"We didn't have the facts 15 years ago, and we still don't have them now."
So ends Serial, the podcast phenomenon that had more than a million people poring over Hae Min Lee's murder a decade and a half after the fact. Did Adnan Syed, the charming Pakistani-American kid, do it? Did Jay, with his piercings and porn-store job, set him up? Was there a pay phone in the Best Buy parking lot after all? (Insert MailChimp joke here.)
In the first minutes of Serial's final show, host Sarah Koenig says that she's going to give us an ending, but when she does it's only in the strictest definition of the term. The show is over, yet endless questions remain and loose ends dangle. There's a chance that Adnan could be exonerated—and that a serial killer could have be responsible? It sounds like a long shot, but apparently it's a possibility. Still, by the time the credits roll, it'd be hard to argue that the team hadn't explored every scenario and turned over every stone possible. Koenig herself may still be vacillating between Adnan's guilt and innocence, but there's nowhere left for the show to go. It's in the Innocence Project's hands now. Even Adnan agrees: "I'd just go down the middle," he tells Koenig. "I think you shouldn't really take a side."
But for me, one of its many listeners, Serial stopped being a show about who killed Hae after the first few episodes, morphing into an exploration of whether Adnan should be in prison, given the State's case against him. In that context, at least, we might find justice even if we never learn who actually killed Hae. I'm with a lot of people in thinking that the guy probably didn't do it, or that it didn't go down like Jay said, but that's not the point anymore. It's more complicated.
It's in this more meta approach where Koenig's most satisfactory conclusions exist. "What do we know—not what do we think we know?," asks Koenig. "As a juror I vote to acquit Adnan Syed. I have to acquit." What she believes about Adnan's innocence doesn't really matter—"I nurse doubt," she says—but that's exactly what the jury failed to understand during the trial.
Much of Koenig's strongest reporting came from exploring the problems with the prosecution. Back-room conversations on Jay's behalf have come to light, as did the bizarre behavior of Adnan's lawyer. To me, it seems clear that Adnan never had a fair trial. Even if she couldn't solve the crime, Koenig succeeds in showing that something was seriously fishy with the prosecution's case and Adnan's defense.
Still, it makes sense that listeners were holding out for a flashy reveal until the very end. Maybe, in the last minutes, we'd be given a motive for Jay to have framed Adnan with the crime. This was, in part, Koenig's fault. With production value this high, you'd think answers would have been part of the package. Realistically, though, today's show was where we were headed all along—there were just more people along for the ride than Koenig ever expected. It would have been amazing if Koenig had solved a murder that prosecutors had botched in the '90s, but it wasn't in the cards. She's good, but she's not that good.
Instead, Koenig gave us something less flashy, but just as fascinating: a look inside the failings and fallibility of the the criminal justice system. Perhaps more importantly, since this is, after all, about real people, she gave Adnan a second chance at freedom. Rather than answers, Serial gave us doubt. Maybe that's what Adnan needed all along.
Nathan Reese is a News Editor at Complex. He tweets here.