Serial – Season 2, Episodes 6, 7, and 8

In Episode 6, 5 O’CLOCK SHADOW, Sarah Koenig delves into how Bowe Bergdahl could be both a great soldier and a man who broke the cardinal rule of the military by walking away from his post.  Through a story about razors, we learn something about Bergdahl’s inner struggle as he decided that the only way to be a great soldier would be to abandon that life.

Episodes 7 and 8 — HINDSIGHT PART I and HINDSIGHT PART II — look at how Bergdahl ended up in the United States Army and how it accepted him even after he had a previous breakdown. These two episodes together trace the “hero” story arc laid out by Joseph Campbell at the early stages. Bergdahl arguably ends up being the anti-hero by the time this story is over.

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

1. A Matter of Perspective

No two people remember a life episode in the same way. Every truth has its distortion or its idiosyncratic bent. We either accept that there is no such thing as truth or that everyone has the right to believe in their own version of it. As a criminal defense lawyer, I see this all the time, especially in cases involving eyewitnesses. I even see this as a parent in little skirmishes between my daughters over who was the last to use the markers. In the courtroom, at home, and in our imaginations, great stories make us sit in different perspectives. When we can do that, we really feel the angst of not knowing right from wrong, truth from lie.

Koenig raises this quandary in Episode 6 with an image: the razor.

Bergdahl’s platoon was called into the mountains to assist with a vehicle damaged by an IED. When they arrived, their own vehicle became disabled. They went to rescue and ended up needing rescuing. Here is an exchange Koenig had with one of the other soldiers in the platoon:

Josh Korder: We didn't bring razors. Nobody had any changes of clothes. So—
Sarah Koenig: The first thing you said was "We had no razors"—
Josh Korder: Yeah.
Sarah Koenig: —which to me would be the last thing you would think about is like shaving when you're in a situation like that, but is that a thing?
Josh Korder: Yeah. It is a thing actually. It's not OK for the army people to be growing, like, a beard.
Sarah Koenig: You're aware all the time, like, I gotta shave, I gotta shave, I gotta shave.
Josh Korder: Yup. Yeah. Yup, yup. And it's in your brain like, Oh my god. What are they gonna say? Are they gonna say I'm stupid because I didn't bring a razor? Are they gonna get pissed at us? Are they gonna ... like, what's gonna happen?

The soldiers worry that they are going to get blown up or shot at. There is a firefight, and amazingly, no one is hurt. When the battalion finally makes it back to the base, this is what happens, according to Bergdahl:

Bowe Bergdahl: We get to the wire entrance. The battalion commander's standing there waiting for us. So our platoon sergeant gets out of the truck. Now, when you get to the grounds, our platoon ... our ... the battalion commander says something. But now, what does he say? Does he say, "Hey, congratulations, you guys. You did a good job out there. I'm glad to see you back. Congratulations," you know, "You didn't lose anyone out there. I'm proud of you. Hey, how's the men doing? How are you feeling? How's everything going?"
He didn't say anything like that. His concern was not anywhere close to, hey, how's the men's wellbeing doing? How are my men who were out there in a war zone? He didn't say anything like that. Our platoon sergeant steps out of the truck, hits the ground, and the first thing that comes out of our battalion commander's mouth is "What? You couldn't shave?"

What? You couldn’t shave? Bergdahl was deeply angry about this. The other soldiers were annoyed and laughed it off, but to Bergdahl, this incident was part of a mosaic of how the Army let him down. He wanted to be a good soldier — the best soldier even. But he was losing faith in the institution. Was Bergdahl being selfish or selfless by walking away from an institution that he felt was failing?

From the institution’s standpoint, maybe this was a joke. People sometimes deal with tense situations with humor, even totally inappropriate humor. This, too, I certainly know from my work. We joke about things that are absolutely offensive and not funny to anyone outside of the criminal defense realm. It is a coping mechanism in an otherwise stressful occupation. Maybe the shaving comment was a reminder to the soldiers that this “counterinsurgency” mission defied definition and that to retain legitimacy in the region, the soldiers had to present themselves in a certain way. The media was crawling down their necks and optics mattered. What seemed petty to Bergdahl was part of a larger PR campaign for the United States’ occupancy of the region.

Think of the tragic story of Othello and how easily Iago manipulated his jealousy through the use of that blasted strawberry handkerchief. If only Desdemona hadn’t lost that handkerchief, might she have lived? We understand Othello’s blinding jealousy, we understand Desdemona’s innocence, and we understand Iago’s depraved motives. And that is all because Shakespeare did a great job in constructing that story.

We can see these stories refracted through different eyes.  In the end, it’s all a matter of perspective.

2. The Restless Hero

The Hero’s Journey, a narrative pattern identified by Joseph Campbell, begins with a call to adventure. Koenig uses this storytelling trope to terrific effect in Episode 7.

Here, we have Bowe Bergdahl as a young man growing up in a small community in Idaho.  He is isolated from human beings, home-schooled and living in nature. He wants something more in his life. He hungers for adventure as he tries to work out who he is. He tries to join the French Legion and then the United States Coast Guard. He has what looks like a mental breakdown at the Coast Guard and is sent back home. He is admitted to the United States Army despite the psychiatric history because, in 2008, the United States desperately needed more soldiers to fight.

I heard in this episode the beginnings of the iconic narrative structure that is also present in Star Wars and The Odyssey. It’s best to hear this from Campbell himself and the producers of the TED Radio Hour in a podcast episode entitled “The Hero’s Journey." Here are the beginnings of the narrative arc. The hero lives in the ordinary world, which Bergdahl’s was. He is called to adventure when he decides that some sort of service is the right path for him. He is refused from the call when his mental health fails him. He then (slightly out of order from Campbell’s structure) signs up for the Army and finds a mentor there.  He crosses the threshold from America to the Middle East. And then we know the story from there. Bergdahl ends up not being a hero, but in his mind, he is.

3. A Fallen Ideal

Heroes that we know, like Luke Skywalker, Odysseus, Beowulf, and Harry Potter, seek some ideal. Bergdahl did too. He had in his mind a perfect vision of what being in the U.S. Army was supposed to mean. His experiences disappointed him, and his response to that disappointment was to walk away in protest.

Koenig tells us in Episode 8 that the Army may have made a mistake in admitting Bergdahl in the first place. A person with stress management issues should maybe have been examined more carefully before being deployed. Beyond that, Bergdahl had a perhaps impossible vision of what his role in the military was supposed to be. He said that he loved Bruce Lee and studied warriors who were committed to honor, loyalty, and self-sacrifice. That romantic notion deteriorated in his time on active duty.

For example, in Episode 6, Koenig relays the story of when a commanding officer said to the men, “Hey, we’re not here to rape, kill, pillage, and burn. You know, we’re doing just the opposite of that.” And then he went on to say, “I know lots of you guys joined the Army to do that.” The solders laughed at that comment, but Bergdahl took offense at it.

We return again to how perspective plays a role in storytelling. If our main character — in this case Bergdahl — views his role in a certain way and feels that he is truly not serving his purpose, was his decision to protest that situation wrong? Was it so wrong that it justified a court martial? Maybe, maybe not. Again, it depends on perspective.

Please share your thoughts below on Episodes 6, 7, and 8.  Do you see how different perspectives pull us into the narrative?


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