SPOILER ALERT: Contains details from Thursday’s season finale of the Serial podcast.
“If you don’t mind me asking — you don’t have no ending?”
This is the question Adnan Syed asks Sarah Koenig early in the season finale of Serial, the podcast that ended Thursday morning. It was a good question and one millions of listeners were no doubt wondering before they sat down to hear the final splash of Koenig’s deep dive into the 1999 murder of Syed’s ex-girlfriend, 18-year-old Hae Min Lee, for which he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
“I mean, do I have an ending?” asks Koenig, almost sounding like she was skimming the script to the spot-on Funny or Die parody released this week. “Of course I have an ending. We’re going to come to an ending today.”
About 56 minutes later, this was debatable.
Of course it was. Everything about this case is debatable.
As we’ve heard over the previous 11 episodes, the case “was a mess.” It was tangled up with ambiguous timelines, disputed accounts, confusing cellphone logs and conflicting testimony. It was an audio inkblot: you listened alone and heard what you heard, knowing someone else would hear something else.
You either believe star prosecution witness Jay, who led police to his friend Adnan and says he helped bury Hae’s body in Baltimore’s Leakin Park after she was strangled in a Best Buy parking lot. Or you believe Adnan, even though he never really offers an explanation as to where he was on the afternoon of Jan. 13, 1999, or why he is not guilty, beyond claiming he is innocent.
For fans of the podcast, which started with little fanfare as a spinoff of This American Life this fall and then, through word of mouth, morphed into a global phenomenon, maybe there was never any chance for closure.
Maybe this was always going to end the way it started. Or as Koenig puts it: “I don’t believe any of us can say what really happened to Hae.”
Fair enough. But unlike the rest of us, she tried to say. And after spending more than a year investigating the case, I’d be willing to bet good money Koenig and her producers are not thrilled with the outcome.
How could they possibly be?
She says clarity seemed so attainable at the start. She believed this was a mystery that could be solved. Otherwise, as she also notes, the soul-searching gets a bit uncomfortable: “Did we just spend a year applying excessive scrutiny to a perfectly ordinary case?”
There were only a few parts in the finale that seemed vaguely fresh, if not momentous:
1. Koenig interviewed “Don,” Hae’s boyfriend at the time of her disappearance. He didn’t want to go on tape. So she relayed the salient bits, which turned out to not be that salient. He didn’t know what happened to Hae. He offered no opinion on Syed’s innocence or guilt.
2. According to 1994 architectural plans, it’s possible there was a pay phone at the Best Buy, at least in an adjoining vestibule.
3. A coworker of Jay, who was with him the night the cops arrived, says Jay was terrified of Adnan. He believes Jay’s account of what happened that day.
4. The so-called “Nisha call” could still be “one of the pillars of the case against Adnan.” Or it could be no big deal, a “butt dial,” to quote Koenig.
5. On the weekend, Syed gave the University of Virginia’s Innocence Project permission to file a motion requesting that DNA evidence, gathered from the crime scene 15 years ago, be tested. They want to see if the DNA, assuming it is still viable, matches a convicted rapist and murderer who is now dead but was known to be in the Baltimore area in 1999.
“A long shot,” as Koenig rightly points out.
Syed is also facing an appeal hearing in January, which his lawyer calls his last real chance at freedom. So we’ll be hearing more about the case in the weeks ahead, even if the podcast is over.
That was basically it. And since that was basically it, Koenig deserves some credit for at least taking a stand, for shrewdly turning all of this murky ambiguity against itself. In other words: if this case is a mess of circumstantial evidence, with no hard proof linking Adnan to the murder, should he be in prison?
This is about reasonable doubt.
“As a juror, I vote to acquit Adnan Syed,” Koenig says, in what we’ll have to call the series climax. “I have to acquit. Even if in my heart of hearts I think Adnan killed Hae, I have to acquit. That’s what the law requires of jurors.”
And that is how Serial ended, even if didn’t feel like an ending at all.