Serial’s second season starts without any ceremonious welcome back. In fact, until “DUSTWUN” landed in listeners’ podcatchers early Thursday morning, no one even knew it was coming. Sarah Koenig doesn’t offer a preamble at the top of the show—no mention of the media frenzy that surrounded the first season, nothing about her frustration with about getting scooped, nary any description of what it feels like to become a household name. She doesn’t even acknowledge what every single listener is feeling—Serial is back! Without any preparation, save for our “MailKimp” cutie’s familiar phonetic fumbles to ground us (yup, she’s back, too), the second season of America’s podcast darling begins: “About a year and a half ago, clips from this video…” Boom, we’re in it.
It actually shouldn’t surprise us that Koenig didn’t take time at the start to discuss fanfare, which is a hallmark of most podcasts. For all the attention paid to Serial and its first season, which focused on the cold case murder of Hae Min Lee and her accused killer Adnan Syed, Koenig and Company have never indulged in pomp. As the only podcast that stays in the cultural conversation regardless of whether or not it’s in production, the show’s team perhaps knows it need not comment on its success. In fact, perhaps they are aware that part of Serial’s allure comes from a bit of withholding.
The only promise Serial ever made was that it would tell us a single story over multiple episodes. Koenig never explained its genre or what expectations we should have for its future. Its core qualities—the backbone from which every other season of Serial will depend—have been muddy at best. If after the first season you assumed Serial was a true crime show, or a mystery show, or an examination of the justice system, or the story of an amateur investigator, or a meditation on truth, you were right. It was all of those things. But which features were tied to the story and which were inherent to the larger podcast remained unclear. In other words, we didn’t know how Serial defined itself. With the arrival of season two, Serial begins to contour itself, revealing to us the nature of the show it actually wants to be.
“DUSTWUN” centers on the story of Bowe Bergdahl, the sergeant who walked off his post in Afghanistan, was captured by the Taliban, imprisoned for five years, and then released in exchange for five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. (As if the stars can’t help but align for Serial season two, a House report accusing Obama of breaking the law in this trade came out the very day Serial dropped. At time of press, news that Bergdahl faces a court martial broke.) The sergeant’s source material of “DUSTWUN” comes from Mark Boal—the filmmaker who wrote The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty—who gave Koenig a wonderful gift of hours of audio files he recorded as exploratory interviews with Bergdahl.
The first episode of the season sets us up to examine what exactly happened the night Bergdahl left his command. According to him, the decision was a calculated one to bring attention to what he viewed as gross misconduct among his superiors. It was, to his mind, an act of heroism. If you believe his versions of events, Bergdahl is pretty much John Snow come to life, willing to lay himself down to save his brothers. But Koenig reminds us to be skeptical, emphasizing that Bergdahl had five years to get his story straight.
So, it appears that the substance of “DUSTWUN” is as much about developing the world of the second season as it is about crystalizing what Serial’s banner objectives are. In signaling to the listener that Bergdahl isn’t necessarily trustworthy, it also signaled that Serial might have a formula after all.
First, procure a magical gift of a story. In season one, Syed’s lawyer contacted Koenig, and this season, Boal did the same.
Second, confirm that said story is best told in an audio format. In season one, Syed is locked up and can only talk on the phone, and in season two, Bergdahl will not speak to the press, but okayed the use of his taped interviews.
Next, structure the plot around an unreliable narrator who is thoughtful—poetic even—but, at the very least, likable and convincing.
Finally, turn the truth over and over and over. Show that the truth is relative, that it’s slippery and evasive, that the tighter you try to hold on to it, the more it just slips through your fingers.
As the episode pushes on, we can see Serial’s nouveau riche attitude. The scripted prose Koenig reads is more polished, much more indicative of a fully formed plot—honestly, her cadence sounds ever more like one Mr. Ira Glass—and a definite undertone exists that this season comes to us after its completion, which was certainly not the case in season one.
Koenig’s eye for detail is ever sharp. The smattering of detours that both progress the story and create wonderful images and moods is audio gold. The range and the pitch are expansive, and the season opener indicates that this time around we’re going inside worlds we are often left out of—either for lack of access or lack of people willing to talk. For instance, in this episode, we get a taste of what it’s like to be held hostage. Bergdahl described his confinement as like having a word on the tip of your tongue, except that what you’re trying to access is actually who you are, as a person, as a being. In a lighter and grotesque moment, we hear about the Pit of Hell, a trash fire that never stops burning, and the soldiers’ collective shit pit that sits next to it, including the hierarchy that might land a soldier as its stirrer. This is part of war that generally stays overseas.
The access Koenig had to Syed will be missed this season. She, like us, is a fly on the wall for the conversations between Boal and Bowe. However precious the audio files of Bergdahl’s story are, they are automatically diluted because Boal plays middle man. Not only does he play middleman, but because he is taking notes as they speak, he’s not entirely present for his half of the conversation. Bergdahl, too, is more distanced from himself than Syed ever was and has a greater perspective on what he looks like as a character, making a tidy comparison of himself to Jason Bourne. According to Serial season two’s welcome post, unlike last season when the story stayed close to Syed, we’ve been assured that this story will have a greater emphasis on the consequences of Bergdahl’s choices. “What Bergdahl did made me wrestle with things I’d thought I more or less understood, but really didn’t: what it means to be loyal, to be resilient, to be used, to be punished,” Koenig writes. If a layer to this season comes from Koenig’s relationship to the protagonist, “DUSTWUN” doesn’t let it on.
But it is perhaps the choice of Bergdahl that lets us know, at last, what Serial really is all about. While the first season examined the many shades and nuances of the truth, how it can be many things at once, Koenig’s protagonists are either one thing or another, and nothing in between. Syed is either a murderer capable of telling intricate lies and strangling the last breath out of a high school girl, or he’s an innocent man who was framed for murder and robbed of his best years. Bergdahl is either a deserter and traitor, a shame to our country, and someone who cost several people their lives and the United States five important Taliban captives—or, he’s a brilliant, principled war hero, capable of a level of self sacrifice few can even imagine.
Regardless of the legal outcomes of either ongoing case, the listener’s only—albeit great—satisfaction will be in fact gathering. Unless someone confesses, we won’t ever get the Truth. In certain moments of season one, we were certain that Syed was a scorned sociopath and probably guilty, and other times, we were outraged that this man didn’t get a fair trail. At times, we could even convince ourselves that the point wasn’t guilt or innocence, but rather, justice for all—essentially the note Koenig landed on last year—because that’s a simpler equation to solve. Even when we chose a side, guilt or innocence, we all had to live with some measure of doubt. It appears that what drives Serial’s creators and listeners to show up time and again is a deeply rooted fascination with the fact that we can’t really know one another, that we can’t really know the Truth—that it will keep ducking our advances, that our desire to turn everything into plot and characters, into simple binaries, is a practice that just helps us sleep at night.
We’re only one episode in, but it sounds like season one will deliver some serious discomfort. Of course, it’s also clear that we’re in for a hell of a good time, too. As the theme song starts to roll on “DUSTWUN,” signaling that our time is up, Koenig plays a clip for next week and says, “That’s me, calling the Taliban.”