Spoiler: at the beginning of the last episode of Serial, Sarah Koenig tells us that she’s going to have an ending. But she doesn’t. She also tells us that she’s going to give us her opinion, but she doesn’t really do that either. She says what she would do if she was on a jury — she would vote to acquit — but that’s not an opinion, that’s a refusal of certainty. In the end, she doesn’t uncover and show us the truth of what really happened, and she knows it, and says so. Which is to say, she is still basically where she was at the beginning of the series: Adnan could be innocent but maybe he isn’t. This is where we started. By the end, we have a lot more facts and information, as the story gets piled on top of itself, week after week, but all of it adds up to… a story about Sarah Koenig doing a journalism, which ends.
This is probably how Serial was going to have to end. Because it isn’t a mystery novel. A mystery novel begins with a disruption and ends with resolution: a corpse becomes a murderer, and justice is done as disorder becomes order. How on earth could Serial end that way? And we knew from the start that the ending wasn’t already written; we knew from the start that she was still researching it, still working towards a conclusion. She could have continued, almost indefinitely; I fact, there’s something interesting in the fact that she didn’t. She decided that this was enough. And so the thing ended.
Spoiler: I wrote the following few paragraphs before I listened to the last episode of Serial, and though I’ve listened to the whole series (I think), I haven’t worked very hard at it. I don’t really remember whether or not the cell phone tower thing is damning or not, and I’m not sure why the Nisha call is evidence of anything, or what.
Spoiler: this blog post goes nowhere in particular.
The American criminal justice system is a marvelously creative fiction. It is like a detective novel, because it reveals the killer at the end, letting everything else fall away. There are facts that turn out to be clues, elements of the truth, the building blocks for constructing a “Case.” Retroactively, they become important because of who turns out to be the killed. Everything else, retroactively, turns out to have been a distraction, a blind, just camouflage. That which convicts, matters. That which does not, does not. This is why you should never talk to police: nothing that can’t convict you will ever turn out to be true. Never talk to the police.
Police lie, constantly. Perhaps not everything the police say is a lie, but at a certain point, it stops mattering: an occasional truth cannot survive buried in lies. As former San Francisco Police commissioner Peter Keane wrote, a few years ago:
“Police officer perjury in court to justify illegal dope searches is commonplace. One of the dirty little not-so-secret secrets of the criminal justice system is undercover narcotics officers intentionally lying under oath. It is a perversion of the American justice system that strikes directly at the rule of law. Yet it is the routine way of doing business in courtrooms everywhere in America.”
As Michelle Alexander more recently observed, the system of mass incarceration rewards dishonesty. In this way, human beings become cops:
Research shows that ordinary human beings lie a lot — multiple times a day — even when there’s no clear benefit to lying. Generally, humans lie about relatively minor things like “I lost your phone number; that’s why I didn’t call” or “No, really, you don’t look fat.” But humans can also be persuaded to lie about far more important matters, especially if the lie will enhance or protect their reputation or standing in a group. The natural tendency to lie makes quota systems and financial incentives that reward the police for the sheer numbers of people stopped, frisked or arrested especially dangerous. One lie can destroy a life, resulting in the loss of employment, a prison term and relegation to permanent second-class status.
We all lie. But when a person lies who happens to be endowed with a badge, a gun, a phallus, and/or a prison-industrial complex, human beings have a way of turning into one of two things: cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, black and white, masters and slaves, humans and animals. These binaries sometimes line up and sometimes they don’t. But they have in common a single unifying thread, the distinction between those who have the power to tell a lie and make it true, and those whose rights a cop is not bound to respect.
You cannot shame a novel for being fiction: it knows that it is not true, and it doesn’t care. All it wants is your belief. The same is true of the police. They don’t care why you do anything; they only want obedience. They only want respect. They only want order, and to give order. Like a novel, the criminal justice system is realistic without bearing any necessary relationship to reality; it is truthy without needing to be true. If its stories might be true, and if they are obeyed, that’s enough. They have plausible assertability, warranting the belief of those who want to believe. And we suspend our disbelief when we read, because we must; if we don’t, it falls apart, and we want the center to hold. It is the only thing “we” can want: if we don’t suspend our disbelieve, who even are “we”? We would cease to exist.
Cynicism tells us not to expect truth. A properly cynical view of the police would say, look, the police lie constantly, the court system is a clusterfuck at best, and the prison-industrial complex is a predatory, cannibalistic, and corporatist system of neo-slavery. The police might occasionally intervene in positive ways, the courts might occasionally give something resembling justice, and some of the people in jail might genuinely be homicidal psychopaths whose freedom would be a ticking time-bomb. These things might be true, but as exceptions to a more general rule: any resemblance to real justice is more coincidental than not. Especially after Ferguson made it impossible to ignore, such cynicism is surely warranted: the burden of proof is and must be on anyone who wants to insist that the criminal justice system is anything of the kind.
Especially after Ferguson, Sarah Koenig’s belief in the possibility of criminal justice can be particularly hard to stomach. She wants to find the truth. But what is truth? One of the hardest parts of the show to swallow is the fact that the truth really doesn’t matter any more. It doesn’t matter if Asia suddenly pops up and declares that she has an alibi for Adnan; that boat has sailed. It doesn’t matter if Sarah Koenig puts together a breathtakingly perfect summation of the closing argument that the defense attorney should have given. There is no such thing as substantive justice for Adnan anymore: there is only the procedural reality of prison. He has been convicted, in the present perfect tense. He is guilty, no matter what did or did not happen in the past. His guilt is now a fact. To un-fact it would require proving procedural failures, delegitimizing the system as such. His presumption of innocence is long gone.
For all the ways in which Serial is and isn’t what it should be, or what we want it to be, maybe it demonstrates the fictionality of criminal justice, by believing it to death. Sarah Koenig’s belief is very white, as lots of commentators have observed or complained; she has a kind of naivete about how the system works—a naive expectation that it does work—that rubs a lot of people the wrong way, especially as she observes that it doesn’t. She expects a good faith search for the truth on the part of the criminal justice system, and repeatedly finds nothing of the kind. And then she looks for it again. She suspends her disbelief, all the more when—at the end of the show—she puts things in the hands of the Innocence Project and the Reddit detectives. Let them sort it out. Let them continue. Let them keep going with it. She had a radio franchise to continue, a season two to plan.
Serial decided when it would end, so it could continue.