Murder in a Mystery Box

Like many people, I’ve gotten myself sucked into Serial, the new spinoff podcast from This American Life. I hesitated to do so at first, partially because I did not want to be manipulated on this grand drama that would arc out over months and then fizzle. I’m not one to normally go in for a murder mystery or a procedural thriller (there are exceptions, as we’ll later see). Basically because there’s only so many ways to tell a story of mistaken innocence or unpunished guilt, so many twists that you can add, I was sure that Sarah Koenig was simply going to give us a longer version of a story from her normal show, This American Life, a normal story that just had all the extra details put back in. And maybe some emotional manipulation of the audience. And then I listened to that first podcast episode. And I was hooked.

Before I go much farther, I just want to make clear that this won’t have any spoilers, if I can help it. Partly this is because I do want people to go in and listen with a clean mind. But I also recognize that a spoiler warning for an essay about Serial is rather nonsensical. You should listen to each episode in sequence not because Koenig has constructed a carefully unfolding reveal, but because Episode 7 only makes sense in the context of Episode 6 (and so forth). Thus for me to talk about details in Episode 7 (which I fully intend to do) is not a spoiler, since none of those details will make any sense unless you have been listening to Serial all along.

Up until yesterday, when Episode 7 was released, the drama of the series had rested with a total reveal of all of the evidence that Koenig has that Adnan Syed had murdered his ex-girlfrend Hae Min Lee back in 1999. I listened to it and came away with the reaction that, “It doesn’t look good for Adnan, but there’s still too many things that don’t fit, especially his ‘friend’ Jay.” That is to say, I personally thought that there was reasonable doubt that he didn’t do it. And I’ll get to Episode 7 soon enough, but before I do, I wanted to to briefly look at the reaction that people have been having to Serial and its format. Namely that the reaction has been to (rightly) compare Serial to the high-quality television dramas being produced in the last 10 years. And this has led to the inevitable questions of how much Sarah Koenig actually knows, where she intends to take the show, and will there be a reveal at the end of it all about who really killed Hae Lee.

And of course, as she said in the very first episode, Sarah Koenig does not know how Serial will end.

Which weirdly is why I love it so much.

When a work of fiction like Lost or The Sopranos leaves us without a real ending, or an ending that doesn’t answer anything, we get justifiably upset.  We know, deep down, that as emotionally invested we get in the story, it all tumbled out of someone’s head. Surely, we reason, the answer to the mystery is in there. This also leads to all sorts of feelings of outrage and frustration and powerlessness, and all the crazy speculation that dedicated fans have. And sometimes the only answer is that none of it was real in the first place.

For those of you who can’t get it to work, above is embedded a video of J. J. Abrams, creator of Lost, talking at TED back in 2007, back when the show was still ongoing (yes, and that is James Randi there in the front row). I came across this video and realized with a weird pit in my stomach that this meant that Abrams was going to deliberately refuse to answer fundamental questions about the show or the reality that it presents. Effectively, Abrams was telling his audience, “Surprise! It was all an act!” Personally I think he was manipulative with his audience. But he was also making a point that you don’t always have to know everything and that what you think was the point wasn’t.

David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, faced a different challenge with his devoted fans. The series really had only one big mystery: the ending. Fans were obsessed about whether Tony Soprano was killed there at the end when the screen suddenly went black. (He wasn’t.) It later turned out that Chase has an interest in art that didn’t fit within established genres, that doesn’t manipulate the audience to fell certain emotions but let them think and feel whatever they wanted.

Of course Sarah Koenig is presenting things to her audience to get specific reactions, the sequence (or series) of events presented, the choice of music, all that. But I also believe her that she’s barely a half-step ahead of the rest of us, that she only has the barest outline of what the next episode will be each week. And that means that the only emotion she is manipulating us into feeling is her own sense of bewilderment and confusion about the case.

Which brings me to Episode 7: The Opposite of the Prosecution.

In this episode, Sarah goes to a team of legal researchers whose whole job is to research and help exonerate the wrongfully convicted. Koenig pours her heart out to an attorney who built her whole life around getting to the bottom of problematic cases like this. To my ears it felt like a confession, an unburdening of all the conflict and uncertainty swirling around inside not just Koenig, but her loyal listeners. Coming right after all the evidence against Adnan was reviewed, and ended with an announcement that Episode 8 will examine the star witness for the prosecution, we get told by a professional some very important words. You’re not crazy. This case really is as weird as it sounds. And you’re nowhere near the bottom of it.

So keep digging, Sarah.

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