The season two debut of Serial broke the Internet on Thursday.
During the early morning hours, Serial fans swarmed the podcast's homepage, jamming the site with traffic and crashing the stream. Considering the success of Serial season one, the hit podcast and spinoff series from WBEZ's This American Life, a big turnout for season two was to be expected. Yet as is the case with the mystery-laced premise of the series, a captive audience was the only certitude Thursday morning as listeners sunk into the prismatic story of Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. soldier who left his post in Afghanistan and was held by the Taliban for nearly five years.
Episode one of Serial season two is titled "Dustwun," which is a radio signal used in the military that means "duty status whereabouts unknown," an important detail in Bergdahl's calculated plan to leave his post. The episode is filled with intrigue, as the familiar cadence of host Sarah Koenig's voice lays the story's foundation in a measured, inquisitive tone.
Who is Bergdahl? At the age of 23, Bergdahl, a Hailey, Idaho native, willingly left his military post and walked out into the unforgiving deserts of Afghanistan. In the first episode, we learn Bergdahl had unshakable concerns with the leadership of his platoon, to the extent he says he feared lives were at stake. Bergdahl was willing to go to extreme measures to make his concerns known, and planned a calculated scheme.
Bergdahl's plan was to purposefully cause a Dustwun, which he would use to draw the attention of higher-ups to what he saw as massive failings among military leadership. What he didn't plan for, he says, was not making it safely to a nearby military base. Instead, Bergdahl was taken captive by the Taliban and held for nearly five years, which Koenig says in the episode is the longest time any American has been detained by the insurgent group. Bergdahl's freedom was eventually negotiated, and he was released May 31, 2014.
Upon his return, many in the public sphere quickly turned on Bergdahl, condemning his actions, and labeling him a traitor and a deserter. "In the old days, deserters were shot," a sound bite proclaims toward the beginning of episode one.
"The Army launched an investigation," reads the episode explainer. "Finally, in March, the military charged Bergdahl with two crimes, one of which carries the possibility of a life sentence."
"The very last thing is, just, I'm a prisoner," we hear Bergdahl say in the episode, the first words he speaks. "I want to go home," he continues, in a broken and vulnerable tone that recalls the subject of season one, Adnan Syed. "Bring me home, please. Bring me home."
Season two's setup: The new season begins with the ending, or the moment Bergdahl is transferred from Taliban custody to U.S. special forces. The opening audio is tweaked just slightly. Everything else is familiar, including the detailing of conflicting truths and crimes against humanity. Bergdahl walks listeners through the darkest thoughts of a terrorist captive. Koenig describes something called "the pit of hell." We're introduced to Mark Boal, a filmmaker who was interviewing Bergdahl for about a year before Serial began investigating the case, and a character who offers some necessary comic relief.
Listeners are left with no shortage of questions at the end of the episode, including: Why did Bergdahl's father, at the televised event in the Rose Garden where President Barack Obama announced Bergdahl's release, appear with a long beard and speak several phrases in Pashto and Arabic?
The core question: Did Bergdahl collaborate with the Taliban? Listeners will hear from the insurgent group directly — next week, Koenig has recorded interviews with the Taliban.
When Serial was first released in October 2014, it became the fastest podcast to reach 5 million downloads, and by the turn of the year, episodes of the series had been downloaded 31 million times.
"This story — it spins out in so many unexpected directions," Koenig wrote in a Serial newsletter distributed Thursday. "Because, yes, it's about Bowe Bergdahl and about one strange decision he made, to leave his post... but it's also about all of the people affected by that decision, and the choices they made.
"Unlike our story in season one, this one extends far out into the world. It reaches into swaths of the military, the peace talks to end the war, attempts to rescue other hostages, our Guantanamo policy. What Bergdahl did made me wrestle with things I'd thought I more or less understood, but really didn't: what it means to be loyal, to be resilient, to be used, to be punished."