Episode 11, PRESENT FOR DUTY, is the final episode of Season 2 of Serial. Host Sarah Koenig concludes the season by discussing the unanswerable big questions about Bowe Bergdahl’s predicament. It is time for a reckoning, Koenig tells us.
Who is to blame for Bergdahl’s decision to walk off the base? Who is responsible for the fallout from his disappearance and the search for him that ensued? Soldiers died in the months following his disappearance. Koenig asks whether Bergdahl’s disappearance caused those deaths. Some insist that his reckless conduct caused the deaths of six soldiers; others claim there was no direct causality. It is true, however, that the Army reappropriated resources that could have been used to fight the war to look for Bergdahl. Koening also delves into the bigger questions about war — there too it is hard to know who is responsible for what.
I note here that even if you have not tuned in for the entire season, this single episode is worth listening to because of the masterful job that Koenig and her team do in telling the entire story in an hour. We are left to grapple with such big questions about what choices we are making as a nation.
Here are three great storytelling lessons I learned from the final episode this season:
1. The Story Mosaic
For those of us who write long, it is hard to keep track of what the heck our book is about. The project grows and so do our ideas and characters. Great storytellers can distill the big narrative down to the pithy. How do we do that?
The first lesson I learned from the final episode is something I saw in every other episode but only really noticed at the end. The opening “package” in the podcast consists of terrific music and a series of audio clips from the prior episodes. It’s like an audio scrapbook. Here is the transcript for the final episode opening sequence, with the caveat this sounds even better than it reads:
I wanted to be a soldier, but I wanted to be a World War II soldier.
And they were out there handing out watercolor maps of Afghanistan.
We all felt like, why are we up here?
This is fucking bullshit. He's in Pakistan. [laughs]
He served the United States with honor and distinction.
The refrain was almost always that the guy was a traitor.
That's not something you can ever come back from.
I haven't seen from you or any other journalist a real dig into how the army came to that conclusion.
But as soon as you walk out that door, get ready, 'cause there's a ... there's a shitstorm, and it's not going away anytime soon.
Pulling moments of a story out into a “package” like this can really help us drive the story. It is a reminder not only of the plot but of the emotion infused in the choices characters are making.
2. The Persistence of Blame
This final episode really wrestled with the idea of blame. As I wrote earlier in the season, Serial telescopes into the micro and macro issues in the story. Context counts for a lot. At each level of the story, someone can point the finger at someone else.
Take a look at the many tense story arcs that call for us to blame someone. Is the United States Army to blame for letting Bergdahl enlist in the first place when he had a nervous breakdown of sorts at the Coast Guard? Was Bergdahl to blame for walking off his base instead of lodging a protest about his situation? Was he in a rational frame of mind when he even left given that military therapists said a person would have to be suicidal or crazy to walk into enemy territory? Were international or domestic politics to blame for taking five years to recover a soldier? Whether we take an organizational behavior view of blame or the more granular perspective of the choices of each individual person, there is plenty of blame to go around here.
This blame theme should be on our minds in every story we produce. Ultimately, human conflict ends up being about one person being at fault over something. This much I know from my work in both the criminal defense and civil rights arenas. We see this in literature too. Can Isabel Archer blame Gilbert Osmond or herself for her ultimate loss of freedom in Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady? In Flannery O’Connor’s “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” whose fault is it that the 32-year-old deaf-mute daughter Lucynell ends up abandoned by Tom Shiftlet, the mother’s or Tom’s? Is Achilles’ fate in The Iliad his own fault because he chose kleos, or unwilting glory, instead of a longer but unremarkable life?
If we frame our stories with the blame theme in the firmament, we can sustain the tension throughout the story even if there is no tidy resolution.
3. Just Deserts
“Just deserts” means that someone got what they deserved. It is a theory of punishment that signals a sense of retribution — not literally “eye for an eye” but in that vein. In this final episode, Sarah Koenig and Mark Boal talk about what the appropriate punishment for Bergdahl should be. What is at stake here is patriotism, after all.
This question of what someone deserves for a bad act is, whether we know it or not, often on our minds. In Hindu philosophy, we call it karma. In my law practice, I really think about this with what we call “rats,” or confidential informants who testify against clients and are offered sweetheart deals for their own criminal acts in exchange for their betrayal or loyalty, depending on who you ask.
What is interesting about this concept as a literary device is not so much what actually happens to a person but the nagging moral question in our own minds of whether someone is going to “get away with it” and whether a good actor deserves good to come to them. In Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, did Bob Ewell deserve to die for being the menacing father, witness, and neighbor that he ultimately was? How about what happens to Lydia Bennett and George Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, do they “deserve” each other? Colonel Christopher Brandon certainly deserves Marianne Bennett in Sense and Sensibility. We cling to our wishes and expectations for characters, and that investment in characters and not in outcome is what wraps us into a great story.
So too with Bergdahl, though to find out what happens to him, we will have to wait. Koenig ends the season with this sentence: “Waiting is something Bowe knows how to do.”
Please share your thoughts below on Episode 11 and on the season in its entirety. Did you feel any closure with this investigation? Did you appreciate the big questions asked even if there were no tidy answers? Did the podcast help you become a better writer?
This is the seventh and final post in our Serial podcast series. Read all the posts about Serial on our blog.