Season 2 of Serial is here, and so are Nick Thorburn’s creeping piano theme and Sarah Koenig’s melodious NPR voice. She and her team of intrepid producers are back to investigate a Very Serious Mystery, again, packaging it into several hourlong podcasts that intrigue while, somehow, retaining levity and humor.Last season it was the murder of high school student Hae Min Lee, and this time around it’s the story of disgraced Army veteran Bowe Bergdahl, who was held captive by the Taliban for five years and now faces charges of desertion. And while the first season achieved a rare emotional mirepoix through the presence of memorable, charming characters like Adnan and Jay, this second season, with its necessary reliance on military jargon (such as the first episode’s title, DUSTWUN), soldier testimonials, and the existential torture that comes with military service, seems to be headed down a more difficult path. It could be for the best, though.
There were problems with the first season of Serial, especially Koenig’s apparent bias toward Adnan’s innocence, but perhaps the most troubling was the fact that the Lee’s murder became a vehicle for a kind of twee comedy. And still, it’s tough to call that “troubling,” because that comedy made the series so captivating. In “DUSTWUN”, Koenig once again seems clearly biased toward her subject’s moral rectitude, but the possibility for humor seems unlikely, given that the first things we hear from Bergdahl (via telephone recordings courtesy of Mark Boal, screenwriter of Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker) have to do with the existential terror of being tortured engendered by simply standing in a dark room by yourself.
“How do I explain to a person that standing in an empty, dark room hurts?” he asks Boal, who plans to use his conversations with Bergdahl as the basis for a film. “I didn’t know what I was. I couldn’t see my hands, I could only feel my face.” Screaming meant risking torture, and he couldn’t stop thinking about the simple wooden door that was keeping him from the rest of the world. He could’ve easily torn it off its hinges with his bare hands, he says.
This is immersive, interesting stuff, but Koenig knows a podcast can’t survive with ceaseless talk of torture, so she flashes back to Bergdahl’s escape (or abandonment, depending on your point of view) from his post. In doing so, she enlists his fellow soldiers, who manage to express the shock of Bergdahl’s abandonment while simultaneously painting his one-time post as a nightmare, complete with an actual burning shithole.
It’s compelling testimony, full of drama and suspense: Bergdahl bought “local” clothing to blend in; his superiors were whipped into a frenzy upon discovering his absence; he admits to wanting to be like Jason Bourne, from the movies. It’s also bogged down with the lingo of the Army, and so Koenig often breaks the thread of the plot to explain a phrase. This is similar to what she did in the first series, which sometimes demanded explanation of the Muslim community of Baltimore. And yet, while the Muslim community of Baltimore was a necessary player in the story of Hae Min Lee, it was grounded in settings — American cities and suburbs, high school libraries, Best Buy’s parking lot — familiar enough to kept the story afloat, regardless of the listener’s understanding of that community. With the military, vagueness will not work. With the military, empathy demands fluency.
Regardless of Koenig’s conclusions about Bergdahl’s intentions, the biggest problem this season faces is familiarizing the audience to the experience of veterans. Because most listeners are not enlisted, are not entrenched in foreign lands living among burning garbage in vast pits. We do not, as Bergdahl points out early on, know what it’s like to be forced into seclusion, separated from the world at large. Whether or not Koenig is capable of making those things relatable while captivating listeners remains to be seen. As it stands, the world Bergdahl ran away from might as well be light years away from outs, and the language spoken by his military peers might as well be gibberish. After the first 45 minutes of this first season, which concludes by teasing us with a phone call to the Taliban Itself, enlightenment still seems very far away.