On the last episode of Serial, we heard about Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl’s attempts of escape in his first year of captivity with the Taliban. Now, after a one-week hiatus coinciding with the holidays, the latest chapter in the ongoing saga kicks off with a glimpse at what happened after year one. How the captured soldier’s insatiable thirst for flight was replaced with the grueling daily psychological battle to survive the next four years in a padlocked iron cage.
If that set-up suggests that we were going to hear from Bergdahl in depth about how he got through those endless hours, well, you’re both right and wrong. The first half of the episode is handed over to host Sarah Koenig and a journalist named David Rohde, who while on leave from the New York Times in 2009, was also captured by the Taliban. Koenig’s interview with Rohde is fascinating and provides a lot of context about the Haqqani family – the Taliban associates who were holding Bergdahl. She describes them (or rather quotes the Times describing them) as “The Sopranos of the Afghanistan War.”
This is all gripping stuff. But it’s also well known and easily available elsewhere. Anyone who’s picked up a major newspaper over the past decade not only knows about Rohde’s imprisonment, but also about the Haqqanis. Which leads to what is quickly becoming my biggest problem with this season of the podcast. If you’re coming to Bergdahl’s story cold, it seems a lot more eye-opening than if you follow the news with some regularity. This was my biggest fear when Serial announced the Bergdahl case would be the focus of its sophomore season. What would they come up with that’s new? Aside from actually hearing taped snippets of Bergdahl and screenwriter Mark Boal’s phone conversations (which are so strange and spellbinding that I wish they were a bigger part of the narrative), Serial hasn’t really answered that question yet. And we’re four episodes in.
Maybe that’s why the first half of this week’s episode feels like a digression – a footnote that’s taking us further and further away from the question we all began with: Why did = Bergdahl walk away from his base in Afghanistan in the middle of the night in 2009? And do we buy his answer to that question? Things pick up and get better in the second half of the episode as we leave Rohde behind and hear more from Bergdahl, who describes his time alone behind iron bars, what that took out of him physically and mentally, how the seconds maddeningly passed like hours. “Your mind turns into a broken record,” he explains, sounding like someone who’s reliving the experience as he talks about it. It’s the audio equivalent of a war veteran’s haunted, thousand-yard stare.
As always, the most riveting moments in the show are when Bergdahl drops some detail to his interviewer that’s so unexpected and so hard to imagine that it stops you in your tracks. For example, when he was finally released in 2014, Bergdahl was brought to a hospital in Germany to be evaluated and debriefed. While there, he asked for the clock to be taken out of his room because the concept of time after so many months in isolation was its own form of torture – a concept too abstract for his fragile psyche to wrap itself around. Terrence Russell, Bergdahl’s debriefer, testified that Bowe was treated worse than any U.S. POW since the Vietnam War. Regardless of your opinion of Bergdahl now, or at the beginning of the season, there’s no denying he’s been through hell.
But how well is his story being told? Four episodes in, it finally seems fair to ask if this season of Serial has measured up to season one. I realize that the subjects of the two arcs couldn’t be more different. It’s like comparing apples and oranges. Still, it’s all fruit. And so far, for me at least, the Bergdahl story has been missing an intangible spark of something. At this point, we should all be left breathlessly waiting on the hook at the end of each episode, drooling for the next installment to begin in the way that so many people are currently experiencing Netflix’s buzzier Making a Murderer. I’m still hoping that season two of Serial becomes that. But the clock’s ticking…