Wide Angle

The Extraordinary Accomplishment of Serial Season 3

With its morally complicated look at our broken criminal justice system, the podcast that revolutionized the form is now the best it’s ever been.

Animation from Season 3, Episode 2 of Serial: "You've Got Some Gauls." It's a slow pan up a building that depicts a large mural of a male judge offset by checker pattern and yellow paint.
Adam Maida/Moth Studio/NPR

Serial has never been about closure. The podcast that revolutionized the form did so by chasing down stories in all their complexity, with a willingness to forgo easy resolution. But its third and best season won’t even let you get your bearings.

There is no central point of identification, no exceptional case to track, no single character to grab onto this season. Instead the show, set inside a Cleveland courthouse, takes listeners on a tour of a system that slowly exposes the limits of concepts—plea bargains, probable cause, “assaulting a cop”—you thought you understood. It’s painfully complicated—ideologically, morally, and legally. It’s incredibly ambitious.

The third season starts with an episode that feels at first like an ironic joke: Host Sarah Koenig explains that the case she’s about to describe—about a young woman, Anna, who got in a bar fight after being repeatedly groped by strange men and ended up as the only person charged (with hitting a cop)—is one where the system worked as intended. Koenig then goes on to itemize the injustices: the number of visits Anna has to make to the courthouse, the fees she can’t afford, the very idea that “innocence is a misdemeanor”—that is, that there are so many incentives in place to encourage powerless people caught up in the system to plead to things they aren’t guilty of. At a certain point, I started to assume that Koenig was baiting us with her “this is the system working” framing.

I was half-right: You’re supposed to get mad on Anna’s behalf. What she goes through is undeniably unfair and severely damages her prospects. By the end of the episode, she’s pregnant and her arbitrary, inexplicable unpaid court fees have gone into collection. But I was also wrong. As you listen to subsequent episodes, it becomes clear that Koenig’s mordant framing wasn’t a joke at all: This is the system working. Compared to what Erimius Spencer went through as described in the third episode—he’s arrested and badly beaten by two off-duty police officers who find him, a black man, suspicious because he was knocking on a friend’s door in his own apartment complex—it becomes very hard to remember how outraged we were at Anna’s plight. Spencer ends up in the hospital with a broken orbital bone. According to Koenig, the system is pretty unimpressed by his injury: “Eh, everyone’s always whining about a broken orbital bone,” a public defender says. Suddenly, Anna’s court fees don’t seem so bad. At least she didn’t have her bone broken by the cops. The system worked.

Serial’s second episode introduces, among other things, the outsize power judges enjoy and improperly exert over those who come before them. Judge Gaul, who is white, tells one defendant, who is black, that he will consider any children the defendant has out of wedlock to be a violation of his probation. This is as illegal as it is horrifying, as are Gaul’s invasive questions about the family structures of black defendants. Doesn’t matter; most attorneys just stand by and let it happen. Here’s the problem, which Serial makes plain: Gaul’s sentences tend to be lighter than most. He likes to give probation. In other words, there are reasons to sit there and absorb his humiliating questions, his lectures, and his abuse: You might end up with less time.

By this point in the podcast, this seems like a necessary devil’s bargain. But it’s a measure of how quickly one can privately capitulate to the ugly logic of a broken system—and how silly it can seem when someone doesn’t. Take Anna’s lawyer, Russ Bensing, who decided to fight the charges against his client on the grounds that a) she was innocent and b) he couldn’t really bear to watch an innocent person be lectured: “[The judge] is going to give her a hard time about it,” he said, explaining to Koenig why he wouldn’t advise Anna to plead to a misdemeanor. “She’s going to lecture her. And when your client didn’t do anything, that’s just—I don’t—I just don’t want to put her in that situation where she is belittled and accused of doing something that she didn’t do, because she didn’t do it.”

Bensing’s position is noble. But by the time we hear about a man who was repeatedly tased and had the bones around his eye broken by cops; by the time we’ve heard a judge hang a man’s probation on his reproductive decisions, the idea of objecting to your client being lectured feels almost absurd.

This discomfiting dance between pragmatic calculus vs. receding principles is what the seriality of Serial accomplishes this season: The show’s commitment isn’t to direct continuity anymore. This isn’t “one story told week by week.” Its several stories aren’t obviously related. But the effect on whatever idealism the listener came in with accrues. In sketching out how Cleveland’s criminal justice system’s different incentive structures interact, Serial scoops out any “just world” beliefs we might have had.

This effect starts to accelerate with the third episode, which opens with a survey of how Cleveland is trying to bridge the chasm between the community and the police. At a workshop organized by the police, where citizens can give feedback to law enforcement, we hear from Samaria Rice, Tamir Rice’s mother. Her impatience with the proceeding is evident: She says law enforcement must change how they think and laughs when a cop asks her how she—the mother of a child killed by police—can help. While Rice’s skepticism is obviously earned, the obscenity of what’s being asked of her isn’t clear until we meet Steve Loomis, former president of the police union, later in the episode. Of racial profiling, Loomis says “I am going to sit here and say, in the city of Cleveland, there’s no way that it happens. It’s not supported in fact.” It’s a remarkable thing to say, especially in light of what he goes on to say: “A child in a man’s body. Bottom line. There’s no denying that. Nobody can dispute that. Number two, Tamir Rice knew exactly why those policemen were driving that marked police car towards him, all right? He is a product of the street. He is not a product of a loving home.”

Imagine attending a workshop intended to foster cooperation between the community and the police when the former police union president believes that Tamir’s death was 100 percent his own fault: “It’s absolutely on Tamir,” he tells Koenig. “It’s on any suspect that gets shot by the police.” There is no reasoning with—or “helping”—an organization represented by a man who thinks this way.

Which leads us to the fourth episode, focused on the cascading effects of a community’s absolute distrust of police. An infant was shot, but in a world where diplomatic relations between law enforcement and the real world barely exist, no one will come forward with information. And when someone does, eventually, it’s for questionable reasons, leading to the wrong guy ending up in jail. Or probably the wrong guy. Truth feels unknowable by this point in a podcast that was once dedicated to excavating it.

This season of Serial is ostensibly a show about what happens inside a courthouse. But it’s just as much about the world of feeling that’s excluded from its confines: No defendant gets to scream here when he’s wrongfully accused. And no one sympathizes with him. Police can lie and judges can make illegal rulings and nothing is done. There is no space for the grief, anger, and despair that entire communities are charged with tolerating, and other communities don’t have to bear at all.

At one point in the first episode, a judge observes to Koenig that different demographics experience imprisonment differently—one day to her, or to him, would be devastating, whereas to many regulars at the courthouse, jail is more a blip than a turning point. “But there was a more disturbing implication as well,” Koenig says, “one that prowls this courthouse and throughout our criminal justice system. That we are not like them. The ones we arrest and punish, the ones with the stink, they’re slightly different species, with senses dulled and toughened. They don’t feel pain or sorrow or joy or freedom or the loss of freedom the same way you or I would.” Koenig ultimately rejects that characterization, though. Speaking about the woman from Episode 1, whose arrest can be traced back to men groping her in a bar, Koenig says, “Anna didn’t feel the stress and outrage and shame of this case less than I would have. I think she felt it more.”

If there’s any idea I want to keep in my head—to come back to as I try to find my bearings through the rest of this season—it’s that.