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

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

'Serial' Season 2, Episode 2: recap and the questions that need answering
17 December 2015

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

If the first episode of Serial, season two was about setting the scene for the 'what', then this second episode is the beginning of the ‘how’. That or ‘WTF?’

Starting with an update on the real life accusations levelled towards our protagonist, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, we learn that a Court Marshall has been set - just this week - to try Bergdahl for two crimes: desertion and "misbehaviour before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit or place.”

The latter of which could see Bergdahl facing life imprisonment, something that presenter Sarah Koenig suggests is unlikely, but just illustrates the seriousness of the case here. A morbid tease, unlike the first season of Serial, this will almost certainly end with a conclusion.

Understanding the true reasoning behind the charges levelled at Bergdahl is tricky. Firstly because Bergdahl is consistently vague about why he deserted his fellow soldiers: sure, in the first episode he claimed that he was blowing the whistle on bad leadership and conditions but, in the same breath, he also admitted to wanting to be a bit like Jason Bourne. Which doesn't exactly bode well for someone trying to convince you of their honour and not that they're a gung-ho Hollywood soldier. You want to believe the charges are a load of hoo-hah and that he's some kind of hero, but by not giving any real insight into his reasoning it's hard to get there.

Secondly, there's clearly some hatred aimed at Bergdahl throughout the episode from the military, who at one point even express the desires of some individuals to kill him. Knowing what we know (which is very little) it's not beyond the realms to think that these could be overzealous, trumped up charges to teach him a lesson in what ol' square-headed commandos call honour. Stranger things have happened, especially in the US.

But let’s move on. What unfolds throughout the episode is a tale of cat and mouse between Taliban and the US Army, which kicks off with interviews conducted by Koenig with the Taliban speaking on a burner phone in the middle of nowhere. Who said the Serial team wasn’t meticulous?

From here these translated phone calls are then inter-spliced with comments from Bowe, his ex-military colleagues and other soldiers who joined the search for the AWOL serviceman trying to raise a DUSTWUN. What follows is the sort of storytelling you've come to expect from the Serial team, taking what should essentially be an open-shut story and throwing in enough doubt to have you questioning your own gut reactions.

If we can be sure of anything right now, it’s that none of the case really makes much sense…

Just why did Bowe leave? He says he had good reasons, but then he doesn't really go into it.  Even if you take his word for it, as morally applaudable as his initial goals may have been, he would ultimately be worthless to the Taliban. He didn't know anything. He was low-level. Worthless. There would be no need to keep him for as long as they did.

The Taliban, on the other hand, seem convinced immediately that Bowe was something special, referring to him as a golden chicken. He was their first US prisoner in seven years, according to Koenig; he was alone, and according to the Taliban's intelligence he could have been spying on local villagers (there are various mentions throughout to a westerner taking photos of locals in Afghanistan). If you take the Taliban's word, he was up to something.

This could just be speculation on their side but it does feel as if there could have been some other information involved in taking Bergdahl prisoner that we're not yet privvy to. The polar opposite of Bergdahls original reason to leave camp, and something that simply makes him the wrong person at the wrong time. From Bowe's view at least, he'd appear to back this but retrospectively the huge man hunt commandeered by the US military didn't do much to dismay the Taliban's suspicions. If they cared so much about this one man, he must be important, he must know something. He was, the Taliban would would later go on to say, more valuable than 5000 men.

And maybe he was. For a group of people that seem so excited to throw him in a cell for the rest of his life, or even bump him off themselves, why did the US care so much to go after him with more force than apparently that designated to the Bin Laden hunt? Especially if they hold the levels of contempt demonstrated in this episode. Does Bergdahl know something we don't?

Attempting to justify this huge response team, the military say that's what it does; you don't leave a man behind, even if they are deserters. Which may very well be true but the whole case still sounds fishy to us.

This said, we're only two episodes in and this story could literally go anywhere at the moment, and we hope it does because currently all the signs suggest it’s nothing more than the story of a few opportunists: 1) the Taliban, believing they've got their golden chicken, and 2) Bergdahl, believing he could be a regular action hero-come-whistleblower. And the military caught somewhere in between opening up a massive cesspit or PR damage and questions about honour and professional conduct.

The questions that are driving us insane:

  • How do you just 'interview' the Taliban? Like, seriously, is there nobody that Koenig and the team can't find?

  • Bowe states early on in the episode that he'd happily go to jail for his crimes than end up being misunderstood. He just wants the 'chance to explain himself?' Which is all good and well but then why refuse to do any press interviews until a big shot Hollywood screenwriter comes along. We want to like Bergdahl, and believe in his cause, whatever it may be but it's hard when all you can hear is the sound of dollar, dollar bills.
  • Who was the westerner taking pictures? If it's Bergdahl, it means he initially lied about what he packed and this story is about to get insane. If it's not, then Bergdahl was effectively captured and held for all that time as a result of a botched surveillance op and is now paying the price massively. Which sucks.
  • How many deserters have the military secretly killed? We don't want to fall on dodgy legal ground but the admission that Bergdahl's colleagues would have taken him out of the game if they could have was genuinely chilling. Does this happen a lot?
  • Why don't we learn? The military personnel describing the complete lack of understanding of the culture, surroundings or even motives of their enemy in Afghanistan sounds worryingly similar to what's currently happening with Daesh...