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The biggest surprise in Serial was its perfect ending

Alisha Ramos/Vox
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The most popular podcast in America ended its first season with exactly what fans initially dreaded: no real conclusion, no smoking guns, no shocking twists. It was, as Slate's Mike Pesca dismally predicted last month, "a contemplation on the nature of the truth."

So yes — a murder that really happened in 1999 is not serialized television. Sarah Koenig is not Shonda Rhimes. Serial is not Scandal. And yet somehow, Koenig stuck the landing in a way Scandal never has. It all just worked.

[WARNING: Because this is an article about the final episode of Serial, it contains spoilers for the final episode of Serial. Don't know what this is all about? Here is an explainer. Want to talk about Serial? We'll be hosting a live chat at 2 p.m. Friday, December 19, in the comments of this article.]

As the minutes of the final episode of Serial ticked down, the episode seemed typical. There were new interviews with Hae's boyfriend Don and Jay's friend Josh. There was a long digression into the technicalities of phone records. Producer Dana Chivvis cracked a joke about "humanoids." The Innocence Project raised the unlikely, if tantalizing, prospect of a serial killer. Serial started to feel like a perpetual motion machine, capable of digging up small facts, looking at them under a microscope, and then discarding them, week after week, into eternity.

But then, there was what more than a million Serial listeners were waiting for: the verdict, the ending. And, unexpectedly, it wasn't Sarah Koenig who put the past few months in perspective, but her main source, convicted murderer Adnan Syed.

"I don't think you'll ever have 100 percent or any type of certainty about it," Syed told Koenig, advising her on how to conclude his story. "The only person in the whole world who can have that is me."

This is exactly where many had expected Serial would end up — we don't know, and we'll never know. What I didn't expect is that it would feel satisfying.

Adnan Syed didn't expect Serial to exonerate him

I came to Serial with my own prejudices and preconceptions. I thought I knew the story I was about to hear, about a heroic journalist who finds out about a potential wrongful conviction and, through a dogged investigation, uncovers the truth. Anything less than an exoneration would seem just a little disappointing.

As it became clear Koenig couldn't deliver on that unlikely expectation, the podcast started to feel slightly uncomfortable, even voyeuristic. Was she delivering false hope to Syed's family and resurfacing Hae's friends' and relatives' pain just to weave a good tale?

It turned out Syed's expectations were more realistic than mine, and more realistic than the hoards of Redditors who pored over every document in search of the one theory that would explain the crime. He didn't expect Koenig to exonerate him. He just expected her to tell his story.

When Koenig finally weighed in, saying she couldn't have voted to convict Syed but wasn't certain he was innocent, the moment felt significant enough. But it wasn't a big reveal. "He's probably innocent, but I'm not sure" seemed like the verdict Koenig arrived at months ago, even if she says she flip-flopped almost daily.

Koenig answered few of the questions Vulture identified as central and still dangling: What happened between Syed and Hae before she wrote the note telling him to move on? Who told the cops to look at Syed as a suspect?

Yet somehow, she still gave the episode a sense of closure. It might be because those questions weren't the most important questions in the podcast at all.

Serial is about who we can trust when facts aren't enough

The real question at the heart of Serial, it turns out, was not "Who killed Hae Min Lee?" It was something more banal, more universal: How do we make decisions, particularly decisions about whom to trust?

Does the woman in the iconic opening Serial ad who says "I use MailChimp" really use MailChimp, and was Koenig really surprised to hear it? Is Jay lying about Adnan killing Hae? Is Adnan lying? Whose lies are worse? Is it possible for journalism to uncover absolute truth?

One reason Serial resonated with journalists is those type of questions are central to good reporting, and the podcast was the rare opportunity to air them in the open without a reporting debacle (like Rolling Stone's UVA rape article) having to happen first.

But questions about trust, truth, and decisions aren't unique to reporters — or to murder trial jurors. We all make big decisions with insufficient data. When the question is big enough, when it's a question of love, or money, or life or death, or guilt or innocence, it's hard to have enough data to say you can ever really, truly be sure.

As Adnan says, you'll never have 100 percent certainty, or any type of certainty. But eventually, you have to decide anyway. Maybe you have to make a big decision because you said your podcast would end in about a dozen episodes, and it's time. Or maybe you have to decide because someone asks you a life-changing question that demands an answer. Or maybe you finally realize you'll go crazy if you keep obsessing about the same mystery without any new facts.

Maybe you realize that whatever the question is — does he love me? is this fair? can I trust her? — it can't be answered with perfect certainty, and all you can do is come up with the best decision you can.

"I nurse doubt," Koenig says near the end of the finale. "I don't like that I do, but I do."

It's a line at home in the case of Hae Min Lee, but one that also resonates with nearly every big decision I've ever made. That bodes well for future seasons of Serial. Koenig has proved she has tremendous talent as a reporter and writer, and that she makes a compelling narrator. No matter what, she's a breakout voice of 2014.

But if she can continue to find and serialize stories that grab you not just with their facts, but with what they say about all of our lives, then Koenig is only just getting started.

Live Q&A from 2 pm to 3:30 pm Friday

Let's talk about this season of Serial — what worked, what didn't, how you feel about the ending, and what questions you wish could be resolved. Comments will open at 2 pm on Friday, December 19! (And now they're closed. Thanks all for participating!)

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