It’s only been around since October—for one literal season—but it feels like Serial, the wildly popular podcast, has been here forever. In a way, it has; Serial’s host is Sarah Koenig, a producer from the long-running and fantastic stories-from-the-everyday show This American Life, and it’s effectively a much longer-form version (a 15-month investigation!) of those short slices of life, delving addictively into the central question: Did then-18-year-old Adnan Syed, 15 years ago, really murder his high-school ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee? With record-breaking numbers (it is the fastest podcast to hit five million downloads, with each episode averaging more than a million, according to Apple), it’s clear that people want to know.
The show wraps up its first season Thursday after 12 emotionally gripping episodes—the last episode is out now—and there’s no doubt that people, especially first-time podcast listeners, will be disappointed. Part of its success is the community it’s created, and that’s part of the thrill—the 28,000-person-strong Reddit message boards, the podcasts about the podcast, the inside jokes (“Mailkimp,” this Best Buy review). Which is all fair and good—except that this isn’t a piece of art, or a fiction at all. This is Adnan Syed’s life; this is the life of Hae Min Lee’s family; this is a real, honest-to-goodness tragedy, one way or the other, regardless of what actually happened in 1999. “Think of it like a radio version of an HBO or Netflix crime drama,” advocates the Mirror, exemplifying the problem.
That’s the podcast’s gift, and also its curse. Koenig as its host becomes our stand-in, so that we are her, scrabbling for clues and hopeful for resolution—but then, with her inside our head, we forget that she never promises it. Of course, listeners who looked past the magnetic pacing and were aware that the pull of the show comes from the allure of a story well-told would have known that true resolution is fundamentally impossible. But people who were captivated by the idea of these people are characters in a Dickensian novel will invariably be let down by the fact that this won’t be so much Breaking Bad, with Walter White dead in his lab, his life wrapped up neatly; this is Tony Soprano, putting on Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’, and the show simply no longer existing. That’s the way it is. This is, after all, life.