Around halfway through the immediately engaging first episode of Netflix’s Narcos, the voiceover from Stephen Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), an energetic, clever DEA agent, points out that the death toll of the drug war, solely in relation to American street crime, got so bad in the 1980s that bodies had to be stored in refrigerated trucks for restaurants. Director José Padilha, who also produces the series and directed the incendiary Bus 174, could have used any kind of truck for the shot where we see a young man’s lifeless body splayed out, but he makes certain that the eye catches the Burger King logo on the back. It’s a quick moment in a series paced as if its story were hitched directly to a greased-up Roadrunner, but it’s one of the more crucial, if blatant, nods to the series’ caustic view of capitalism, both at home and abroad.
In this case, abroad is specifically Colombia, Medellin in particular, where Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura) quickly escalates from a prosperous dealer of weed and stolen merchandise to a local god, worth an incalculable amount of money thanks to his ambitious funding of international cocaine trade. When we first meet him, Escobar uses information — the names of soldiers’ family members — to wave off the threat of law enforcement, backed by a percentage of his take. Money, first and foremost, is what drives Pablo’s enterprise, and the amount of money he accrues is very clearly connected to the illegality of his product. America’s vilifying of his product and his work (which the series rigorously details from a small set of cooking operations run by a guy named Cockroach to a vast empire) is, in essence, a denial of his attempt to give his country freedom from the dictates of American (read: monetary) influences. Not for nothing does the series begin with Agent Murphy discussing Pinochet, the brutal Chilean dictator who was happily backed by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger until his “disappeared” population became very public.
This gives especial subtextual meaning to Escobar’s run for Colombian Congress, which he initially achieves by being the alternate for a clean candidate, and ultimately loses hold of due to an old mugshot that belies his stance that he has no criminal record. Narcos provides a vision of a radical, independent government built out of a criminal enterprise, and the devastation that follows when that independent government is compromised and taken away. As such, the show exudes sympathy for Escobar and, on occasion, shies away from the ugliness of his actions, never giving a full visual sense of the horror of the murders he enacted. That being said, the character of Escobar has rarely been studied to this degree, whereas his influence and mythology in regards to the culture of the modern cartel has been emphasized ad nauseam. The series’ depiction of him as a radical figure of nationalism is both refreshing and engrossing, and when he does turn darker, following his term in Congress, the tragedy of his station is made all the more clear, without acquitting him of his more monstrous attributes.
Unfortunately, the rampant action of Escobar’s storyline, and the fascinating perspective on the cartel leader put across by co-creators Chris Brancato, Doug Miro, and Carlo Bernard, only makes the initial flippancy of the American storyline just a bit too apparent. Holbrook’s voiceover, for instance, is labored in a variety of passages, adding on information and sarcastic opinion that rarely add more to the thematic backbone of the narrative. And Murphy’s experience of witnessing Escobar’s reach in the region (which leads to a strange experience with his cat and his wife, Connie , played by Joanna Christie, amongst other things) is familiar in its all-encompassing paranoia, stressing the thrills in a scenario that is bracing from the get-go. Thankfully, Murphy’s entanglement in Escobar’s story — as swell as fellow colleagues Javier Pena (Game of Thrones‘ Pedro Pascal) and Horatio Carrillo’s (Maurice Compte) place in the narrative are — grows increasingly visceral and complicated as the 10-episode series speeds towards its end.
It’s no fair spoiling where these men finally end up as Escobar’s hold on the drug trade, and his reputation in Colombia, becomes unsteady, but Narcos ultimately attains the sort of blazing fury and elegant moodiness of Michael Mann‘s more audacious works — specifically Miami Vice and the recent blackhat. And yet, thanks to directors like Padilha and Hannibal favorite Guillermo Navarro, the show attains its own antic visual and verbal rhythms, overrun as it is by the same hunger for information and scintillating danger that Murphy and Escobar thrive on. Maura’s Escobar, however, only seeks these things in the name of revolution, whereas Murphy seeks to reinforce his belief that America, under Ronald Reagan, is righteous and that stopping the influx of drugs is the work of justice. The hindsight of this foolish disposition is weaved into Narcos, but never to the point where the characters or the storytelling feels particularly smug. Rather, this unerringly involving series lets the inherent complications of the war on drugs, and Escobar’s career, hang out, offering a critique and condemnation of the power of money, and the fatally addicting nature of control and global dominance.
★★★★ Very good — Damn fine television