Serial Episode 12: What We Don't Know

The final installment of the acclaimed podcast managed to deliver a satisfying ending, even if it left listeners with more questions than it answered.

Elise Bergerson/Serial

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

Friedersdorf: The final episode of Serial's first season, "What We Know," was strong: Over the course of 55 minutes, we heard some new information, including interviews with sources who only recently agreed to speak with Sarah Koenig, and got a review of the most important evidence aired to date. There's a faint chance that DNA evidence in Hae's murder will be tested and match a killer who was released from jail shortly before her death, effectively clearing Adnan Syed. The Innocence Project is working to make that happen after getting involved as a result of Serial.

But what if Adnan is never definitively cleared? Does he belong in prison?

After reflecting on 12 episodes that sum up 15 months of reporting, I definitely have reasonable doubt about Adnan's guilt. Most notably, there's an alibi that blows the state's timeline, a lack of persuasive motive, a prosecutor who apparently harassed at least one witness to misrepresent the truth, and DNA evidence that the state never even tested. Like Koenig, I can't say I think he's definitely innocent, just that I wouldn't have voted to convict. Perhaps one lesson of Serial is that the truth is sometimes beyond our grasp, no matter how long and hard we try to gather all the facts. That's terrifying, given that the people behind this podcast seem to have tried longer and much harder than the police.

It's been a riveting ride, even if we're still wondering about the main question as much as we were in Episode One.

Basu: Let's talk about luck.

Throughout the series, we've heard Koenig go back and forth on her feelings about the case, whether so-and-so is being honest, whether Adnan is just an insanely skilled liar or a guy whose fate has screwed him over. Dana Chivvis, the "logical" straight-shooter of Koenig's producers, tells it how it is: If Adnan didn't do it, he's supremely unlucky. He has a potential butt-dial to a girl only he knows, an absence of a couple hours that can't be explained, and a mess of phone records.

But if we're talking about luck, then it must be said that Adnan has some too. Yes, he's spent the better part of his adult life behind bars, and I don't mean to minimize that as a "lucky" experience in any sense. However, regardless of Adnan's innocence or guilt, he's lucky for the amount of attention—and now, at a national level—redirected to his situation. He has motions for a retrial in place, an attorney working on his behalf with the University of Virginia's Innocence Project who is trying to pinpoint whether untested DNA from Hae Min Lee’s body can be traced back to a potential serial rapist/murderer. He has a portion of the nation considering his innocence, even though the legal system pronounced him guilty long ago.

Adnan was, 12 weeks ago, just another cellmate in a Baltimore prison, a blip in the city's crime-ridden past. Today, he's fueling debate and speculation and getting renewed attention to a long-forgotten case. So Adnan is quite lucky compared to his fellow inmates, those who may or may not be innocent, whose stories will never reach the popular discussion the way Adnan's has, who may have better cases that prove their innocence.

Something we can't forget: The unluckiest is, without a doubt, Hae—the victim. Don's account of her as charming, beautiful, and headstrong is consistent with what we've learned before, adding up to a portrait of a girl stolen in her prime. Her death has become sensationalized by the media, and in the end, we remember that regardless of whether Jay or Adnan or Ronald Lee Moore or someone else entirely did it, a life was lost, a family was thrown into grief, and a community was broken. We can speculate and theorize all we want, but nothing erases the fact that one cold January afternoon, a girl with dreams was murdered.

Kilkenny: Adnan definitely has luck on his side: What are the odds that on the eve of his second appeal, what his lawyer C. Justin Brown calls his “last best chance at freedom,” the problems with case would be so exhaustively dissected for hundreds of thousands of listeners? Even Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which was serialized to great national attention in The New Yorker in 1965, never had this sense of real-time journalism. Those killers were definitely killers, and there was nothing Capote’s story, which was released after their execution, could do about it.

But if Adnan has a guardian angel somewhere, it’s not Sarah Koenig. She has appeared to side with Adnan before—she’s only devoted one episode to Jay's side of the story, for instance, and spends some time in this episode complicating the supposed evidence against Adnan. The 3:21 p.m. call? Not such an issue for his case anymore.

Ultimately, though, the ending is a feat of journalism over sentiment, an unbiased ruling in place of the usual sympathetic ruminations about what it’s like to be Adnan. Does Koenig harden toward her compelling, antiheroic witness in this final episode? Though Adnan’s had the opportunity to speak a lot in this podcast, the final word is Koenig's: “If you asked me to swear that Adnan Syed is innocent, I couldn’t do it. I nurse doubt. I don’t like that I do, but I do,” she says. It is the cold and hard send-off of a journalist who strives for objectivity above loyalty to a meaningful, intimate yearlong relationship.

In the process Koenig also makes the hard choice to leave listeners without a sense of profundity or a driving reason behind the podcast. “Did we just spend a year applying excessive scrutiny to a perfectly ordinary case?” she asks Jim Trainum in the middle of the episode. His answer is no, the case is a mess. And yet by the end it's unclear what this excessive scrutiny accomplished. Adnan's case will be heard in the Maryland Court of Appeals. The Innocence Project will investigate Ronald Lee Moore. Serial's second season will cover another story. What did all this mean?

To me, it meant watching a journalist try her hardest to achieve that impossible virtue, objectivity, in spite of all the character judgments, conspiracy theories, intimate conversations, and speculation swirling around her. Making it more interesting was the fact that it this happened week-by-week, as interest ramped up and involved parties approached her to have their say. In this episode, Koenig succeeded in being a voice of reason. And in spite of the senselessness that Season 1 leaves us with, it’s undoubtedly a triumph.

Basu: Think, for a second, about all the work Koenig and her team put in. They went through countless documents, carefully tracing an AT&T cell phone contract from 1999 using lawsuit filings from an archival unit in New York, went through the fine print of how an unanswered phone call would be charged, then analyzed it in the framework of a meticulously timeline of cell phone pings (the tracing of which got their own episode early on in the season). And that's just a few minutes of airtime in this installment alone.

Koenig's a first-class investigative journalist whose obsession with the case might have seemed a bit perverse to the average listener. But her methodology and nitpicking of every minor detail proved that Koenig isn't a joke. She isn't just playing detective, and she isn't just telling a story. She's taking facts, elucidating them for an audience, and asking questions from every angle. For every person she's had speak on air, Koenig probably has tons of unheard footage, stacks of papers in mind-numbing legalese that required poring over, endless phone calls that had to be made to trace sources who might recall something—and might not.

In other words, we might have criticized Koenig a bit for seemingly getting too close, at times, to Adnan. We might have found her narrative sections to be a bit wishy-washy, her hurt at Adnan's outbursts potentially unprofessional, her speculative ramblings almost weird. But Koenig, in the end, is unquestionably thorough and has ended a fantastic series debut with deftness. She couldn't wrap the story up, and that's fine: She shouldn't have to. Her job was to tell us a story about a case in chapters, and she did that superbly.

Kilkenny: When I look back on Serial, I spend more time thinking about the future. Could this podcast’s unlikely, massive success change mainstream storytelling paradigms as we know them? Even for a golden age of serialized stories told in unexpected ways—Netflix dropping entire seasons of television shows at once, the emergence of Microblogging novels, to some extent the interconnectedness of cinematic universes—Serial has emerged a leader in one of the most unlikely of spaces.

Serial felt like both an antidote and outpouring of the antiheroic men so prevalent now on our (multiple) screens. There was a time when the bipolar attitudes of Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Don Draper felt fresh and modern, our tendency to empathize semi-problematic and complex. Now, with such depictions as pedestrian as they come, arrives Adnan Syed, a charming convicted murderer and real-world inmate in a Western Maryland correctional facility. The introduction to a potentially nonfictional example of the men we so often take pleasure in watching onscreen complicates the idea of this cultural hero. How do we feel when the combination of danger and charisma might be real?

I don’t have an answer, yet, but I hope Hollywood and New York media takes note. Serial attracted an international viewership to a single case in large part because of its attention to detail and its refusal to cede to the temptation of turning its real-life people into recognizable character types. It was a complex mosaic of old tactics that tackled modern, real-life issues. Almost certainly this is a template for future storytelling, journalistic and otherwise.

Friedersdorf: I'm also left wondering, what is Season 2 of Serial going to be like?

I hope it isn't another true crime story, just because I want to see how Koenig would make the serialized format work with a different subject. How about a college football season? Or a chef opening a new restaurant? Or a semester at a college with a new sexual assault policy? Or an engagement from proposal to wedding? Whatever subject Koenig chooses, she'll have to grapple with the fact of Serial's success: the show has a big enough audience and cultural reach that reporting on the story as it happens will inevitably change many stories she might tell. Maybe that's an argument for pulling a Beyoncé and unexpectedly dropping the second season one day, with all the episodes posted online at once, optimized for binge listening. Until then, I'll be wandering over to the just-launched Podforum to browse for a new podcast for my rotation.