Sarah Koenig, Mark Boal, and company return today with the fourth episode of the Bowe Bergdahl story following a two-week holiday hiatus. It felt more like two months. The episode’s title, “The Captors,” has the stark resonance of a classic Western. Before I even pressed play, the credits from John Ford’s 1956 film The Searchers, were rolling through my head, encouraged by the quasi-animated blue background graphics on the website.
But as evocative as the title of the episode is, it’s also sort of misleading. This latest episode isn’t what we were promised at the end of the last one: a peek into America’s political and diplomatic machinations to bring Bergdahl back. It isn’t even necessarily about just his captors themselves, giving equal weight to Bergdahl’s experiences as a POW — putting his torture in recent historical context and giving a visceral account of how he experienced neglect and boredom. It would be easy to write this episode off as “filler,” except that, well, it isn’t. I can only assume that there are elements that will end up moving the long arc of the season forward — even if it's not clear what those are or how they'll function to do so.
Even with access to interviews with Taliban members, some of whom had direct contact with Bergdahl in captivity, Serial's perspective on Bergdahl’s travails often feels confined to a keyhole peek through his own eyes. Which is pretty limiting since, you know, he spent most of that time alone in a six-foot-wide cage and didn’t speak his captors' language. In an attempt to broaden the show's perspective, Koenig enlists the help of David Rohde, a New York Times reporter who was kidnapped in Afghanistan and spent seven months in captivity. Rohde, as he repeatedly made clear to Koenig, had it much better than Bergdahl. For one, he was a journalist, not a soldier. He had an interpreter with him and had done extensive reporting in the region. Rohde was given the freedom to walk around the compound; he washed dishes for his captors to stay in their good graces.
Rohde’s relative freedom and journalistic experience allow him a much more penetrating view into the world of his captors than Bergdahl has. One of the most interesting things he picked up on was that the area where he was being held in Waziristan, in the tribal-held West of Pakistan, was bustling. It had infrastructure. There were roads and cars and thriving markets. Rohde was given water that had been bottled in a factory in Lahore. So the question then becomes: If the Haqqani network in Pakistan is holding Rohde, what’s the nature of the relationship between these militarized tribes and the Pakistani government? The short answer is, it’s complicated. The Haqqani network is related to the Taliban, but is more like an “incredibly disciplined organized crime network,” says Rohde. They’re sort of like a tribal version of The Sopranos. The Pakistani government has reached something like a détente with them because they’re useful. They keep threats from Afghanistan in check, for one, but they also help calm Pakistani fears of Indian invasion. If the American military has trouble engaging in asymmetrical warfare with them, the Indian army probably wouldn’t fare much better.
The two most interesting Big Context contributions that Rohde makes are (1) briefly alluding to American historical complicity in contributing to the military effectiveness of the Taliban, and (2) briefly alluding to the factions within Islam itself. When we breeze by the American involvement in arming and training the Mujahideen — which later evolved into the Taliban — in their war with the Soviets in the '80s, you want to grab the driver by the shoulders and tell her to slow down. This is one of those “zoom-out” issues that Koenig hopefully takes the time to focus on in future episodes. (If you can’t wait that long, run out and grab the book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror by Mahmood Mamdani, which is surely one of the best books on the subject. My favorite part of Mamdani’s book is the grim recounting of Afghani schoolbooks, the production of which was financed by Americans, using grenades and AKs to teach basic math.)
It turns out that Rohde met the guy who was eventually put in charge of Bergdahl’s imprisonment. Rohde describes him as being vehemently anti-American, much more so than his own captors, more aggressive, violent, and ideologically driven. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the old man who makes a cameo lecturing Rohde’s young captors about how Rohde is God’s creation and must be treated humanely. The contrast between the two men is representative of what Rohde calls “… a civil war in the Islamic world for the interpretation of … faith.” It’s only briefly touched upon, but it’s a much-needed reminder that the entire Muslim faith is not a single, monolithic edifice, but as full of different tribes, nationalities, sects, and theological rifts as any other religion. And probably even more than most.
These insights into the world of Bergdahl’s captors are paired with more detail on Bergdahl’s personal experience. Koenig is told by a military source that if you set aside the conditions of Bergdahl’s capture (which, Koenig makes sure to say, you “can’t”), his captivity is a huge Army success story. He managed to survive. He tried to escape as often as he could. And he came back in relatively good mental shape, at least according to his military debriefer. In what’s definitely the most heartrending part of the episode and maybe even the season so far, we’re given details on how Bergdahl survived, not physically, but mentally. How he learned to be okay losing any sense of time, of being doubly trapped in a cage as well as a cell of a perpetual present moment. Bergdahl talks about only counting the seconds, of being completely shorn of any sense of day, week, or month. Razors are drawn slowly across his chest, 60, 70 times, before he’s thrown back into his pit. And after hearing this, it's hard to imagine not being able to feel sympathy for Bergdahl.
This episode covers a lot of ground. It begins with Rohde’s experiences, allows him to ascend into interpretation of geopolitics, touches on sectarian conflict and decades-old historical roots of regional violence, and then dips into the lonely existential dungeons of Bergdahl’s imprisoned mind. The spectrum runs from the partition of India to Bergdahl’s epic struggle with water-swollen particleboard. The entire story of the podcast is contained in the distance between these polarities.
Next week, we’re promised (again) that we’ll be told about the political machinations to bring Bergdahl home, and the apparent ambivalence of some people within the Pentagon about helping him at all. I also hope that we eventually get to focus on something that’s been sounding like a dull bass-drum beat through the entire season so far but hasn’t yet been discussed with anything near the attention it deserves: drones, drones, drones, drones …