It isn’t difficult to listen to Serial, the addicting podcast spinoff from This American Life. It is difficult, however, to listen without being struck by the strangeness of the relationship between Sarah Koenig, the host, and Adnan Syed, the convicted murderer whose case Koenig is investigating. Over the course of the show, Koenig and Syed’s relationship has perplexed many. But criticism has mostly focused on the substance of the case itself—is he guilty? does Koenig know?—rather than the mechanism through which it’s been told. While the content of Serial is compelling on its own, the show’s inclination to bare the emotionally charged conversations between Koenig and Syed infuses another kind of tension.
This trope of a journalist inching toward an empathetic understanding of a subject who may be deeply, violently disturbed, or may be totally innocent, is a familiar one. It famously worked in In Cold Blood. It worked (and was analyzed) in Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer. What is different about Serial, though, is its medium. It’s not just the obvious distinction—that the story is heard and not read—but that we witness the awkward fits and starts of the reporting, the way in which trying to understand someone for a story is not unlike trying to understand someone you want to date or become friends with. A finished, written story of this sort may involve a certain degree of polished uncertainty, but it’s only in witnessing the gathering of its components that we can understand the ambiguities such a story involves. Serial epitomizes this.
In episode six, for instance, Syed asks Koenig just why she is interested in this case. “You’re a really nice guy,” she says. “I like talking to you.” Syed gets defensive, and he tells Koenig that she doesn’t really know him, that they’ve only talked on the phone a couple of times. In a voiceover, Koenig notes that by this point, they’d logged over 30 hours of phone conversations. Throughout the episode, Koenig chides herself for getting caught up in Adnan’s charms and believing in his innocence, then circles back, doubting her doubts, inclined to believe him again.
In episode seven, which became available Thursday, Koenig gets in touch with Deirdre Enright, a lawyer from The University of Virginia’s Innocence Project Clinic. When Enright’s team comes back to Koenig after reviewing the case, they’re on team Syed, too. Their certainty paradoxically prompts skepticism in Koenig. Enright asks why Koenig seems so down on Syed, and their voices tip into cozy commiseration; it sounds like two friends discussing the details of a relationship. “What if he is this amazing sociopath and I’m just being played?” asks Koenig, before describing how charming, smart, and funny Syed is. Indeed, in the first episode, this ostensible seduction is established. In a telling moment, Koenig describes her first impression of Syed. “He has giant brown eyes like a dairy cow. That's what prompts my most idiotic lines of inquiry. Could someone who looks like that really strangle his girlfriend? Idiotic, I know.”
Murder mystery stories are inherently a manipulation of some kind. The forms and genre tricks associated with mystery do not make for straightforward storytelling. But in Serial, we get to see the manipulations involved in such constructions; we even see it in the very first step, the reporting. When Koenig expresses her doubts of Adnan’s innocence to him, she treads lightly, retracts if he gets upset, justifies her questions. It sounds like she wants him to like her. And she probably does, because at the very least, she needs him to keep talking to her. Journalism typically doesn’t work if you scare off your subject, and the show lays bare these dynamics.
Perhaps the strangest part of Koenig’s relationship with Syed is the likelihood that it could have enormous consequences on Syed’s life. Episode seven ends with Enright’s team looking into Syed’s innocence, and teasers for the next episode promise to focus on a particularly shady character in the narrative. But in all the twists this story has taken so far, somehow the interactions between Koenig and Syed still feel like the most unnerving part of Serial.
An earlier version of this article did not number the episodes correctly.