This Dark Road Goes Ever On: Serial and the Persistence of Evil

When I was a kid I used to believe that no matter what monsters might be waiting for me just beyond my bed, as long as I hid myself completely under my blankets, and let no part of me hang over the side, not an arm, not a toe, they couldn’t reach me. I was protected, and I would be safe.

I was reminded of this yesterday when the final episode of "Serial" dropped. I listened to it pretty much as soon as it came out, roughly 4 a.m. here on the West Coast. And before I started to listen I actually got up to make sure my door was locked.

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Even as I did that I noted it was a strange reaction. Did I fear some member of my Jesuit community would come bursting in halfway through and ruin Sarah Koenig’s sweet, sweet jazz? (I have to admit, I’ve grown so used to her presentation that sometimes when I’m alone I hear her narrating my life. She’s a little concerned with some of the choices I’m making, but she’s willing to dig deeper and try to understand.)

But no, it wasn’t fear of interruption. I was unnerved. Like that childhood afraid of monsters under the bed unnerved. As I’ve written about on the blog before, there’s something about "Serial" that I’ve found really unsettling.

Who did this horrible crime? Even now, after the full year of work that Koenig and team put in, there’s still no clarity. Yesterday’s final episode was a brilliant case in point. (Spoilers ahead.) As Koenig drilled down through old facts (and some amazing new ones! A phone call from someone who had previously refused to speak! I swear, the drama of this show!), the meaning of things kept on shifting. The phone logs don’t fit the prosecution’s story; but they also don’t fit Adnan’s. Which is to say everyone must be lying. But why?

We have proof that Adnan called Asia. Actually, maybe we don’t. There was no phone booth at Best Buy. Actually, yes there was, it was just in the vestibule.

And Koenig’s own feelings remain just the same. Based on what she’s uncovered, she comes to the conclusion that there’s simply not enough to convict Adnan. Nowhere near enough. Almost nothing, actually.

Then here’s her next sentence: “If you asked me to swear that Adnan Syed is innocent, I couldn’t do it. I nurse doubt. I mean, I don’t like that I do, but I do.”

I’d like to say what unsettled me about "Serial" was its lack of finality. Tell me it was Adnan, Sarah. Tell me it was Jay. Tell me it was Mr. S. Tell me it was Ronald Lee Moore.

But that’s not it. Not precisely. It’s not that we didn’t find the truth, but that the truth seems so persistently elusive. As though it refuses to be known.

It reminds me of this image from the Old Testament. Near the end of Exodus, Moses asks for God to show him his glory. And God agrees, but He makes Moses look from behind a rock and even covers his eyes until He has passed. Because if Moses got more than just that small glimpse of God’s glory, it would destroy him.

In the midst of all the interviews and the reenactments and the questions, I feel like "Serial" has given us glimpses like that, not of something too bright for our eyes, but of something dark and terrible that refuses to be seen. Something that lives in the gaps.

Finding the truth about a murder case might have drawn us into "Serial." But I would contend what has made it truly compelling is this endless murkiness it has discovered at the heart of everything. Even after working so very hard to understand, we find ourselves faced with our utter inability to know what happened, to find the truth of what lies within people’s hearts. Even with all the endless little insights gathered, on some deeper level everything seems to remain definitively dark. Deeply black.

To Sarah Koenig and her team, a tip of the hat. You told the story of Adnan Syed and Hae Min Lee with determination and humanity. No one could ask for more.

But also, until the experience of that gaping maw passes, I may very well be hiding under the covers of my bed.

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Beth Cioffoletti
2 years 10 months ago
You've well described my response to the serial podcast, Jim. I too was anxiously awaiting Thursday's airing, even though I was pretty sure that there would be no real finality. Throughout the series she did get to the bottom of some of the vagaries of our black and white system of justice: the difficulty of remembering details of a day (even just one day) in the past; the stacked deck of the prosecution in capital murder cases and why it's best for even the innocent to plead guilty. But overall, there's still something inherent if life / us that is unknowable, and always just around the corner. I have to listen to the last episode one more time, because there was something about the "illogic" of Adnan's unluckiness that I need to muse over some more. Is it possible fore someone to be THAT unlucky? For so many things to go wrong in one person's life in one day? If I hadn't stopped to pet the dog, or drink that extra cup of coffee, I would not have stepped off the curb just at the moment that the car hit me? Is there a role of FATE in Adnan's bad luck?

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