against Bergdahl have any basis in fact. They don’t. But I bet you could have figured out the same thing by talking to someone who believes them for five minutes. Just the emotional weight Koenig’s interview subjects put into talking about some stranger, a kid they’ve never met in their life, tells you that they don’t have any problems with this individual guy who was taken prisoner by the Taliban. Rather, there’s this idea of Bowe Bergdahl into which they’ve poured emotion from other parts of their life that they didn’t know what to do with—their own dead friends and family, as well as regrets and jealousies of all kinds. Or, that there’s this idea character called “Bowe Bergdhal” invented by conservative media and in people’s Facebook posts that they want to see punished.
I mean, for God’s sake, this show is coming out during the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, a man who’s killing the competition despite the fact that he can’t open his mouth without lying (here’s an example just from Friday), and we have a whole team of talented journalists wasting their time trying to figure out how true right-wing politically motivated attacks are. They’re not very true! This whole few weeks of investigation, to me, has been pretty unnecessary. Look, to wildly oversimplify, conservatives communicate in a semi-mystical way that uses myths and references: Shaka, when the walls fell. Proving whether any particular myth is true or untrue is aside the point: the myth communicates feeling and belief, and it brings the tribe together.
What does the myth of Bowe Bergdahl say? That Obama doesn’t understand the real America, and the sacrifice made by our military. That—through maliciousness or ignorance—he can’t tell the difference between a hero and a deserting coward. That’s Obama’s America: a guy with a big bushy beard in the Rose Garden of the goddamn White House, speaking fucking Pashto, thanking the enemy, while we put bad guys back out on the streets. That’s not how it’s supposed to be.
Again, the specific truth of any of that is aside the point for the people who believe it. It’s a story they tell to tell you a larger truth about their vision of the world.
But this investigation has only taken up the past episode or two. In a larger sense, the show has been trying to figure out why any of this happened.
Why is a joke. You can report what happened. That’s simple, and people do it all the time. You can give your opinion about why it happened, or you can give some kind of fatuous bullshit social science answer about the trends and tendencies that usually make things like this happen. But to try to really definitively say why? It’s impossible.
Why is totally up to interpretation. Why did I do something? No one knows but me. And honestly maybe I’m not sure myself, and maybe I’ll lie to you if you ask me, or give you some kind of self-serving answer I’m willing myself to believe.
To try and figure out why something happened with some kind of scientific precision, to have a whole team of people try and come to some kind of real truth there (especially when that thing happened during a war), is just impossible.
It was doomed, sure. But you know what? It was fun to listen to.