The addictive podcast “Serial” has finally come to an end, and some people might be frustrated that it didn’t solve the murder mystery it set out to investigate.
How would that even be possible?
“Serial” is the hit spin-off podcast from “This American Life” which aims to cover one story week-by-week in serialized fashion (hence the name). Narrated and driven forward by “This American Life” producer Sarah Koenig, the debut season dug deep into the 1999 murder of a Baltimore high school student — and particularly, into the boy, now man, who has been incarcerated ever since for the crime. The hook, of course, is that the man, Adnan Syed, may have possibly been wrongly convicted for killing his ex-girlfriend, a popular girl named Hae Min Lee.
“Serial” is true crime narrative journalism in its rawest form: thoughtful, obsessive, conflicted, scrappy, brave. And the response has been insane: millions of downloads per episode, obsessive praise, a community of sub-Redditors trying to solve the crime on their own, thought pieces upon thought pieces.
The final episode dropped this morning, and while it wasn’t the phenomenal, revelatory blow-out conclusion many were hoping for, it’s a highly satisfying end to what the show absolutely wanted to be. Called “What We Know,” the episode did a lot:
- First, it uncovered new information and weighed it against the stuff that we know;
- Second, it laid every key aspect of the case back out onto the table and let us take stock of the state of things;
- Third, the episode tied up as many loose ends as it could and accounted for the ones that it couldn’t;
- Fourth, it laid down the groundwork for what’s going to happen beyond the podcast; which is to say, it reminds us that this case outlives the story it’s telling.
- And finally, it gave a satisfying ending. I’m unrepentant about calling it satisfying.
Did anybody really think that Koenig was going to solve the case? Did anybody think the podcast was really going to live up to the hype of our collective obsession? It was an impossible thing. A lot of initial narrative propulsion, and the thing that drew in so many people (and non-podcast listeners), is the mystery at the heart of this whole show. Did he do it or not?
Here’s why the last episode, and by extension the entire season, worked so well for me. With each passing week, Koenig’s well-reported facts and findings were so intriguing on their own merits that it didn’t matter if the mystery was ever solved. Short of her literally uncovering something revelatory over the past few weeks, it would have been impossible for Koenig to continually cash in on the gravitationally attractive pull of the “reveal” in a way that wouldn’t have made the show feel artificial, disingenuous, cheap.
Koenig’s fierce fidelity to the case and public dismissal of the hype, no matter how loud the hype has become, made her immune to the need to solve the mystery at the heart of the podcast. Despite the public’s need for answers, she never tried to make conclusions she wasn’t prepared to come to.
Nothing felt like a cop-out. The case at the heart of the season is fraught with exhausting negligence. We don’t know, and we can’t know, what really happened on the day in question, but nonetheless, the machinations of the legal/police system that processed the day in question were deeply, coldly inadequate. And while you can’t expect a small group led by three scrappy, earnest public radio producers to fix the system or uncover an indisputable truth (no country or court or demigod could do that), these producers tried their best to ask the questions that should have been asked 15 years ago.
And for these reasons, I thought the ending was excellent. Emotionally, logically, narratively. As a story, it got me to the end of an arc that feels … earned. And as a thing that exists in the real world, it’s something that advances the possibility of hope for an actual living, breathing person.