In Episode 9, TRADE SECRETS, Sarah Koenig examines the behind-the-scenes diplomatic skirmishes around Bowe Bergdahl's release. She poses big questions about how and whether to negotiate with the "enemy," what that even means, and how symbolic posturing can thwart progress.
Episode 10, THORNY POLITICS, persists on this theme but in the domestic arena. Here, Koenig delves into the politics of trading Bergdahl for five Taliban leaders. When National Security Advisor Susan Rice says that Bergdahl served with "honor and distinction," tempers flare. The White House Rose Garden ceremony welcoming Bergdahl home felt politically deaf to military culture. Congress was cast aside and not told about the trade. Bergdahl faced this environment back home after five years of captivity, when his physical and psychological states were fragile.
Here are three great storytelling lessons I learned from these episodes:
1. Eat Your Kale
I confess: I had a hard time listening to these two episodes. At times, I was bored. But I knew that understanding the international and domestic quagmires surrounding Bergdahl's release was crucial to the story. So, the first lesson I learned from these two episodes is that, sometimes, we have to hold our noses and eat our kale. And if it's prepared the way Serial does it, kale can taste pretty good.
Consider Moby-Dick by Herman Melville here. I keep returning to this book because of the many psychosocial similarities between Captain Ahab and Bowe Bergdahl. Melville devotes pages and pages of writing to the kale. We learn more than we ever wanted to know about whaling. Consider how much more the following passage means to the book because Melville tells us so much about whaling:
All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.
The kale is necessary because in learning about whaling, we know precisely what Captain Ahab can and cannot control. Ahab's existential crisis, his raison d'être, is in a maniacal quest to control. The whaling exegesis, in my view, sets apart reason from passion, control from relinquishment, and humanity from nature. The book would not be so powerful without the greens, so to speak.
So too in this season of Serial, we must understand the military complex and domestic and international politics to understand the brick and mortar of this story. Why did Bergdahl leave in the first place? Why did the United States Army go searching for him? Why did the United States government want him to come back? What did the Taliban want in exchange for him? How did the military feel when he actually returned? The answers to these questions require us to understand the complex galaxy of international and domestic relationships that we have created for ourselves. To follow a great story, we need to eat our kale.
2. Hero or Antihero?
The theme of whether Bergdahl is a hero or an antihero again surfaces in these two episodes. The moral confusion around this question is what keeps our eyes drawn to the story, and I appreciated how much this quandary appears in great literature.
Let's take George Saunders, for example. In his short story collection Tenth of December, he gives us incredibly lovable, quirky characters who wear masks of heroes and antiheroes. In a GQ article in 2005, Saunders said, “What a powerful thing to know: That one’s own desires are mappable onto strangers.” In this sense, we are all heroes and antiheroes in our own lives too. Whether we are enveloped in Saunders' imaginary world or sitting in a chair as a public defender, the wires of good and bad can be crossed in us all. Seeing not only that confusion but the choices characters make around that confusion is a humanizing experience.
And that humanity is what Koenig achieves in the two episodes before the series finale. Bergdahl should be rescued, even if he made the considered decision to walk away. The United States Army and government at large agree on that point. And yet, he is undeserving of the "hero" appellation. No one knows whether soldiers died or were injured when they were searching for Bergdahl. It is unclear whether the trade of one American for five Taliban men at Guantanamo was a good deal or a raw one. This is a man who cannot sleep in a bed after five years on the floor. He can barely talk after not using his voice for so long. He has been tortured in every sense of the word. He brought it upon himself, his fellow soldiers say. What does that make him then — someone to admire, pity, or revile? And aren't there pieces of us that merit all three of those reactions too?
3. Buzz Phrases
When interviewed about Bergdahl's release, National Security Adviser Susan Rice told George Stephanopoulos on ABC's "This Week" that he served the country with "honor and distinction." Rice may as well have thrown a match onto an oil spill. Soldiers began a "Bowe Bergdahl is not a hero" Facebook group. Many others were furious with the notion that a deserter was being touted as someone who served his country with "honor and distinction." The Serial producers tell us that Rice later clarified her remarks on CNN, saying what she meant was that volunteering to serve in the army is in itself an honorable thing to do. But the damage was done.
The writing lesson I picked up from this faux pas was that buzz phrases matter. There are great examples of how a single line or phrase can turn a story. In William Shakespeare's Winter's Tale, Leontes says of his friend Polixenes and his pregnant wife Hermione:
Too hot, too hot!
To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods.
I have tremor cordis on me: my heart dances;
But not for joy; not joy. This entertainment
May a free face put on, derive a liberty
From heartiness, from bounty, fertile bosom,
And well become the agent; 't may, I grant;
But to be paddling palms and pinching fingers,
As now they are, and making practised smiles
As in a looking-glass, and then to sigh, as 'twere
The mort o' the deer; O, that is entertainment
My bosom likes not, nor my brows! Mamillius,
Art thou my boy?
"Too hot, too hot," says Leontes, suspecting that his friend and his wife have had an affair. These four words incite tragedy for the rest of the play.
In honor of the great playwright's 400th birthday, here is another example: When King Lear asks his three daughters to declare who loves him most so that he may divide his property, his youngest and favorite child Cordelia says, "Nothing, my lord." "Nothing can come of nothing," a disappointed Lear replies. He prods her again: "How, how, Cordelia? Mend your speech a little, Lest you may mar your fortunes." Yet, she will offer no flowery words to rival her sisters' speeches. For her declaration of "nothing," Lear disinherits and banishes Cordelia.
"Honor and distinction," "Too hot, too hot," "Nothing, my lord," are pithy phrases that characterize people and predicaments. When deployed well, they can serve as the heart of a story.
Please share your thoughts below on Episodes 9 and 10. Did you find the macro theaters of war and domestic politics to be compelling or dense? Do you see other examples of where hero and antihero are confused? Are there phrases in short stories or novels that just stay with you?
This is the sixth and penultimate post in our Serial podcast series. Read all the posts about Serial on our blog.