“Serial” was less a story about a crime than about the people investigating it — their doubts, their revelations, the week-to-week uncertainties about what they knew and what they were still finding out. So it’s fitting that the show’s last episode would start with a question about how to end it. “So, you don’t really have no ending?” Adnan says to Sarah Koenig, half-question, half-tease. Watch his wording: The ending doesn’t belong to him, or even exist outside the show. It belongs to Koenig.
In a sense, this was the case — pun semi-intended — throughout. Even when Koenig had no new information to offer, she teased out narrative by tracing and retracing her steps, floating fresh ideas about stale facts, letting the passage of time clarify her story’s shape. At a certain point it became clear that we wouldn’t get to the bottom of Adnan’s case. But what would it mean to have gotten to the bottom of it, anyway? Hollywood would have released him from his Maryland correctional facility and paired him with Koenig for a solemn denouement at a roadside diner, or a quiet walk along Baltimore Harbor before panning to the sky. Generally, something that might give the sense that Koenig’s project set a larger process in motion — that she was an active participant instead of just a storyteller sifting through old news. The reality was always going to be dimmer and more internal, more related to Koenig’s processing of the events than the events themselves. It’s no coincidence that the most-repeated verb on “Serial” probably ended up being think.
Whether or not you found the show’s ending satisfying depends on what you were listening to it for. Several of my friends had gone down the rabbit hole of the Reddit Junior Investigators League, poring over the facts of the case as though they might arrive at a place of clarity that Koenig never offered. From that vantage, the episode wasn’t just disappointing but banal: a hot mystery that fizzles out with the introduction of a few secondary characters and a shrugging demurral to the United States justice system.
But the real pull of the show wasn’t the promise of solving the mystery, it was seeing just how thick and convoluted the mystery became. Listening to the last episode, I found myself strangely enthralled by Don, Hae’s last boyfriend, and Josh, an associate of Jay’s so tenuous that his big rhetorical question is to wonder why Jay would have shared any personal information with him whatsoever — characters who didn’t shed light so much as provide shading. “Serial” was driven by plot, but like any good mystery, was taken over by atmosphere. Don’s LensCrafters punch card, the porn store where Jay and Josh talked their teenage shit, the sad nobility of the park streaker, Mr. S.: By the end of a story so engrossing, even these small things took on the magical air of significance, regardless of how insignificant they actually were. In my most fevered moments, even the Mailkimp girl seemed to glow.
Which gets us further from the story of “Serial” and closer to the world in which it unfolded. Over the course of the show, we pass through a hall of quiet American evils: the shifty prosecutor who seems annoyed that a witness didn’t make his target look worse, the suburban drug-dealer who isn’t as big as the game he talks, drunk janitors, vaguely racist schoolteachers, empty Best Buy parking lots in the middle of the afternoon, and lots of people who can’t be bothered to even try and pronounce the name Adnan correctly. This is a mean and Kafka-esque place, one that those who inhabit it don’t seem to understand fully.
Serial is a show that appeared to be about people. Koenig delved into the ups and downs of her doubt; the reporter pulled one way by her journalistic responsibility and another way by her human instinct for sympathy. We heard about whether or not Adnan was a psychopath. We heard meditative asides on jealousy and lust. We heard that Koenig felt bad when Adnan cried, and that he sometimes made special prison omelettes for his friends. We know that Koenig has smoked weed at least once, and that makes us feel a little closer to her because we have probably smoked weed [cough] at least once, too.
Those little novelistic intimacy-building details were all interesting and occasionally heartbreaking. But the most heartbreaking thing about “Serial” —and what made it so uncannily engrossing in the wake of Eric Garner and Michael Brown — is its portrayal of a system that is more powerful than it is fair. Yes, it’d be satisfying to know if Adnan did it, and if he didn’t, who did. But the more interesting question—and the scarier one, too—is how he ended up in jail despite nobody being sure, beyond the shadow of a doubt, if he was guilty. In the end, the people Koenig and her team were so interested in get swept away, and we are left with dockets and cell-phone towers and other inanimate bits of the system. “We didn’t have the facts 15 years ago,” Koenig says in closing. “And we still don’t have them now.” As though facts are all that matter.
At one point during the second-to-last episode, Adnan made a sad and beautiful sketch of the Chinese finger-trap in which he lives: If he tried to convince Koenig he didn’t do it, he seemed desperate; if he didn’t, he seemed suspicious. As the show wore on, I found myself tiring of Koenig’s masterful storytelling because it became too clear that that’s all “Serial” was: a story. She could foreshadow, she could recapitulate, she could echo and switch back, but Adnan’s predicament stayed static — the ending of the story no matter how Koenig told it, thudding and irrevocable. I keep thinking of Nick Thorburn’s theme music and of the sound of that awful trombone, sinking everything around it like a pair of concrete shoes.
Koenig was happy to admit that “Serial” was more or less an old story in a new form. Whether that form really mattered is unlikely. Had it been broadcast on the radio instead of uploaded to iTunes, my sense is that people would have crowded around the hearth and tuned in like a Norman Rockwell painting. Before the online forum came the mythical watercooler, before the Gchat came the actual human conversation, and so on. I recall a headline that said something along the lines of “’Serial’: The Podcast You’ve Been Waiting For.” And fake sausage is the vegetable you’ve been waiting for because it takes the shape of something you already know and like. If it seems like people were unusually obsessed with “Serial,” it’s probably at least partly due to perception: We all have bigger bullhorns now, and better ways of keeping records.
At heart, the tease of “Serial” was a familiar, elegant one: the approach of a truth we never attain. There’s a famous anecdote about the filming of the Raymond Chandler classic crime-noir novel The Big Sleep, in which a couple of the screenwriters call Chandler up in the middle of the night because they can’t seem to figure out how two pieces of the story fit together. It didn’t make sense, they complained. It didn’t fit. Chandler said it wasn’t supposed to — that’s what made it a mystery.