Netflix recently released its latest glossy big budget TV show, Narcos. It tells the story of Colombian drug dealer Pablo Escobar, and his rise from the slums of Medellin to international notoriety.
Narcos is a great addition to Netflix’s growing catalogue of original programming, and it stands as its best dramatic work since Bloodline.
The Story of Pablo Escobar
Set during the late ‘70s, through the ‘80s, Narcos follows Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura, Elite Squad), as he evades capture, extradition, and attempts on his life. Pablo is smart and savvy, and he amasses a considerable fortune by selling cocaine, and forming the Medellin cartel.
Initially viewed as a man of the people, Pablo is untouchable despite the efforts of USA DEA agents Steve Murphy (Boyd
Holbrook) and Javier Pena (Pedro Pascal). Pablo bribes police officers and politicians, and he inspires love from the poor, painting US efforts to capture him as colonial meddling.
Pablo’s a man with aspirations of greatness, and he attempts to run for political office, and exert power and influence in the upper echelons of Colombian society.
But violence comes hand in hand with international drug smuggling, and Pablo’s actions become increasingly hard to justify. He murders with impunity, and he pushes Colombia ever closer to a civil war, towards a fight between his cartel and government troops.
There’s an interesting subtext to the events occurring in Pablo’s country. The DEA agents are there as USA emissary’s, and they push for extradition, they operate within Colombia with a similar sort of impunity to Pablo, and they reflect the worst of American foreign policy.
The Reagan and Bush years in American politics are defined by the War on Drugs, and Colombia was torn apart by external influences, and internal conflicts. This, coupled with the appetite for cocaine in the USA, paved the way for ‘entrepreneurs’ like Pablo Escobar to take advantage of a lucrative black market, and a political power vacuum.
Perhaps the stand out achievement of Narcos is its cinematography. It captures the slums of Colombia, the green of the rainforest, and the neon lights of bars and downtown city streets with care, and its palette is reflective of its ’80s setting.
There’s a sense that the lighting reflects Pablo’s journey from poverty to opulence, with the slums photographed in drab browns, and filled with broken furniture and destitute people, standing in marked contrast to the bright colours used to capture the wealth and decadence of Pablo’s later life.
The set design is consistently lavish throughout the show. The settings include Pablo’s palatial home, Colombian government buildings, and the American embassy with its covert operations room replete with high tech equipment.
There’s a clever juxtaposition between the expensive surveillance tools used by the US and its alphabet agencies, and the low tech and evasive tactics employed by the cartel. It’s a fight that takes place in the shadows for the most part.
But Pablo is brazen and there are moments of extreme violence that shake the methodical procedural tone of the narrative. Narcos uses setting, cinematography, and mise en scene to great effect and it creates a believable three dimensional world for its characters to inhabit.
Overt Exposition, and Retrospective Storytelling
But it’s not a perfect show, and there are some problems with the storytelling devices used. Narcos relies heavily on overt exposition to tell its sprawling tale. DEA agent Steve Murphy provides a voice over that’s used so frequently it detracts from the narrative.
This distances the audience from the events occurring on screen, and it fractures an otherwise compelling story. Instead of being immersed in individual scenes, the audience’s perception is influenced by Murphy’s description of the events occurring on screen.
In terms of dramatic effect, Narcos sacrifices compelling characterisation of notable historical figures, and opts instead for a documentary influenced approach. This is consistent throughout the story and it’s a shame that the show chooses to tell Pablo Escobar’s story, rather than show it through his actions.
But there are some strengths to this approach too. Namely, it lets us view a decade of time within only ten episodes, it keeps Pablo at arms length, and presents all of the characters as enigmas, as people who came to be defined by their shared story of drugs, violence, and murder, rather than their individual experiences.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Narcos is its clear conflict between good and bad. Of course lines are crossed, and morals are contextualised, but there’s a real sense of crime ridden Gotham, and its white knight Harvey Dent, as Narcos’ story unfolds with its altruistic politicians, its brave police officers, and its morally bankrupt contexts.
But there are no true heroes in this tale. Pablo thought he was a man of the people, but he quickly became corrupted by power and wealth. The DEA agents thought they were fighting for something bigger, but they soon realised that they were simply trying to catch Pablo for career driven reasons, and the Colombian people came to understand that Escobar was a reflection of their society, not a man apart.
The voice over narration constantly reminds audiences that this is a true story, this is something that happened, and it’s clearly told in retrospect. It ensures that audiences are waiting for the narrative to arrive in the present, and this effectively propels the story forwards, ever closer to an explosive resolution.
Big Budget Gloss
Narcos relies on big budget gloss, some excellent set pieces, and consistently good acting to tell its tale of Pablo Escobar’s greed and scheming. It’s a slow burning story, reminiscent of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, but it’s also a decidedly Latin American tale, with its love of football, family, and magical realism.
It lets us into the Colombian underworld with a story that spans generations, and it considers the effects of crime on the criminals, the police, and an entire country.
Narcos is an exciting piece of television, and it reflects the increasing scope of Netflix as a medium for original programming. Marvel at the scale of Escobar’s greed, the opulent settings, and the considered performances, and catch a glimpse of a particular moment in Colombia’s history that resembles the American Wild West, with its shootouts, its violence, and its larger than life characters who view life as all or nothing.