How Military Themes Made Serial Season Two a Harder Sell to Audiences

The second season of Serial used an exegetical exploration of Bowe Bergdahl’s case as a vehicle to ask big questions about the United States military’s role in Afghanistan, which is now our nation’s longest war. And before I began recapping the podcast, I had doubts. Mainly, I doubted that many people would want to listen to a podcast about the military — and I doubted that the Serial team would get the military “right.”

Well, they did. And they did.

So far, season two is on track to be downloaded more than season one. And thanks to the exhaustive research and reporting of people like show producer Julie Snyder, the military, a super-complicated entity, was depicted with pitch-perfect accuracy. I got the chance to talk to Snyder about the season, how it feels to come off such an ambitious project, the military-civilian divide, and a deep hatred of running.

Coming off a season like this, where are you emotionally?
Confused, I think. It was confusing last season too. I’m not used to this kind of schedule. It’s weird when you’re living inside a story for so long — and constantly thinking about it and working on it — to then all of a sudden have it be “alright, that’s it, you’re done.”

But it’s good. I feel good about this season. We ended up going in such a different direction than we had initially anticipated. At the end of the first season it felt like these are all of the questions that we have. Whereas with this one, we were all of a sudden realizing there were so many avenues we could go down. Everything is interlocked with everything else. It was a little bit more like we’re going big, we’re going interior, and sometimes it just felt like, just hold the reins.

Veterans, like myself, were a bit skeptical at first about you getting the military right. Your task was anthropological in scope: You had to explain this entirely different, often overwhelming culture. How did you handle processing so much information?
That was really interesting. I didn’t realize that the cultural chasm that existed between the military and civilian world was quite that big. But there’s this whole other experience, an understanding of this enormous undertaking we’ve been doing for the last 15 years that the civilian world doesn’t understand, doesn’t even really pay attention to, but pretends like they do.

There was this one guy who told us he felt like a byproduct of ending the draft was that you can have a whole population of people who are opposed to the war but simultaneously don’t give a shit about it. That really spoke to me. You know, I’m like, That is exactly where I have been living for the last 15 years.

How did we bridge the divide? Tons and tons of interviews and reporting. We began our initial reporting last summer, probably in August was when we did the bulk of the interviews with people who were Bowe Bergdahl’s platoon mates. It was really interesting to go back to those interviews as the season went on, because I realized there was all this stuff that they were talking about that meant something different and what they were saying was a lot more complicated and nuanced than we had appreciated when we first started talking to them. Because we didn’t even know what we didn’t know.

And then there were just vocabulary things. I don’t even think I fully understood what Special Forces was when we first started. It just sounded like a more experienced soldier.

I know this season was downloaded more than the first season, but it seemed like it was talked about less. Do you think that divide was one of the reasons why? That people who write about and discuss podcasts are less interested in the military?
I don’t know, and that’s where I’m curious what other people think because it’s hard just sitting in an office with no windows. The first season was the story of reinvestigating a murder case, but we never thought of it as a murder story. That was part of the big shock and surprise for us when there started being public reaction to it because all of a sudden I was like, Oh, right, people really love a murder story. There are whole TV networks devoted to these kinds of stories.

I loved the fact that season one got listened to and got so much attention. I also was aware that on a certain level the engagement with it was not exactly my intention for the story. I thought of it as a lot more than just sort of a whodunnit. I think a lot of other people did, too, and that’s why they responded to it the way they did. It felt a lot deeper and it felt a lot more three-dimensional and it felt real. So many times those kinds of stories that you see on TV — where it’s just sort of a beautiful girl and an ex-boyfriend, and did he do it? — don’t seem real.

Sarah and I would joke about season two that they’re going to see that we really are public-radio producers. So I expected it to an extent. And also there wasn’t a mystery. We’re not a mystery podcast. There’s just a little less to speak out of position about.

To me, the Bowe Bergdahl story felt more like an anatomy of the war. It’s a narrative way into looking back at things that a lot of people had only thought about in a news kind of way. There’s not as much to fight over. It doesn’t feel as gossipy. There could be a gossipy element to the first season when people talked about it. I recognize that. I’ve talked about other stories that way too. This one felt like a series of realizations. For me it felt like it was saying, We don’t understand this thing that we all pretend we understand.

But I don’t know. You were in Iraq? What do you think — do people want to talk about the war?

Yeah, two deployments to Iraq. It’s kind of like what you said earlier, people don’t know how to talk about it. They don’t even know what questions to ask. People get nervous if it comes up that I’m a veteran. Maybe they’ll ask why I joined the Army.
In the first season there were so many times where I thought it would be so cool to be a homicide detective. But I wouldn’t want to have to do Police Academy or anything. I wouldn’t want to run. And I also don’t want anyone shooting at me.

I’ve always hated running too.
Were you scared when you went to basic, about the physical aspect of it?

I was, but I had faith that they would mold me into a better runner. And they did!
But, yeah, the divide thing is interesting and weird. But then I’m really heartened because I do see in both online comments and when people email the show all this stuff that I was so hoping would be what was discussed and thought about. But you don’t see a ton of think pieces about it.

What were the things that you were hoping would be discussed?
Saying, I don’t think I thought at all about what it was that we were doing in Afghanistan. I never thought about what we were trying to achieve and for the first time I realize that I have very basic questions about that. And I was coming from a similar position when we started. Going back to this divide, it seemed like most people I spoke to in the military would say, This isn’t helpful. It’s not helpful. We can’t do this by ourselves. To have people ignoring what’s going on is not helpful for anybody. Those kinds of comments meant a lot to me. I felt like that’s what we were trying to get across.

It seems like in the civilian world a lot of people didn’t have much of an opinion about Bowe at all. I thought this was being really misunderstood. It’s not being seen in perspective at all. So I felt like we were able to get that across too.

Did your feelings about Bergdahl change at all as the season went on?
Yeah, they actually did. I was very confused at the beginning. I kept being all, Wait, why? Why? Why? Mark did a lot to help me with this, and to point out that, yeah, he’s not saying that it’s a smart move or anything. The guy walked off after he had only been there for a little over a month. We’re not talking about the most astute analysis of what’s going on and what’s wrong with a unit in Afghanistan. But that said, this is a guy who really loves the ideals of the military and he wasn’t seeing those ideals — and just think about what those ideals are and where he’s not seeing them realized. And I didn’t understand how much Bowe was constantly trying to express himself. He’s really trying to express himself, in such an earnest way.

In my experience, people who walked outside the wire all had mental-health issues. They were flown to Germany immediately. I had assumed that was the same in this case, but after the season, I just see him as a more complete person.
Right, and not just a diagnosis.

Right. And a lot of his criticisms were not necessarily wrong — and his attitude isn’t uncommon. I know a lot of people who didn’t reenlist because the Army failed to live up to their expectations or their standards.
Yeah. Just acting on them in that way is pretty extreme.

You talked to so many people. Who were the hardest ones to get in touch with? I know military people often aren’t so cooperative with the press.
It wasn’t like people who are active duty were hostile. It’s just their rules. It’s an active case that the Army is pursuing, and the court martial. I get why the Army wasn’t like, Sure, yeah, go ahead. That was the most difficult. But that was my first question for anybody. If somebody said, Oh, you know who you should talk to …, my question would be, Are they in or out? I think Sarah would say that Command Sergeant Major Ken Wolfe was the one she worked the hardest to get. She really wanted him and he was really reluctant.

There was sort of this notion that like, Oh, Bowe’s going to get a book deal and become famous and make millions of dollars telling his story. I think that was mostly the concern when we first started doing this. That was understandable, and it was kind of a thing to talk through and saying, I get what you’re saying, but I don’t think we’re in that position. I don’t think he’s in that position, and I don’t think that’s what’s going on.

How Army Talk Made Serial Season 2 a Harder Sell