The GOLDEN CHICKEN reference in Episode 2 is to Bowe Bergdahl, the soldier who deserted his post and then was captured by the Taliban. Sarah Koenig interviewed a Taliban fighter, who said that “a dead soldier is worth nothing, but [Bergdahl] was captured alive, and he was like a golden chicken.” The question in this episode is how far the United States Army was willing to go to claim back its golden chicken. Pretty far, it seems. The army suspending everything else that the military was doing to roll tanks, helicopters, and soldiers all over the region in search of one man who they knew had walked off the base himself. Morale sank lower and lower, and their search produced no result.
Episode 3, called ESCAPING, is about Bergdahl’s escape attempt at the end of his first year of captivity. He plans it for months, and he succeeds. But when he runs away, he falls victim to the desert terrain, the topography, and the climate. He escapes, but he is lost. And then, the Taliban recaptures him and makes sure, in utterly inhumane ways, that he never escapes again.
Here are the three lessons I learned about telling great stories in these episodes:
1. The Narrator-Subject Relationship
What we tune in for really is Bergdahl's own voice - not like a lecture or an essay recitation but as it is in conversation with another person. We are hungry to hear a relationship.
In Season One, Koenig interviewed Adnan Syed extensively, and her recorded conversations with him while he was incarcerated drove the story. I was as interested in how Koenig interacted with Syed as I was in the investigation itself. In this season, Koening never speaks to Bergdahl directly, but she uses hours of recorded conversation between him and filmmaker Mark Boal to cement the story. The narrator-subject relationship gives us a prism within which to view the investigation. We have to trust Koenig and Boal in order to care about this story.
I want to pair that with an interesting disclaimer that I read on the transcripts of each episode. The producers of Serial tell us this:
Note: Serial is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that’s not on the page.
As a writer, I thought hard about how right that disclaimer was. In court too, we lawyers pause, raise volume, deepen our voices to add emotion and emphasis in the places we want the judge and the jury to focus. It is not unlike music composition in that sense, where we carefully work out melody and crescendo.
Can we do this as writers when what we have to say is flat - produced for the eye and not the ear? I think so, but arriving at that lyricism in language takes some work. A writing teacher once told me to read my work aloud and, when I could, to record it and listen to myself. I find that I catch errors every time I do this, and I also adjust sentence and paragraph structure based on how the diction sounds. The reading aloud lends us the lyrical control as narrators that oration does. In doing that, we are cementing two relationships - our relationship with the subject of our work and our relationship with our readers.
2. What is Life Worth?
Koenig offers us a series of questions at the beginning of Episode 2: “What is Bowe worth to us? What is Bowe worth to our enemy? How much will we get? How much will we sacrifice?” She says that both the Taliban and the U.S. soldiers asked themselves these questions in their respective efforts to hide and to seek Bergdahl. We can apply these questions to any great work of fiction or creative nonfiction because if answered well, we have a great story on our hands.
For example, in Moby Dick by Herman Melville, that whale is worth a great deal to Captain Ahab. He has revenge to claim over it and the whims of the sea. The whale is also worth a lot to the sea itself, as a heaving symbol of nature’s dominion over humans. Ahab and the sea “get” a lot over the pursuit - for Ahab, the maniacal pursuit of Moby Dick becomes his obsession, and for the sea, the whale's ultimate victory over Ahab, The Pequod, and every person on the ship except Ishmael is the victory of nature over humanity. How much are both sides willing to sacrifice? That question, especially as it relates to Captain Ahab, is what makes us read for 900 pages about whaling.
Whether we are in a hostage situation as we see in Serial or in any great book, life has to be worth a great deal for us to care enough to read. “To be or not to be,” Shakespeare famously writes in Act III, Scene I of Hamlet. It is this question about whether we live and how we live that preoccupies the best stories. In these two episodes, Koening deposits the questions to us using Bergdahl as a symbol of patriotism, duty, loyalty, retribution, and revenge. Did the military put itself in incredible danger to find him for good reason - subjecting themselves to traps wired with IED's, being out for 19 or more days at a time with no showers, sores on their bodies, undergarments falling off of them, raiding villages with little to no intelligence of what they would find, and working at an operation tempo so aggressive that the soldiers just didn't sleep?
Should Bergdahl be or not be? We will keep tuning in to find out.
3. Being Lost
Bergdahl escapes in Episode 3, and Koning underscores how hard he worked to run away. He pilfered away equipment, like a nail, a pipe, and a key. He befriended a vicious dog so that it would not bark when he finally made his way out. He rubbed walls with his own urine and feces as he dug through them. The conditions of his captivity were harsh, to be sure. Before he escaped, he lived in solitary confinement. After he was caught, the Taliban chained him to bedposts spread eagle for years. Through his captivity, escape, and capture, Bergdahl was lost - robbed of his sense of where he was and who he was.
It's interesting to me that we understand the physical and metaphysical feeling of being lost in the age of GPS and Google Maps. Imagine the travails of voyagers in the 1400’s which Erik Larson writes about beautifully in Isaac's Storm. Those guys (and they were always guys) really had no idea where they were going and what misery might befall them. Though we can guide our way to anywhere now, we still understand how it feels to be lost. It feels paralyzing, disarming, and confusing. Readers can relate to having no idea where someone is in life, but with the steady and trusty hand of the narrator, knowing that the character is headed somewhere. Again to Melville – “Bartleby the Scrivener” with his “I would prefer not to” makes us feel like the protagonist-attorney is in an intractable situation, lost as to what to do. Melville guides us through the character’s struggle, and we come to understand how the narrator feels lost in this situation but becomes increasingly aware of his own humanity as he is “found.” The ending is hardly tidy, but we find an emotional closure with his last utterance: “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”
We want the lost to be found in stories, and Koenig illustrates that beautifully in Episode 3. Whatever we make of what Bergdahl did and whether he deserves to live, we are listening to the episode because we want him to be found.
Please leave us your thoughts on Episodes Two and Three of Serial’s Season Two. Did you find these storytelling techniques compelling?
This is the third post in our Serial podcast posts. Read all the posts about Serial on our blog.