Well, it’s over. And naturally, in the way of Serial, my view on it is an internally incoherent, conflicted mess.
I suppose if you are afraid of spoilers you’d better stop reading here, though I’ve always thought the idea of being “spoiled” maps awkwardly onto non-fiction.
But I can’t write about Serial without calling today’s episode “meandering.” Over close to an hour, Koenig wandered through new interviews that didn’t resolve any questions, dropped a quick serial killer theory into the mix and digressed for quite awhile about AT&T billing practices. And then she came to a careful, qualified and ultimately inconclusive, er, conclusion:
If you asked me to swear that Adnan Syed is innocent, I couldn’t do it. I nurse doubt. I don’t like that I do, but I do. I mean most of the time I think he didn’t do it.
My first thought was that a lot of people are going to write editorials about how unsatisfactory an ending this was. That was a theme of Serial commentary for the beginning: people were begging for the catharsis of a good ending. They were maybe begging for it a little too hard, myself included. Some people wanted a good story; others wanted good reporting. I tend to agree with the Texas Monthly‘s Pamela Colloff, who I interviewed for the Guardian last week about Serial. I think it’s better to have some idea where you’re going with a story, as a reporter, before you put it in front of the public.
But overnight I got to thinking about the analogy people sometimes draw between Serial and the Paradise Lost documentaries about the West Memphis Three. It’s certainly true that the first of those did more or less what Serial did. Gathering a great deal of information about an unsatisfying case up in its arms and then dumping it onto the screen, the documentarians Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky simply sowed doubt. In fact, the first two documentaries point the finger at what was ultimately determined to be the wrong alternative suspect, if anything. They were just as digressive and speculative as Serial. And yet: those documentaries did ultimately lead to the West Memphis Three getting out of prison.
Though even now, after their release, it’s still not clear who murdered the three children in Robin Hood Hills. And even though it pretty clearly wasn’t Damien Echols, Jesse Miskelley, and Jason Baldwin, technically, on paper, they haven’t been exonerated. They entered an Alford plea, which is something of a declaration of stalemate where the truth is concerned. So even the catharsis of that ending was a little false, a little ersatz.
A lot about innocence and guilt is about gut feeling. Jurors vote based on gut feelings. And at least Koenig’s honest about what’s animating hers: