Brow Beat

How Serial Season 2’s Snazzy Sound Design Drives Home Its Big Themes

Serial podcast

In a narrative medium like a podcast, music is rarely the main event; it enriches, complicates, or maybe just co-exists with the spoken story. But with Serial, particularly in Season 2, the music represents a lot more than emotional tone-setting. This season—about the controversy surrounding Bowe Berghdal, an American soldier who disappeared from his Afghanistan post under mysterious circumstances—will likely have a lot to say about the interaction of individuals and huge, impersonal systems. And so far, its sound effects are helping to underscore the way unseen institutional forces often inform human lives—and the way big structures are made up of human beings. 

This season, the theme music is different: Vulture has a smart interview with composer Nick Thorburn enumerating some of the changes, but the biggest surprise, for me, was the horn weaving across what Sarah Larson has called the original song’s “plink-plink-plink charm.” I think the new version is catchy and great. It evokes Homeland’s famous opening sequence, which feels thematically apt for a podcast about the war on terror, and the saturnine-yet-military quality of the trumpet adds depth to the playfully chromatic piano.

But most notable is the way Serial’s second season, thus far, crackles with incidental aural detail, little lifelike flourishes that make the story seem authentic. Playing snippets of Berghdal’s recorded conversations with filmmaker Mark Boal (they total about 25 hours of “rangy and raw” audio), Sarah Koenig draws our attention to peripheral noises: the sound of the microwave beeping as Boal fixes a snack, the bark and scuffle of his dog. This ambient needlepointing is meant to communicate intimacy, to remind us that the characters we’re encountering are real people. Likewise, the episode opens with Koenig describing video footage of the Taliban releasing Berghdal in exchange for five Guantanamo Bay prisoners. First, we hear only her voice. There’s a silver truck and some scrubby desert. Black Hawk helicopters circle above. The music kicks in when we get our first “look” at the human being, Berghdal, at the center of the rendezvous. Tense, slow, and uncertain, a wash of foggy sound seems to mirror his state of mind as he blinks—“his eyes are bothering him.” He looks up at the machines in the sky, and the piano melody climbs a few notes, following his gaze. In the midst of a sensitive, high-stakes geopolitical operation, Serial’s music suggests a human consciousness at work.

Later, a sad bass melody creeps into the accompaniment when we hear Berghdal’s voice for the first time. He’s asking the president and the country to “bring him home.”

As the music invokes the humanity hiding within a vast and anonymous conflict, it can also be a backdrop to interviews and testimonies, never allowing us to forget that personal stories exist alongside and on top of bigger forces. The most emotionally powerful part of the show gets no accompaniment. It’s just Berghdal talking about what it’s like to be imprisoned in a pitch black room.

There’s times when I’d wake up and it’s just so dark. I would wake up not even remembering like what I was. You know how you get that feeling when that word is on the tip of your tongue? That happened to me only it was like, what am I? …. It’s like you’re standing there screaming in your mind, in this blackened dirt room that’s tiny. And just on the other side of that flimsy door that you could probably rip off its hinges, is the entire world out there. It is everything that you’re missing. Everyone is out there.

His voice in our ears, his imagery in our minds, is all we have. It’s an incredibly claustrophobic moment in which we’re forced to wrestle with the most humanistic and existential questions imaginable: What is a person? What is a life? And then Sarah Koenig picks up the narration to explain what waits “on the other side of that flimsy door.” She talks about the whirlwind of people and systems that circled Bowe’s disappearance, from his parents and community back home to “debriefers at Guantanamo Bay, the State Department, and the White House.” As she talks, the music wakes up. Faster in tempo, gaining complexity, it conjures a cosmos of interlocking parts. Berghdal may feel alone, but he’s not.

Slate’s Serial Spoiler Special, which drops every Thursday evening ET, will keep you up to date on Serial’s second season. Subscribe here.