Serial review: The popular podcast returns with a gripping story of Bowe Bergdahl

In 2014, when Ira Glass announced a spin-off to his popular radio show/podcast This American Life, the listeners of the show knew something of consequence was at hand, but perhaps no one realised how quickly it would become the most talked about podcast across the world.

The premise for the new show, Serial, was interesting, if not unheard of. Over the course of twelve episodes, producer Sarah Koenig was to discuss a single story. But it was the chosen story itself that kicked off a massive debate and elevated the show to heights of popularity.

Season one of the show discussed the curious case of Adnan Syed. In 1999, Hae Min Lee, a senior at Woodlawn High School in Maryland, was murdered. Her body was found in a city park a month after she was reported missing. She had been strangled. Syed, her ex-boyfriend, was arrested and sentenced to life in prison.

Syed, who is serving the sentence now, to this day, maintains that he is innocent. While investigating the story, Koenig discovered various discrepancies in the trail of the case which was practically built on the account of a single person.

But the show was more than just about if a man got a fair trial or not.

"How can you know a person’s character? How can you tell what they’re capable of?" are some questions Koenig set out to answer and instantly tapped into the imagination of millions.

So, it's fair to say that last year, when the new season of the show was announced, the expectations were high. So much so that soon as the name of the central character to be presiding over the season was announced, there were already discussions and articles debating if the show would be hit or a miss.

But one thing was clear from the start, the show would be quite different from its first season.

File photo of Bowe Bergdahl. Reuters

File photo of Bowe Bergdahl. Reuters

While only a handful of people were familiar with Syed's case in its entirety, the central figure of the second season had been in the news across the world on several occasions: US soldier Bowe Bergdahl.

In 2009, Bergdahl abandoned his outpost in eastern Afghanistan and walked off into the hostile territory. Within a matter of hours, he was kidnapped by the Taliban.

He would spend close to next five years in captivity.

In May 2014, Bergdahl was released as part of a prisoner exchange for five Taliban members who were being held at Guantanamo Bay. His release was initially celebrated with President Barack Obama himself announcing his return.

But soon, there were calls that Bergdahl's release should not be celebrated, that he was a traitor who knowingly deserted his post and risked the lives of his fellow soldiers.

An investigation was launched by the army and Bergdahl is now set to be court-martialed on charges of desertion and endangering troops by his decision to abandon his post in 2009. Although unlikely, the charges can result in a penalty of a life sentence.

Ever since his release, Bergdahl's accounts of captivity and his reasoning for leaving his outpost have been intensely scrutinized. But all the while, the 29-year-old himself has maintained a low profile, another reason the new season of the show is all the more intriguing.

Teaming up with Mark Boal (screenwriter for The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty), this season, Koenig aims to "find out why one idiosyncratic guy decided to walk away, into Afghanistan, and how the consequences of that decision have spun out wider and wider".

Five episodes in, the show is living up to the expectations.

It is difficult to miss the amount of work that has gone into the second season. Although the events surrounding Bergdahl were extensively reported in the media, Serial bring to the table perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle, Bergdahl himself.

After being released by the Taliban, Bergdahl gave extensive interviews to Boal which forms the core of the new season and understanding the man himself.

To listen to Bergdahl talk about his ordeal and his frame of mind over the years is a gripping experience. Here's a man who spent close to five years in captivity of the Taliban as a result of attempting, what he claims, to bring attention to a broken system of his own nation's army in a foreign land, explaining how he felt like chained to a bed for months.

And Bergdahl is far from the only one telling his side of the story. Koenig interviewed a lot of Bergdahl fellow soldiers, some of them so frustrated and angry with Bergdagl for leaving, and the search that followed, believed that one of them would shoot him if he was found.

But perhaps the biggest score for the show runners came in form of the Taliban itself. Yes, Koenig extensively interviews members of the Taliban involved in Bergdagl's kidnapping, adding that extra bit of surrealism to an already extraordinary story.

All this coupled with Koenig's detailed retelling to all the events adds up on an engrossing storytelling which is both shocking and captivating.

One must also keep in mind the obvious perils that comes with telling such stories in the age of internet. Its a sin to miss out on any detail, no matter how insignificant, when your audience can do their own research and many of whom already have an opinion on how "innocent" or truthful Bergdagl is following years of coverage on him.

The medium of a podcast in itself for telling of this story is a interesting decision. It provides a slow burning unraveling of the story which is difficult of gain from written words or even a television series while maintaining your audience's attention and all the while giving them absolute freedom to imagine the scenes unfolding in their minds.

It would be unwise to pass a judgement just yet as to if the show has managed to achieve what it set out to. There is a long way to go and just like the podcast itself, the real life events surrounding Bergdagl are unfolding as you read this.

What can be said is yes, the show is worth your time.

The retelling of this remarkable story by Koenig and her team will not only leave you contemplating Bergdagl's case but the repercussion of United State's 'war on terror', how the human mind works and what it takes to survive.

You can listen to the entire podcast here.

Firstpost is now on WhatsApp. For the latest analysis, commentary and news updates, sign up for our WhatsApp services. Just go to and hit the Subscribe button.

Updated Date: Jan 31, 2016 09:55:46 IST

Also See