Serial, or Die.

Season 2 — Eps. 7–9: A Tale of Two Serials

By Justine Barron

Read previous episode discussions here!

Bowe Bergdhal finally gets a diagnosis in Episode 8, but Season 2 of Serial is still suffering personality issues. Somewhere between the recent double episode, on Bowe’s background and mental health, and last week’s episode, on U.S. negotiations with the Taliban, lies the season’s identity. On the one hand, it’s about a soldier who made a legendarily bad choice. On the other hand, it’s about… the Afghan war?

The other hand gets rangy, expanding into Taliban operations, war strategy, hostage recovery, and Homeland Security bureaucracy. It’s very PBS Frontline eight years ago. Whereas Season 1 stayed focused on the question of Adnan’s guilt or innocence, Season 2 seems to have two central questions: “Why does Bowe Bergdhal really walk off his post?” And “How does the Bergdahl story reflect the problems in our War in Afghanistan?” That he ever enlisted in the army at all is where these themes overlap.

It’s taken me awhile to write about the double episode (7-8) on Bowe’s mental health. I relate to Bowe, and I wonder if I am the only person to feel this way. That is probably a part of what makes people like us the way we are… feeling like we are the only ones.

The only whats?

It’s not cool to play armchair diagnostician, but Koenig basically asks for it, drawing out the mystery of Bowe’s brain over a few episodes. Laying aside his official medical diagnosis for a moment…

Bowe’s personality can be defined by a specific central contradiction: He values high ideals of human living and decency without being able function appropriately almost ever. First, this sounds like a lot of people I’ve known in their 20s. People tend to leave college telling everyone all about themselves in the abstract ideal and acting the total opposite. They post on Facebook about overthrowing the one percent while maxing out their credit cards on whisky shots. Then, they hit their late 20s, have a nervous breakdown, and either get real or die trying. (RIP #27club)

With Bowe, the “guy in his 20s” phenomenon seems to have exacerbated serious underlying issues: He values extremely high ideals, beyond humanly possibility. He tapes his mouth shut for awhile to reach a higher form of communication — a literal joke of self-denial for a big talker. He’s a Randian utopianist, but he can’t even pretend to function long enough to keep a job.

Bowe’s central contradiction explains itself: He lacks the natural ability to operate within unwritten social rules, so he obsessively constructs rules-based systems. He studies how his friend Kim’s family operates as a functional family, then drives them crazy with his aggressive high-mindedness.

Bowe’s early childhood seems to have played a role in why he became someone who would DUSTWON (my new “going postal”). He is unusually quieter when talking about his family of origin. We know he was left alone a lot and home schooled. He hints at some issues, including his father’s temper, that would lead anyone to have complicated authority issues.

I also wonder if Bowe’s childhood involved some trauma. He pursues activities that are self-punishing, often physically. He has a paranoid sense of threat, hiding guns around the coffee shop in Idaho. He acts the role of protector to others. Displacement? (Eh. I’m no clinician.) He is also admired by army leadership for handling the trauma of his containment like a pro. He may have had practice.

I knew there was a diagnosis coming and wondered if it would be a personality disorder, like Borderline or Narcissistic. Borderline is characterized by over-dramatic reactions to outside events and black/white thinking. Borderline issues stem from a baseline feeling of being rejected and unloved, which makes it hard to sustain relationships. Bowe runs away from and back to his Idaho surrogate family frequently, where Kayla and her mother truly love and accept him but also call him on his issues. Kayla is Bowe’s straight-man, which he is drawn to constantly befuddle, like some tragic comedy routine. Like narcissists, borderlines often have an inflated sense of self, which can quickly collapse into deep insecurity and feelings of unworthiness.

It didn’t occur to me that Bowe might be on the Autism/Asperger’s spectrum, until I heard the podcast Crime Writers On Serial. A listener suggested this diagnosis, given Bowe’s social isolation and difficulty understanding social cues; focus on rules and patterns; superiority and self-obsession; and flat affect but extremely urgent emotional reaction to perceived injustice or disorder. That said, another listener said these qualities are common in home schooling!

(Book idea: Home Schooling: That Explains Everything.)

Which brings me to Bowe’s official medical diagnosis, finally revealed after several episodes of hinting — Schizotypal Personality Disorder, as determined by the independent army psychologist in Episode 8. The good doctor actually repeated, almost word for word, what you can read on the Mayo Clinic website description of this disorder. And he sounded so natural. It strikes me that many of the symptoms of this disorder overlap with the other diagnoses mentioned above — social isolation, anxiety, paranoia, flat affect, incorrect/personalized interpretation of events, etc. What stands out with this disorder is the peculiar, eccentric patterns of speech, dress, and thinking. It wouldn’t surprise me if Bowe had several layered issues, including PTSD.

Regardless, it’s encouraging to realize how much self-reflection Bowe did in five years of captivity. I hope he has a chance at a happier life, free from repeating the same mistakes, assuming they don’t lock him up forever (#freeBowe). I hope he goes back to Idaho and realizes how lucky he is to have a friend like Kayla, caring enough to try to protect him from himself. I imagine her voice when the recent charges against him were released: “No, Bowe! Take the plea, dummy!”

Unfortunately, according to a psychologist that appeared on Crime Writers On Serial, Bowe’s diagnosis of a personality disorder might hurt him, because many specialists and the U.S. military don’t recognize them as treatable illnesses. They are considered “who you are” not “what you have.” Yet, they don't know what causes them? This is frustrating. People are treated for personality disorders like borderline all of the time! They get better. Their treatment may not be reduced to one simple pill, but it’s hardly that easy for depression either.

Based on Bowe’s diagnosis, it follows that his explanation for deserting his post is not only plausible but logical (to him). Mark Boal agrees. Koenig isn’t entirely sure though:

Mark: Do you think Bowe is lying?

Sarah: Ummmmmm…. (very long pause)… The Kuchi tent still bothers me!

That is, the tent where the Taliban — those reliable narrators — claim to have found Bowe, just browsing around, eager to jump on their bikes.

Okay, whatever, Sarah. The smoking gun of the Adnan Syed trial, the “Nisha call,” hardly amounted to much. I think you just wanted to say, “Ummm…”

The tragedy is that army enrolled and kept a mentally disturbed man. The recruiters were short on men, granting zillions more waivers. They didn’t carefully investigate his discharge from with the Coast Guard basic training due to severe anxiety and depression. Or, maybe they didn’t care, if they could fill their quotas. Later, one of Bowe’s fellow soldiers warned their commander about Bowe’s state of mind. The commander replied, “Fuck off and shave, you insignificant rodent,” basically.

I wish this topic were investigated further. I would’ve preferred another week on how the army handles mental health issues instead of on the politics of negotiating with the Taliban. This feels more relevant.

Episode 9 pivots back to the “Afghan War Stories” version of Serial Season 2, focusing on the fragile negotiations that finally led to Bowe’s release. The process is not really about Bowe at all, or even hostages. It’s about ending the epically long, ineffective, morally confusing war.

For some reason, I don’t much trust in Koenig’s war reporting. It feels scattered and incomplete. (I’ve lost trust in general since her updates on the Syed hearing. If you can’t get the facts right on the same day…) So much is glided over in Episode 9. I kept saying, “Wait, what?” Like, the Taliban requested the release of five hostages who weren’t even their major leaders. Two of them had surrendered, and the other three had been working with the U.S. or Afghan government.

Wait, what? Are these men okay now? Are we sure they weren’t viewed by the Taliban as traitors??

Also, hundreds of Taliban who surrendered were “packed up in container trucks and asphyxiated,” but “that’s a whole other grizzly chain of events.” Wait, what?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is given credit for bravely speaking out about the need to negotiate with the Taliban; diplomacy can’t just be with our friends, she says. Wait, what? Is this the same Clinton running for president now?

Koenig continues to report all of this without deeper investigation. Serial Season 2 offers a lot of hints at depth but covers too much ground to penetrate the facts with any significance. It’s weakest when it comes to the greater political arena. Political PR is accepted as fact, even when it’s self-contradictory or confusing. I would’ve preferred another week on a delicate human brain, or what happens when it collides with the machinery of statecraft.

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