After a bombshell debut that captured the attention of millions, the popular Serial podcast turned to a new topic for its second season: the case of Private First Class Bowe Bergdahl, who famously walked off an outpost in Afghanistan and spent five years in Taliban custody. Over the course of the season, which stretched from December 2015 to March 2016, Serial took a closer look into Bergdahl’s motivations, and how the case became so polarizing in the United States.
Today, Bergdahl’s case came to an end when a military judge passed down his sentence. He’ll be busted down to the rank of private, receive a dishonorable discharge, and have to pay $1,000 for the next ten months, but he won’t spend any time in prison. Serial now plans to release a coda to its second season in light of the new developments and give closure to its listeners. The update also highlights a structural problem with the highly popular podcast: Each season jumps into an ongoing story with detailed reporting, but ends before the narrative reaches a conclusion.
In 2014, Serial’s first season followed the story of Adnan Syed, who was accused of murdering his high school ex-girlfriend in 1999. The podcast took a deep dive into the murder case, reexamining old evidence and discovering some issues and inconsistencies related to the conviction. While the podcast attracted millions of listeners, its finale underwhelmed. There was no concrete, dramatic conclusion, just an admission that there were issues with the investigation and resulting conviction. The show’s second season came to rest in a similar place, posing interesting questions but ultimately leaving the story unresolved.
Although Serial has offered occasional updates on the first and second seasons, these brief news flashes pale in comparison to the work that was put into the show’s original string of episodes. Meanwhile, there have been numerous developments in Bergdahl’s case that the program has barely touched, outside of the occasional retweet on Twitter.
In both cases, Serial jumped into the midst of a story that was still unfolding, ultimately doing a disservice to those stories by presenting an incomplete narrative. This American Life’s more recent project, S-Town, took a slightly different path with a rich and complicated story that came to a conclusion before release, and thus offered a more complete narrative.
Granted, Bergdahl’s case is a story that has taken years to unfold, and the team has shifted to their third season, which reportedly a huge and different. But Serial could still devote more resources to following their stories to their final conclusion, especially when their audience has already invested so much time in them.
Ideally, this coda will help finish out the narrative for listeners who might not have kept up, looking back on the events that have transpired since the season ended in a year and a half ago. However, it will likely feel like a belated update, an admission that the show's producers haven't kept up with a story that has finally come to an end.