The Chatter

We React to the End of Serial

Podcast revisiting Baltimore murder wraps up—but with a bang or a whimper?

By Amy Mulvihill | December 18, 2014, 4:38 pm

-—Chicago Public Media
The Chatter

We React to the End of Serial

Podcast revisiting Baltimore murder wraps up—but with a bang or a whimper?

By Amy Mulvihill | December 18, 2014, 4:38 pm

-—Chicago Public Media


The final episode of season one of Serial—the runaway hit podcast from the makers of This American Life—was released today. And with it we come to the end of Sarah Koenig and company's reinvestigation of the 1999 murder of Woodlawn High School senior Hae Min Lee—but are we any wiser for our 12-week submersion into the intricacies of the case?

To the surprise of exactly no one, listeners have capital-"O" Opinions about this question, which, obviously, range, but today lean heavily toward the no-we-are-not-any-wiser end of the spectrum.

Today's episode makes it difficult for me to say this, but I disagree: On the whole, I think, yes, this experience was valuable. Was it also frustrating, confusing, and uncomfortable at times? Oh yeah, but maybe, ultimately, that's why it was valuable.

So let's address the obvious right now: From a listener's standpoint, is it frustrating to have spent roughly 12 hours listening to a podcast only to have it end without the central mystery conclusively resolved? Yep. It is. I'm sure I'm not the first person to make this comparison, but it reminds me of how I felt at the end of The X-Files or Lost. "Really?" I wanted to yell at my TV. "I invest this many hours of my life into this show and all you've got for me is 'Mulder and Scully really love each other' or 'Everybody on the island is dead?' GAH! NOT GOOD ENOUGH!" And that's pretty much what I wanted to yell at Sarah Koenig this morning, too. "You put us through all that back and forth, you spend a year researching, you enlist so much professional help, and the best you've got for us is 'Yeah, I'm kind of pretty sure that I think Adnan most likely didn't do it'? Again I say: GAH! Why raise the question if you're not going to answer it?

But that's unfair. I think it's important to remember that Serial was an experiment. Serialized, non-fiction storytelling hadn't been tried on radio in decades, if ever. And when the show launched in early October, it was to relatively little fanfare. When we wrote about it the Monday after its debut, we had trouble finding media coverage of the premiere other than an article at Slate and an interview with WYPR. With such meager expectations, how could the Serial team possibly anticipate its status as a world-wide phenomenon, the most-downloaded podcast in history? How could they realize how much pressure they would be under to deliver a satisfying conclusion to a rabid audience? You can't make plans for something like that, you can only react.

And they did. As today's episode demonstrated, Koenig and co. were reporting right down to the wire. Would it have been great to talk to Don earlier in the series? Yep. Do I wish we'd had more time to investigate the note to Don found in Hae's car? (Seriously, what was that about?) Double yep. Do I wish Jay's friend from the porn store had come forward sooner? Triple yep. But these are the vagaries you have to deal with in reporting any story. As much as you might want to, as much as you might understand that your story could benefit from it, you can't make people talk to you. And, let's be honest, part of the appeal of Serial was that it increasingly unfolded in real time. We, as an audience were at once outside and inside the narrative, observers and participants, pushing it forward and then standing back to examine the progress. I mean, last week's episode, "Rumors," was a direct response to accusations leveled at Adnan on the program's Reddit message boards. If that's not audience participation, I don't know what is—and that's an intoxicating position to be in.

So, yes, to put the brakes on now, just when it seems like there is finally some forward momentum in the case, is infuriating. Adnan's appeal hearing is coming up in January, and I think we all want to know the results of the DNA tests the police are finally going to run. Can't they at least do a follow-up special? Why are we turning back now, when an organic ending is in sight?

But while I found the ending unsatisfying and the season uneven, I am willing to cut the Serial gang a little slack. This season was their test run. I believe they will use what they've learned this year to fashion an even better season 2, which—unless they are idiots, and I doubt they are—will include a blockbuster ending.

Quibbles aside, I would absolutely recommend season 1 of Serial to anyone because of its complexity. More than any program I can think of right now (television or otherwise), Serial encourages ambiguity and debate. Aside from the central question of whether or not Adnan is guilty, it raises myriad questions about the nature of truth and narrative and human behavior, which are fascinating.

As frustrating as it can be, I appreciate Serial's aversion to easy answers. There is something innate in us which craves certainty, probably because, on some fundamental level, we recognize that there is no such thing. And so, when Sarah Koenig vacillates for the umpteenth time, we fume and squirm not because we are certain, but because we recognize her doubt as our own. It is an uncomfortable but healthy reminder that life is complicated and mysterious, and the mechanisms we use to understand it—data collection, personal intuition, narrative—are imperfect.

The major thorny issue though is that we're here at all, talking about it, writing about it, debating its artistic merits. There is something inherently ghoulish and unseemly about our collective fascination with the true-crime genre, which, by definition, takes real (often grisly) events and shapes them into narratives fit for our reading, viewing, or listening pleasure. On some level, we enjoy stories like this the same way we enjoy horror movies. We are both terrified and morbidly fascinated. We cover our eyes and then peek through our fingers. Which is all fine when we're talking about fictional people, but Hae was a real young girl who was strangled and then buried in a shallow grave, and Adnan is a real young man who may have spent the last 15 years of his life in prison for a crime he didn't commit, and Woodlawn is a real community that suffered a tragic loss. So if we have trouble reconciling the amount of fun we've had discussing the podcast with the amount of tragedy that initially inspired it—well good, maybe that's the point.

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