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'Serial' Season 2, Episode 1: reviewed and the questions that need answering

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Spoiler alert: Do not read what follows if you've not already listened to the first episode of Serial season 2.


Forget Ryan Adam’s 1989 album, the second coming of Bieber and all small children named Saint West, the most eagerly-awaited cultural milestone has just hit planet earth. Yep, that’s right, the first episode of season two of Serial finally uploaded itself onto our phones this morning at 11am. Well, if you subscribed to the podcast app and were fanatically waiting for the follow-up, that is.

What's the story?

Last season told the story of Adnan Syed, the boy (now man) accused of murdering Baltimore teen, Hae Min Lee, in 1999.  It was a murder case none of us knew about, and the question hinged on whether he actually did it (we still don’t know, but his lawyers are in the process of presenting new evidence). This time, many more (well, mostly our American chums) are familiar with the protagonist: Bowe Bergdahl. Described by Serial’s host, Sarah Koenig, as “not like anyone I’ve encountered before”, he’s the US soldier who walked off his post in Afghanistan in 2009 and was captured by the Taliban. Held prisoner for almost five years, he was released in 2014 when the Obama administration swapped him for five Taliban detainees at Guantánamo Bay.

At this point, you might be (quite rightly) thinking: so what? Well, desertion isn’t thought of too highly in the army. The podcast begins describing a video, produced by the Taliban, of Bergdahl, boarding a Black Hawk helicopter with US soldiers. The story then cuts to people asking questions about his disappearance: “Pentagon sources tell NBC that Bergdahl vanished under mysterious circumstances,” says one, whilst Donald Trump can be heard spewing sense again: “In the old days, deserters were shot.” But shortly after his rescue, opinion turned against Bergdahl and his fellow soldiers started accusing him of deliberately walking off and into Taliban territory. Bergdahl’s defence? He left to warn senior commanders about serious leadership problems in his platoon. What those problems were, exactly, we don’t know yet. But Bergdahl’s goal, he says, was to cause a DUSTWUN: a radio alarm signal meaning Duty Status Whereabouts Unknown (“the Army’s version of ‘man overboard,” explains Koenig), which would cause such a commotion no one could possibly ignore his complaints.

So far, so you-probably-could-have-handled-that-better. Add into the mix Bergdahl doesn’t talk to the press and you’re left wondering: why not? What’s this dude hiding? You don’t hear from Bergdahl himself, but through interviews with screen writer/producer Mark Boal (the guy behind Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker) we hear his side of the story. There’s 25 hours of recorded conversation between the pair, which Bergdahl gave Serial permission to use. The phone interviews were research for a film Boal had planned, they still are, but mean Boal and Koenig can team up to figure this thing out.

Koenig, as ever, weaves her incredibly soothing/grating (delete as appropriate) voice into the story, asking more questions than answering. She uses a helpful analogy to not only describe the case, but forewarn us of what’s to come. Koenig used to read a picture book, *Zoom*, to her children, which starts with one image and zooms further out as you turn each page, until the original picture is so far away you can’t see it anymore. “That’s what the story of Bowe is like,” says explains, “this one idiosyncratic guy makes a radical decision at the age of 23, to walk away into Afghanistan, and the consequences of that decision, they spin out, wider and wider. At every turn you’re surprised, the picture changes. To get the full picture you need to go very, very small into one person’s life and also very, very big into the war of Afghanistan.”

The questions that are already driving us insane:

  • Why did Bergdahl really leave his post? Were the reasons as bad as he says? Is he a whistle-blower? Will anyone speak of the Pit of Hell again? And please, for the love of god, what of this mysterious note? One of Bergdahl’s comrades, flabbergasted by his actions, sums it up nicely: “Is he CIA? A mole? A complete lunatic?” Who knows, and things look set to get only more confusing. The good news? We’ve got maps. 3D maps! So long, geographical Best Buy woes.
  • Will Koenig and the team come to a clear resolution? The first series was brilliant but it was also frustrating. Can Serial get away with stringing us along like a season of Lost for a second time? Our fragile hearts and minds might not be able to take such a thing.

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