Has Serial Run Out of Intrigue?

Four Atlantic staffers dissect the penultimate episode, "Rumors."


Conor Friedersdorf, Tanya Basu, Katie Kilkenny, and Lenika Cruz discuss the latest episode of WBEZ Chicago's popular non-fiction podcast Serial.

Friedersdorf: In television, the penultimate episode of a season often packs in lots of plot advances while building to the climax of a story arc. But the second-to-last episode of Serial, "Rumors," is tangential to the story of Adnan Syed and the murder that he did or did not commit.

Has this podcast run out of steam?

Sarah Koenig makes much of a rumor that, as an eighth grader, Adnan stole money from the collection boxes at his mosque. Adnan subsequently admits he did steal, though he is frustrated that she's bringing up a shameful memory. What, he wonders, does that have to do with his case?

If there's a good answer, I don't know it.

Later in the episode, there's speculation with an expert witness who has interviewed a lot of killers about whether Adnan could be a psychopath, or could have convinced himself that he never committed a murder even after doing it, or could have done it without even realizing his crime.

None of the analysis that's offered goes very far toward providing solid answers. So why this particular aside?

Adnan's appearance at the end of the episode is the only part I found interesting. He writes Koenig a letter explaining that from the outset he’s endeavored to try to prove his case to her based on the facts. This is ostensibly a defense mechanism against people believing him to be untrustworthy. If he's being candid, there is a certain irony to his attempted approach. As a Redditor put it, "Charming guy charms reporter, later writes letter explaining he was trying to not be charming lest he be accused of trying to charm reporter."

It now seems overwhelmingly likely that Serial will end in ambiguity, though Adnan's story may well outlive it depending on whether or not the Innocence Project finds any useful evidence. I still have hopes that the last episode will be better than this week's effort–my least favorite, by far.

Are there redeeming qualities that I am missing?

Basu: My immediate reaction to this week's episode? A yawn, I kid you not.

Perhaps the yawn was because of early-morning working hours. But probably it was also because of how boring this installment turned out to be. For an episode previewed last week with the provocative drop of the word “psychopath” and titled "Rumors," I had high expectations for something that was as riveting as last week's deft handling of white-reporter-privilege allegations and vivid profile of Cristina Gutierrez.

This week, Koenig focused on following up on rumors that hinted at a potential duplicitousness in Adnan's character. One rumor she mentions is unnamed besides hinting at something about Adnan that, if it were true, would implode the entire case and Koenig’s efforts. Koenig tracks down a guest of a long-ago party who allegedly started this rumor, drives several hours expecting the worst, and gets a blank stare in return.

The second rumor has more evidence behind it: Adnan and a small posse of young congregants stole money from Friday prayer donations at the local mosque frequently. The total amount ranges from being some chump change to thousands of dollars, but there are eyewitness accounts and verification from Adnan himself. However, Koenig asks, does being a thief a murderer make? Not necessarily, and Koenig spends the rest of the episode talking to a particularly bland criminal psychologist who verifies what we all sort of know: Murders of passion are often done in a blind rage. Those that commit such murders might not remember what they've done in the moment, and when confronted with evidence that they have, hurriedly try to cover it up. It takes an extreme emotional manipulator—and only here is the word psychopath correctly, clinically used—to murder and maintain innocence.

In terms of knowledge gleaned and narrative intrigue, this episode was a flat line of meh-ness.

As I pondered this episode, I realized something unsettling about myself, and perhaps every other Serial listener: I expected something sensational. As a journalist, I was a bit ashamed to come to this realization. The foundation of journalism, after all, is facts. As they say at J-school, "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." Koenig, in this respect, followed the proper protocol. She did the grunt work of following up on leads, she talked to experts, she explored every possible avenue of every lead, no matter how incredulous she was or how bombastic the accusation. She has been a relatively unbiased investigative journalist doing what she's supposed to, and here we get a glimpse of how unsexy and tedious research and fact-checking can be.

In a week that has resurfaced the Rolling Stone UVA story and condemnations of reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely who appeared to fudge her handling of sexual-assault allegations, Koenig shows us that she’s a journalist, first and foremost. A story can be sensational by nature, and can be a source of intrigue, but in the end, there are real costs. There are humans involved, with emotions and livelihoods and reputations. It's a journalist's frighteningly awesome job to collect these stories and tell them without bias, insofar as that’s possible. We're reminded that this sometimes means a story entails just plain, dry facts.

What has made Serial essential water-cooler fodder has been its unpredictably meandering turns, its morally gray characters and compelling plot, its capability to appeal to what ultimately defines a good story: emotional investment. But what we have to remember is that facts, in the end, are a reporter’s priority even if they’re often tearfully boring.

Kilkenny: In keeping with her recent habit of studying characters rather than the evidence involved in Hae's murder, this week Sarah turned her microscope on us. The listeners, or alternatively, the world—anyone who has ever perpetuated rumors and lent them credence. Sarah tries not to partake in that habit, instead using this episode to expose the errors in the rumors circulating about Adnan, even if the results aren’t exciting.

In the midst of it all we learn any one character trait is interpreted a thousand different ways by his acquaintances. Adnan tends to put people at ease, which one old friend remembers fondly: Adnan always made sure his less athletic buddy got picked for teams in gym class. Another interprets this same character trait to mean he was always deceptively looking for ways to defuse the “heat.” This is not a particularly thrilling revelation, but it also shows Serial at its best. For the time she’s tracking down rumors, Sarah Koenig is a dispassionate journalist superhero who substantiates and unsubstantiates all claims, no matter how ridiculous or seemingly inconsequential (a.k.a. stealing money at the mosque).

For that portion of the episode she is, as Adnan puts it so well, either his savior or his executioner.

But towards the end, Sarah becomes a sentimental storyteller. After he writes her a letter saying he wished the Serial scrutiny would stop, she expresses some misgivings about having exposed Adnan’s story, noting that she has been “stirring up the most painful possible questions about whether he’s a monster.” Sorry, Sarah, but that’s a journalistic cop-out. She’s backtracking, reverting to the fact that Rabia initially handed her the story, that she’s re-opening a case that makes a lot of people feel uncomfortable, most of all Adnan. We already know this stuff. As Conor noted, too, the letter contains some bullshit: Adnan hasn’t restrained himself from turning on the charm with her. Honestly, if that’s his 1% charm level, I shudder to think what maniacal villainous beneficence he could unleash at 100%.

Serial has become so important because it’s captivating viewers just as it severely complicates how we usually take our storytelling, even when it comes to true crime. So when Sarah pulls on the heartstrings for Adnan and implicates herself, I get angry. Sarah’s a reporter, she’s not beholden to the wishes of her source, who is a potential murderer who is talking to her willingly and is getting a lot of listeners, even fans, for it. We're not beholden to have the story end just because he wants it to. (Maybe, probably, I just don't want it to end.)

So here's my message for Sarah: Keep your backbone. As you go into the final episode, give us more of the savior-executioner. She's the one who's making Serial so great.

Cruz: Let’s see if I can’t channel Adnan here and diffuse some of the heat in this conversation. So you all essentially agree that this episode was boring; you make a lot of reference to journalistic this and reporter that. Katie and Tanya were expecting something more sensational. Conor and Katie think Adnan was full of it when he said he didn’t want to manipulate Sarah, only to give her the facts.

OK. So, the facts. Yes, journalists are beholden to telling the truth as best they can, verifying leads here, checking out sources there. And yes, Sarah’s a journalist, and journalists tell stories. In some ways, it’s very kind of you to blame the alleged boring-ness of this latest episode on Sarah doing her duty to serve impartiality by any means. But journalists don’t just tell stories, because they’re true. Journalists do not traffic in fact-relaying or data distribution.

Journalists try to tell interesting stories! Often, journalists spend hours and hours of interviewing different sources to figure out if the story they want to tell is worth the time the audience puts in to paying attention. Every journalist, or writer for that matter, should try to answer the question: Why should anyone care? Why does this matter? Sarah told us in the first episode why she’s telling this story, and it’s not because there’s a point to telling Adnan’s story specifically: She picked this story because it came to her, almost literally landed on her desk. That’s it. That, and people started to listen.

If this were a truly journalistic endeavor, she would have checked out all the leads, gathered all her information ahead of time, and created a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. She would have come to a conclusion; by now, no one is exactly expecting a real conclusion when next week’s final episode rolls around. In other words, if Serial were a purely journalistic effort, Adnan’s case probably wouldn’t have made for a good story. That’s not to say that what happened to him doesn’t matter, or that his case doesn’t have incredibly compelling elements, or that his situation doesn’t throw into sharp relief problems with the U.S. criminal justice system. But a major part of the appeal of Serial is the ability to follow along, to play detective alongside a journalist who is also playing detective (and savior, and executioner, and entertainer, and confidante, and so many other things).

If we strip away the snowballing, communal fascination, Serial is just Sarah telling a story without doing all the legwork ahead of time to figure out if there will a satisfying ending, a payoff in the traditional sense. If it fluctuates from exhilarating or boring from week to week, that's just the nature of this particular podcast. Exploiting Adnan and all the curious, ugly parts of his case was inevitable. Serial was destined to have to publicly work out the weird, ambiguous, unanswerable questions of the nature of knowledge, something that journalists rarely do. The nonlinear, jolting from subject to subject every week—also unavoidable.

I understand the urge to treat Serial like a TV show or a piece of pure reportage and arrange our expectations accordingly. But to do so is also unfair and misunderstands the limitations of the weird cross-genre space in which Serial lies. So if the season feels like it’s limping to the finish line, it’s doing so for the same reasons that made Serial so appealing in the first place.