Note: There is no new episode of Serial this week, because of the holidays. Here, we recap last week’s episode from Dec. 24.
If in addition to listening to the Serial podcast, you also check the Serial website (and you should, there’s dope stuff there), you’ll find a photo for Episode 3—in it, Bowe Bergdahl is clean-shaven and smiling, wearing a loose tan shirt, and another man, similarly dressed, similarly smiling, has his arm draped over Bergdahl’s shoulder. If they don’t look chummy, they seem comfortable posing with each other. This photo, according to Bergdahl, was taken right after Mullah Sangeen Zadran, one of his captors, had threatened to kill him.
Bergdahl looks happy in the photo, and that illustrates one of host Sarah Koenig’s main points in Episode 3: this is how Bergdahl learned to survive five years with the Taliban. Smiling is a necessary skill in the company of your captors—it won’t give you away when you are in agony.
This episode is harder to listen to than others. Bergdahl describes some of the other survival tactics he picked up while he was held by Taliban: the smellier you are, the better—people will avoid you and are less likely to search you, which helps with hiding things on your person. Asking for something, like water, can backfire; you might get less of something else down the road. The best thing you can do, really, is be totally forgotten. Bergdahl says he largely was, like a bag someone threw in the closet, closed the door, and just left there.
So this episode focuses on captivity and its physical toll: how at one point he spent three months chained spread-eagle to a bed, blindfolded. (It’s enough, all the details of his abuse put together, to make screenwriter Mark Boal ask Bergdahl how he’s not a total vegetable now.) But the episode is also about Bergdahl’s two big escape attempts (like shitty bookends to his first year as a prisoner, Koenig says).
His first attempt is early on, shortly after he was captured. Bergdahl manages to slip out of the room he was held in and makes a run for it, passing three houses and scaring children and women along the way, before climbing onto the roof of a house and trying to hide in the mud. But the Taliban find him and take him back and that’s that.
Over the year, the Taliban force him to make videos to send to the US, writing scripts in which he badmouths the country and lies about how well he’s been treated. They goad him with sometimes bizarre questions (How good are the cameras on drones? Is it true all American women are prostitutes?) to uncover America’s dirty secrets, though the Taliban quickly realized he didn’t know much. Through the abuse and neglect, Bergdahl focuses on gathering whatever intel and tools (a nail, a piece of PVC pipe, a loose key) that can help him finagle his way out.
On his second try, he concocts a plan so risky that he compares it to a suicide mission. Escaping from a mountain fortress in the middle of the night, Bergdahl falls off a cliff—when he picks himself up, he can’t move the left side of his body. He spends about nine days hiding during the night and trying to crawl to safety during the day, but he has no idea where he is. He becomes so debilitated that he begins to black out whenever he stands up. Here, Koenig concludes that Bergdahl is not the Taliban sympathizer that some of his platoon mates thought he was. The anti-US propaganda videos, the ones that soldiers are told not to make under any circumstances if they are captured, lose some of their meaning in light of Bergdahl’s suffering. The American government knows what happens to prisoners of war, and as Koenig says, “You are not expected to die refusing to make a video.”
One day when Bowe passes out, a Taliban search party finds him—his escape attempt over, and it hurts because we know it’ll be another four years before Bergdahl is liberated. In the next episode, we’ll learn about the military and diplomatic forces who try to find him just as the US is trying to end the war. That episode comes out Jan. 7.