This past week, as we all impatiently waited for the season finale of the wildly popular and highly addictive true-crime podcast Serial, reminded me of nothing more than the week leading up the Season 1 finale of HBO’s True Detective last spring. Admittedly, I feel crass comparing the two — one is a fictional series about a made-up crime that’s designed to horrify its audience, while the other is about a very real man who is serving life in prison (and may be innocent), and the very real and devastating murder that put him there. The stories are different, but the anticipation felt the same, and I imagine the reaction to the respective finales will be similar, too.
True Detective viewers had spent weeks analyzing every single frame of the series, breaking down each scene in order to dissect it and develop multiple theories about what really happened and who the murderer was. That was the most fun part of the show: the water-cooler aspect, how we were all in this mystery together, and how eager we were to have our individual theory proven correct (or even, to be honest, proven wrong). But writer Nic Pizzolatto disappointed much of the show’s audience (I am of the small contingent of viewers that found it perfectly satisfactory) with an ending that wasn’t as dramatic or mind-blowing as people wanted it to be. It was quiet, and it worked.
I suspect there was a vaguely similar anticipation happening with Serial. Granted, the stakes are much different (by which I mean: they are real), and there is something that makes me uneasy and uncomfortable about sitting on the edge of my seat, eagerly awaiting new episodes, and spending Thursday mornings engrossed in the saga of an actual human being and an actual teenage murder victim. Yet Serial is a podcast that is virtually impossible to resist: its premise is clever — telling one true-crime story in a, well, serialized way that demands you start from the beginning and follow straight through as if reading a crime novel or watching a detective show — the central mystery is engaging, Sarah Koenig’s back-and-forth confusion and mournful sighs of uncertainty help to build the story, and it lends itself naturally to all the things the Internet loves: a comprehensive prediction-filled subreddit, a good old-fashioned backlash, nuanced thinkpieces examining race, jokey tweets from brands and the subsequent apology for them, and even a podcast about the podcast.
But because it’s so easy to fall so deep into Serial‘s true-life mythology, it’s also easy to find yourself demanding a big, official ending that’s set in stone. Yet it’s also impossible; this isn’t a story that Koenig made up, and it’s a story that is not yet over, as the final episode, “What We Know,” makes clear. It’s natural for fans to crave a definitive ending to a serialized story, but that’s not always going to happen. Instead, “What We Know” was a surprisingly good, quiet, and reasonable ending to the season, and the only ending it could have had.
Koenig and crew didn’t make any grand statements about whether or not Adnan Syed is guilty, nor did they really come to any conclusion. For much of the episode, Koenig rehashed some of the information that we already knew (but with some newer bits, like — finally — insight from Don, Hae Min Lee’s boyfriend at the time of her murder who paints a clearer picture of Hae, and more information about the mystery of Best Buy’s phonebooth — there may have been one in the vestibule — and other small things). She went over some details and the phone logs. She tried, once again, to ask Adnan to recall his exact schedule, and Adnan, once again, can’t remember. So Koenig is just as confused as the rest of us. “If you asked me to swear that Adnan Syed is innocent, I couldn’t do it,” she says. “I nurse doubt. I don’t like that I do, but I do.” The most concrete opinion we get from her is that “most of the time” she thinks he didn’t do it. Then: a curveball about a serial killer who may have done it, though the chances are very slim (and he has since committed suicide). So, again, no conclusion. At least, not yet.
Even so, Serial remains a remarkable experiment in journalism, especially when it comes to the tense, mystery-building episodes of its half-season. Over time, it became a series that knew it couldn’t solve a 15-year-old crime and prove a man’s innocence, thus freeing him from the jail cell where he’s spent nearly half of his life. Instead, it became more about the abundance of uncertainties and flaws within the criminal justice system, the frustrating gray area that a case like Adnan’s can get trapped in — perhaps for the rest of his life — and how there are always more questions than answers.