Serial: a fitting end to the crime drama that wasn’t

**spoiler alert — go and listen to the final episode of Serial before continuing**


Serial – the twelve-part whodunnit phenomenon that put the word podcast back in the popular vernacular – has come to an end. There’ll be no more Mailchimp, no more prepaid prison calls and – crucially – no more questions from the show’s host, This American Life journalist Sarah Koenig. It seems unlikely, however, that the show’s fans will forget it in a hurry. What set this murder mystery apart was that it both respected the fifteen year old cold case at its centre in a way that true crime shows so often don’t (Crime and Investigation Network, I’m looking at you) and brought it to life.

In Serial – the story of an honours student imprisoned for life on a weak testimony and circumstantial evidence – notions of good and bad, guilty and innocent, were placed in apposition rather than opposition over and over again, a chiasmus of contradictory character traits. Profiles of human beings with thoughts and feelings were crafted through a sophisticated narrative that often included big, searching questions about the universality of the human psyche. Could a young man from a religious family also dabble in theft and drugs, or was it a sign of his duplicitousness? A teen fundamentalist with scores to settle would make a killer TV plotline, but for Koenig a killer it did not (necessarily) make. Ripping apart the version of events presented at trial meant casting aside caricatured notions of psychopathy or even sociopathy, dealing solely in fact, and bringing in new experts including the Innocence Project, a legal organisation who review cases with DNA testing.

Some listeners may have felt cheated by this week’s final instalment, however. After all, Koenig promises an ending about two minutes in, only to return to the same brand of wrangling which has underpinned every single episode. Whilst new infomation is revealed, her final conclusion is the opposite of the dramatic “no-sliver-of-reasonable-doubt” denouement. It is, however, the only kind of ending that is authentic with regards to such a complex case. The truth might be stranger than fiction (god knows that Criminal Minds has never dedicated an entire episode to cell phone tower pings), but it’s often messier and more elusive, too. Thus, she concludes, that although she cannot be 100% sure of exactly what happened that day, there was certainly not enough evidence to lock a 17-year-old away for life.

So, what exactly happens in episode twelve? Koenig delves back through the evidence which she and her team have collated over the past fifteen months, checking out the inconsistencies in the case of Adnan Syed – currently behind bars for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in Baltimore – one last time. It’s a process that’s nearly as frustrating as Syed’s repeated inability to remember anything but the most pedestrian of details from the day that Hae went missing, as Koenig and her two producers – Julie Snyder and Dana Chivvis – talk cell phone calls and legal loopholes once again. This being Serial – cerebral, solid – the final look at the details of January 13th 1999 had a serious purpose, however: reaffirming the ambiguities at the heart of the state’s case against Syed once more. Koenig admits to exploring new avenues right until the end (what if there was something they’d missed?) but the main point of retracing their steps was to show that even if a new version of the truth was yet to transpire, the accepted version of events was undeniably flawed. From the Nisha call to the Best Buy payphone: they were all ultimately jokers.

Hae Min Lee’s brother Young took to Reddit back in November. “TO ME ITS REAL LIFE”, began his distressed missive. “To you listeners, its another murder mystery, crime drama, another episode of CSI”. The post goes on to talk of his family’s grief, before concluding that Koenig was either biased or gunning for a big ending. His suspicion and hurt were understandable, especially when you consider the thousands upon thousands of posts which have appeared alongside his own on the site’s Serial subreddit over the past three months. From potential libel to downright dangerous vigilantism, there was many people in this online community who were playing an unethical game of Cluedo from behind their screens. The same can’t be said of Koenig, Snyder, Chivvis and co, however, who built up an intricate narrative that eschewed speculation in favour of cold, hard, fact. That the big, sensational shocker of an ending Mr Lee and so many others expected never came is a testament to the fact that this hugely popular show was a dispatch from reality rather than a masterclass in voyeurism.

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