Everything You Need To Know About ‘Serial’ Before the Finale

Diane Cho + Rahsheeda Ali

Serial, from the creators of the award-winning podcast, This American Life, has grown into a cultural phenomenon overnight. Hordes of listeners tune in to host Sarah Koenig every Thursday to try and solve the mystery of who murdered Woodlawn High School student Hae Min Lee in 1999. The obsession with the show has spawned hilarious parody videos, detailed episode recaps, and sub-reddits on sub-reddits filled with theories on whether convicted killer/ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed is actually innocent.

The series finale of the most talked about podcast of the year is this Thursday, Dec. 18. But don’t freak out: Here’s your guide to everything you need to know about Serial before its final episode. Zero in on the most important clues and listen to complete episodes below.

Episode One: The Alibi

Summary: Meet Adnan Syed, a 17-year-old boy from Baltimore who was described as well-liked until he was convicted of murdering his high school ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. There was no physical evidence linking Syed to the crime, but a testimony from a friend named Jay. Based on this testimony, the jury convicted Syed for first degree murder. The only alibi Syed had was from a student named Asia McClain, who remembers talking to him at the library during the supposed time of the murder. But in a strange chain of events, McClain retracted her statements and left Syed without an alibi.

Names To Know: Adnan Syed (convicted of murdering ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee), Hae Min Lee (ex-girlfriend of Adnan Syed), Jay (friend of Syed who testified against Syed in court), and Asia McClain (Syed’s only alibi who later retracted her story).

Main Takeaway: While Syed maintains his innocence in jail, Jay continues to share first-hand accounts of helping Syed dispose of Lee’s body. So who is lying and why? What made McClain take back Syed’s only alibi?

Episode Two: The Breakup

Summary: Lee’s diary detailed her relationship with Syed until the day before her murder. Lee wrote about feeling distressed about Syed’s religion and how dating a non-Muslim was a sin. After breaking up and getting back together multiple times, Lee started to write about a new crush. His name was Don and they worked at LensCrafters together. Soon the two started dating, and Jay recalls a heartbroken Syed jokingly saying, “I think I’m going to kill her.” Syed’s other friends say he was sad for a bit but moved on pretty quickly.

Names To Know: Don (Lee’s new love interest and co-worker at LensCrafters).

Main Takeaway: How are Syed’s memories so vague and Jay’s so vivid? What would be Jay’s motive to lie and why wasn’t Don seen as more of a suspicious character in the case?

Episode Three: Leakin Park

Summary: Bill Ritz and Greg McGilivray, the two Baltimore detectives on the case, find a new suspect named Mr. S., who found Lee’s dead body in a sketchy location in Leakin Park (pronounced “Lincoln” Park). Mr. S’ story had a few suspicious holes, but the real surprise is his strange criminal history and the reason why Sarah Koenig calls him by that name.

Names To Know: Bill (William) Ritz and Greg McGilivray (Baltimore detectives), and Mr. S (man who found Lee’s body in Leakin Park).

Main Takeaway: Is Mr. S a new important person in this case or just an innocent bystander with a questionable past?

Episode Four: Inconsistencies

Summary: An anonymous caller tells the police to focus on the “ex-boyfriend” (Syed) and brings up Syed’s friend Yasser Ali. Ali denies making the call. Police get a hold of Syed’s old phone records and find six calls to Jay’s friend Jennifer Pusateri. Pusateri says Jay confessed to her and said “Adnan killed Hae.” When policed ask if Jay and Syed were best friends, Jen says they were more like “casual acquaintances.”

Names To Know: Yasser Ali (Syed’s friend mentioned in the anonymous call), Jennifer Pusateri (Jay’s friend)

Main Takeaway: How does Pusateri play into the case and why, if they were only “causal acquaintances”, would Jay go through to the lengths that he did to help Syed carry out the murder?

Episode Five: Route Talk

Summary: Koenig and Dana Chivvis try out the route Jay claims he and Syed took to complete the murder. Jay specifically mentions a phone booth at Best Buy, the location where Syed supposedly showed him Lee’s dead body in the back of a trunk. But Koenig and Chivvis did not find the phone booth, and Best Buy employees claim there has never been one.

Names To Know: Dana Chivvis (Serial producer)

Biggest Questions: What does it mean for Syed that Koenig and Chivvis were able to complete the route within the specific time frame? Why didn’t the overwhelming testimony that there was never a phone booth at Best Buy kill Jay’s credibility? At this point, listeners may feel that Jay has gotten away with too much.

Episode Six: The Case Against Adnan Syed

Summary: Koenig describes Syed’s behavior the day Lee disappeared and questions why he doesn’t try harder to remember his activities. She also explores various stray facts to see what they might mean. One story comes from Dave, who called police in 1999 when his teen daughter said a neighbor saw a dead body. A damning account then comes from Jennifer Pusateri’s friend dubbed Cathy. She hung out with Jay and Syed the night Lee disappeared. Another loose end concerns Nisha, a girl Syed casually dated after Lee.

Names To Know: Dave (man whose daughter said a neighbor saw a corpse), Neighbor Boy (teen who talked to Dave’s daughter; now says he didn’t see a dead body in 1999), Cathy (not her real name; Pusateri’s friend), Nisha (Syed’s friend from Silver Spring, Md.)

Main Takeaways: Koenig finds a major flaw in Syed’s story. He admits Jay had his car and cell phone the afternoon of January 13, 1999 while Syed was at school. But then why was there a 2:22 phone call to Nisha, whom Jay didn’t know, on the cell phone log? Nisha testified there was no answering machine on that line, so the call couldn’t have gone through if it was just a butt dial. Cathy’s description of Syed’s odd behavior that evening also doesn’t help.

Episode Seven: The Opposite Of The Prosecution

Summary: Syed tells Koenig about a Virginia case similar to his. Koenig’s research takes her to The Innocence Project, a nonprofit criminal justice organization. Deirdre Enright, head of the project, reviews parts of Syed’s case with Koenig.

Names To Know: Justin Wolfe (Virginia teen wrongly convicted of murder; his conviction was vacated), Deirdre Enright (The Innocence Project’s director)

Main Takeaways: Enright’s saying what we’re all thinking. The state didn’t check all the facts and put Syed away on circumstantial evidence. The legal expert doesn’t say whether she thinks he killed Lee, but it’s obvious his conviction wasn’t just.

Episode Eight: The Deal With Jay

Summary: Past episodes show inconsistencies in both Jay’s and Syed’s stories. So why did the jury put enough faith in Jay’s account to send Syed to prison? Koenig investigates how detectives and jurors became convinced of Jay’s credibility. She also sheds light on Jay’s upbringing, which may have made him relatable to Baltimore County jurors. However, Jay’s high school friends thought he was “shady” and known for lying. Koenig even heads to Jay’s home, hoping to get him talking about the 15-year-old case.

Names To Know: Stella Armstrong (juror in Syed’s trial), M. Cristina Gutierrez (Syed’s defense attorney), Jim Trainum (former homicide detective now studying false confessions)

Main Takeaways: Syed’s defense attorney tried to pin Lee’s murder on Jay. However, jurors saw no motive for Jay to kill Lee. Detectives also thought he was credible since he led them to Lee’s car. Trainum tells Koenig cops sometimes ignore evidence if it doesn’t fit the case they’re building. Listeners also discover Jay never got jail time, despite admitting he helped dig Lee’s shallow grave.

The A.V. Club’s Serial Serial podcast was great at delving into that aspect.

Episode Nine: To Be Suspected

Summary: New accounts of January 13, 1999 emerge. Former Woodlawn students tell Koenig enough for her to debunk the theory about Best Buy. She no longer believes Lee was killed by 2:36 p.m. Then Koenig presents Syed’s perspective of his arrest, trials, and sentencing. What fueled his behavior and why didn’t he testify?

Names To Know: Laura (former Woodlawn student; insists there were no pay phones at Best Buy), Summer (former Woodlawn student; claims she saw Lee around 3 p.m. the day she disappeared), Krista (former friend of Lee and Syed)

Main Takeaways: Between Laura’s knowledge of Best Buy and Summer’s afternoon talk with Lee, it appears the prosecution’s murder timeline is false. Listeners also learn Syed didn’t understand the gravity of his arrest as a teen. His unfamiliarity with the system probably led to his life sentence. Koenig also illustrates how Lee was a typical high school girl, making the murder feel that more real. The host tried to involve Lee’s family, but couldn’t reach them.

Episode Ten: The Best Defense Is A Good Defense

Summary: How did Syed’s defense fall apart? Koenig explores how prejudice, overzealous prosecutors, and Cristina Gutierrez’s tactics created a perfect storm for Syed. Koenig zeros in Gutierrez and points out flaws in her legal strategy. Listeners also hear how Gutierrez’s career disintegrated.

Names To Know: Doug Colbert (Syed’s bail hearing attorney), Vickie Walsh (bail hearing prosecutor), Kevin Urick (prosecutor at Syed’s trial), William Owens (juror in Syed’s trial), Julie Reamy (clerk in Gutierrez’s office), The Whitmans (couple who hired Gutierrez to defend their teen son).

Main Takeaways: Stereotypes factored heavily at Syed’s bail hearing and trial. Koenig was initially skeptical that prejudice put Syed away, but she admits prosecutors mixed myths with the truth to win arguments. Gutierrez’s waning expertise was the death knell, as health problems took their toll. Rabia Chaudry, the family friend who first told Koenig about Syed, runs a blog and claimed Gutierrez bilked thousands of dollars from Syed’s family. Koenig illustrates Gutierrez’s shadiness with accounts from Syed’s mom (who was asked to bring $10,000 in cash to a courthouse) and the Whitmans (who got a major legal payout from Maryland when Gutierrez was disbarred).

Slate’s Serial Spoiler Special has a great discussion about Episode 10.

Episode Eleven: Rumors

Summary: Syed’s conviction rippled through his Muslim community. Koenig hears from people who went to his mosque, some who thought he was cool, and others who thought he was duplicitous. Koenig also wonders if Syed has latent psychopathic tendencies that he may not even know about.

Names To Know: Ali (not his real name; attended a mosque with Syed), Atif Iqbal (attended a mosque with Syed), Charles Ewing (forensic psychologist and lawyer), Peter Billingsly (former Woodlawn student), Jane Efron (Woodlawn English teacher).

Main Takeaways: Episode 11 is filler. It’s all speculation about Syed’s behavior, which listeners have heard before. Everyone knows about profiles of psychopaths from Law & Order. Who cares if Syed stole money from his mosque in eighth grade? Kids do stupid things and it doesn’t prove whether he killed Lee. Fans can only hope there’s something definitive in the finale.

[Photo Credit: Serial]