Season one of “Serial” set podcast records, had real-life implications for its subject, incarcerated Baltimore teen Adnan Syed, and forced hordes of frustrated people over 40 to try to learn how to use iTunes. The first episode of season two is now live. It outlines the true story of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was imprisoned for five years by the Taliban and, not long after the Obama administration negotiated his freedom, charged with two serious crimes by the Army.
His story may be familiar to listeners: It has been covered over the past couple of years by media outlets. “Serial” host Sarah Koenig promises a deep dive as well as new information, including “25 hours of recorded conversations between Bergdahl and Hollywood screenwriter Mark Boal,” known for war movies such as Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker.
From the outset, the narrative of season two seems like a cross between two TV shows: Showtime’s fictional Homeland and HBO’s docudrama The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. In Homeland’s first season, after marine Nicholas Brody comes home from a stint as an Al Qaeda POW, security experts back in America must make sense of whether he is a hero or a traitor. In The Jinx, director Andrew Jarecki pairs decades of history and new interviews with Robert Durst — revelations from the show, once the finale aired, coincided with Durst’s arrest.
Whether Bergdahl, now 29, will implicate or clear himself is one of the foremost questions listeners will have going into this season. The other foremost question: Can this season possibly have the same mass appeal as the last?
1. Listening to Bergdahl speak is itself fascinating.
As Koenig points out, until now, Bergdahl has not spoken for himself. He is not talking to the press: not about his captivity — even though he is the only American taken prisoner by the Taliban to ever survive such a length of time — nor about his motives for walking off base into the wilderness of Afghanistan in the first place.
In his hours of recorded conversations with Boal and, now, Koenig, Bergdahl seems guileless, unguarded. He recounts some of his experiences as a prisoner, such as being held in isolation. “Just standing in an empty dark room hurts,” he says. Knowing that there was freedom on the other side of a locked door was its own kind of torture. “I hate doors now.”
2. Bergdahl claims he got captured as part of a foiled but heroic attempt to be a whistle-blower.
In their very first conversation, Boal asks Bergdahl the obvious question: “Why’d you do it?” Bergdahl does not dispute that he voluntarily left his post. Why would a young soldier make the seemingly inexplicable decision to wander off (at best) or defect (at worst) in the middle of enemy territory? What could possibly have motivated Bergdahl to leave everything familiar and safe, not to mention everyone to whom he was duty-bound, and go AWOL?
He was trying to martyr himself for a cause, Bergdahl explains. He wasn’t drunk or goofing off; he wasn’t panicking or confused. He had a plan formed out of a kind of desperation: He would create a crisis to call attention to another crisis — that of dangerously bad leadership in his unit.
“All I was seeing was leadership failure, to the point where the lives of the guys sitting next to me were literally, from what I could see, in danger,” he says. If the status quo continued, someone could get killed. Bergdahl needed to attract attention in order to effect change, he said, but “as a private FC, no one’s going to listen to me.” His solution was to trigger a DUSTWUN, a kind of Amber Alert for soldiers.
Bergdahl’s plan was to sneak away from OP Mest, the platoon where he was stationed, and make it to FOB Sharana, a different base, causing enough of a commotion that people would pay attention. He figured he would get thrown in jail and stay there until higher-ups investigated his claims, determined that he was right, and freed him. The inconvenience would be worth it: “I’d rather be sitting in Leavenworth than standing over the body of [one of my friends from my platoon],” he says.
He prepped by buying local clothes for camouflage and withdrawing cash for any bribes he might need to make. He left his weapon, his laser, and his night optics in a neat little pile before he left, as well as possibly a note. Reports differ on that last point. Regardless, the other soldiers in the platoon were baffled. They tell Koenig that at the time, they figured, “Either he’s a complete lunatic or is he, like, CIA?” After all, “Nobody walks off a FOB, a combat outpost. Where are you going to go? There is nowhere but Taliban.”
Bergdahl packed a wallet, a camera, some knives, a notebook, a newspaper clipping about a guy who set a sailing record, three liters of water, some snacks, and a compass. He headed northwest into the desert. Then he realized, “Good grief, I’m in over my head. It really starts to sink in: I did something serious.” Could he turn back? He might get shot trying to sneak back in. Even if he didn’t, he would incur “a hurricane” of wrath.
His anxiety prompted him to make his plan more grand and ambitious: If he arrived at the outpost with “valuable intel” by catching someone in the act of planting an IED, his superiors would be, he figured, less furious. But in his attempt to secure said intel, he forgot to check his compass and ended up lost in the hills. When the sun came up he had no cover, no protection from the well-armed Taliban soldiers on motorcycles. They spotted him immediately. “There I was in the open desert, and I’m not about to outrun a bunch of motorcycles. I couldn’t do anything. They pulled up, and that was it.”
3. Koenig calls the Taliban to get their version of events.
All we get is a tease, which has to tide us over until next week, but we do hear her connect and begin to speak to someone in the Taliban. Koenig and Co. sure do take their fact-checking seriously.