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Serial - Season 2, Episodes 4 & 5

In Episode 4, THE CAPTORS, Koenig tells us about the Haqqani tribe, the group responsible for Bowe Bergdahl’s captivity. American journalist David Rohde had escaped these captors ten days before they took Bergdahl. Rohde talks about how he worried that Bergdahl had been treated harshly because Rohde had been treated well. And then in the episode, we find out how Berghadl was treated.

Episode 5, MEANWHILE IN TAMPA, grapples with American military apparatus and why Bowe Bergdahl’s rescue took five years. The episode is a bit dry but necessary to understand how many layers of decision-makers it takes to accomplish big things in government. I litigated a terrorism case, so I know a little something about this too.

Here are the three great storytelling lessons I learned from these episodes:

1. Time as Infinite

As writers, time moves our stories forward. These episodes ask us to consider how our characters can work with time.

Plato and Aristotle believed that time was eternal. Isaac Newton too touted the infinite nature of time. By those measures, our human lives feel reduced. Isn’t any experience, real or fictional, meaningless in this infinite scheme? To answer that question, we have to look at time both as big and as small. First, the big.

Bergdahl was a 23-year-old kid who was held as a POW for five years.  He was in isolation for almost all of that time. Terrence Russell, a man who has debriefed some 125 POWs, said this about Bergdahl’s captivity: “His experience ranks at the same echelon of the most horrible conditions of captivity that we’ve seen in the last 60 years.” So much was happening during Bergdahl’s captivity. People’s personal lives moved on, the nation was at war, and the political theater in Afghanistan and Pakistan was changing by the day. Did one man’s story of captivity matter to anyone? Koenig makes it matter, even if in hindsight.

As storytellers, we learn from this how we too are grappling with characters who live full lives and who also live amid large-scale societal conflagrations. What matters here is not the sum but the paring down of events to create a story. We know that we have an infinite reel of time to work with. The challenge is in figuring out what to leave on the cutting floor.

2. Time as Relative

While time is vast and endless, we love stories because we want to see how every character — occupying the small space that he or she does — fills that time. Time, Albert Einstein says, is relative to the chosen reference frame. Bergdahl’s reference frame is in the image of a clock in a German hospital after he was rescued.  He could not deal with watching that clock. The clock and calendar became “bendy and troublesome,” Koenig says. In Bergdahl’s words:

Months and days, weeks or months don't really matter, because the only thing you can really understand is how long the seconds are lasting. I mean, that's what hits you the hardest is just the seconds.

We have seen this theme in great stories — the slow passage of time that creates dramatic tension because of its monotony — like in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient or in “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. We see the relativity of space and time in Salvador Dalí’s La Persistencia de Memoria, painted in the wake of the 1929 crash of the stock market and the rise of the Nazis in Germany. Dalí’s world was waiting and watching.

As writers, we work with this elasticity of time — honoring the eternal nature of it but also how significant moments leave impressions. How much control do our characters have in the time before them? The more control we lend them, the more compelling the story becomes.

3. Revenge and Kindness

The Haqqanis treated Bergdahl the way they thought he deserved to be treated. One man, for example, would come into his room to torture him. Bergdahl never saw his face. He would be handcuffed and sitting cross-legged on the floor when the man pinned his legs down, pushed him against a wall, and cut his chest with a razor blade, 60 or 70 cuts at a time. 

Why would one person hurt another in this way?  Bergdahl explained to Mark Boal: For being American, for all the things that, you know, Americans have done in their country, for all the things that, you know, were done to guys in Guantánamo and Bagram and all that. You know, the waterboarding, the dogs, you know, the isolation chambers, you know, the food deprivation, the sleep deprivation — all those things. Those were the ... that was the list of things that they always talked about whenever it came around to, you know, Guantánamo and Bagram and all that.” The torture was about revenge and retribution.

Let’s go back to ancient Mesopotamia in 1754 BC to the Code of Hammurabi. One of the 282 laws lays out the principle of lex talionis, or "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."  In Bergdahl’s case, if the Americans tortured prisoners, then American prisoners must also be tortured. An individual ethical compass has no place here.  Or does it?

Koenig tells us in Episode 4 about a man who cooked Bergdahl’s food with care and brought him a blanket. Another Haqqani man resisted treating the journalist David Rhode badly because he wanted to be “better than the Americans.” Endowing characters with these sorts of ethical quandaries is what makes them interesting. We want to see the humanity within people, to watch them struggle with the lesser of two evils. In these moments, we find our heroes.

Episode 5 also asks us to consider how complex enemy-making is. Bringing Bergdhal home was difficult because of the network of relationships that transaction would affect. There was the internal process of negotiating for a hostage’s release. There were United States-Pakistani relations to consider, both now and in diplomatic channels going forward. There was the pressure Bergdahl’s friends and family members put on politicians. The left hand didn’t coordinate with the right because this intelligence beast was many-tentacled. Who was enemy and who was friend? This episode and my work as a public defender have taught me that we don’t always know. As writers, what is interesting about this tension between revenge and kindness, hero and villain, good and evil is not the answer but the struggle.

Please share your thoughts below on Episodes 4 and 5.  Did you think these episodes told compelling stories about time, revenge, and enemies?

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This is the fourth post in our Serial podcast series.  Read all the posts about Serial on our blog.