Netflix is making a concerted effort to expand beyond the United States, and that shows in their evolving slate of content. From U.S.-centric series like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, the streaming giant has recently released more worldly series like Marco Polo, Sense8, and now Narcos.
Narcos focuses on the real-life narcotics war that has plagued Latin America, particularly in Colombia during the 1970s and 80s, and its chief proponent, Pablo Escobar (played by Wagner Moura). Throughout the season, we see Escobar’s rise to notoriety and the efforts of the Colombian government, the United States government and the U.S. DEA in apprehending him.
So look, I make deals for a living. Now you can stay calm and accept my deal, or accept the consequences. Silver, or lead.
— Pablo Escobar
“Plata o plomo” (literally “silver or lead”, but taken to mean “money or bullets”) effectively sums up Escobar’s game, which is detailed methodically throughout the ten episodes of the season. The story of Escobar, the Medellin drug cartel, and its impact on Colombia is a rich one, which leaves each episode plenty to display. For someone not acquainted with Escobar, Narcos will be a fantastic history lesson.
The show almost feels like one sometimes. Narcos utilises a mixture of voiceover narration and archival news clips from actual events to power the narrative in a way that is more documentary than scripted drama. This was compounded in the first two episodes of the season, as the narrative jumped from one point in time to another in a manner that may disorient viewers.
However, from the third episode onward, Narcos finds its footing and heads, steadily, into the meat of the war between the drug cartel (the “narcos”) and the Colombian government.
Narrative formula in action: “The Palace in Flames”
I found the fourth episode, “The Palace in Flames”, an excellent example of how the narrative formula works. The episode chronicles the U.S. efforts to hunt down Escobar as the Colombian presidential election looms and the Supreme Court rules over an extradition treaty with the U.S.
The usage of real-life footage and the narration of DEA agent Steve Murphy becomes a potent mix here, as we see the U.S. closing in on Escobar, arresting his key men and closing his factories, until Escobar strikes a heavy blow: he hires a left-wing movement to storm and siege the Colombian Supreme Court just before they rule on the extradition bill, killing half of the judges in the Court and burning all the evidence accumulated against him in the process.
That scene contains a one-two-three punch, as we hear Murphy’s shock at learning of the incident over the news clips, supplemented by newly-shot scenes. The Supreme Court siege is a key moment in the war against Escobar, and Narcos delivers in its re-creation of the incident.
Speaking of Escobar, he is played by Wagner Moura, who is given the unenviable task of giving a monster like Escobar depth. Moura, a Brazillian actor, rises to the challenge; his portrayal of Escobar is nuanced, betraying moments of insecurity and hurt through the cracks of his calm evil.
Escobar declares in the first episode that he was going to be president of Colombia one day, but his fledgling career as politician is ruined when he is revealed to have a criminal record. Narcos suggests that this rejection hurts Escobar personally and that part of Escobar’s motivations in his war against the Colombian authorities was a desire to be accepted and recognised for the good that he wants to do. Moura’s acting becomes crucial in bringing that across, as we see Escobar flit between drug-lord menace and family man in a believable manner.
However, one vital strength of Narcos is how it does not restrict its world to Escobar alone, instead giving us a look at the other players in this complex war. On the law-enforcement side, we see Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), a DEA agent who also acts as narrator, and his partner Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal). The show does not hesitate to dwell on other important players such as Colombian President César Gaviria (Raúl Méndez), Colonel Carrillo (Maurice Compte), drug lord Rodríguez Gacha (Luis Guzmán), and Murphy’s wife, Connie (Joanna Christie).
This generous character development is not always successful, but it pays off most evidently in its minor but significant characters, which appear for an episode or two before suffering an ill-fated ending.
Narco Polo? Deeper thoughts on Murphy as narrator
Despite his role as narrator, Murphy is perhaps the dullest character on the show, as his motivation never really goes beyond a desire to hunt down Escobar. Murphy’s role as audience surrogate is a common device used to orientate the audience in a show’s early stages, but I wonder if the whole Murphy-as-narrator shtick was deliberately engineered to provide an American point of reference for the audience.
I say this because Marco Polo, another show from Netflix, is actually similar to Narcos in this regard: its main character Marco acts as an audience surrogate but is dull and overshadowed by the show’s true central character Kublai Khan. Without the voiceover narration, Murphy would have been a crucial but uninteresting character in Narcos.
Narcos has been renewed for a second season by Netflix, and I’m looking forward to it. The show clings onto the rails of history, but we’re not just seeing another rendition of the Escobar story – it’s a story well-acted, well-written, and ultimately, very well-told.