Image: Wikimedia Commons / Jericho

Review: Narcos Season One

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s part of its never-ending quest to consume all your free time, Netflix have released yet another addictive drama for you to binge-watch. Narcos charts the real life, violent tale of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura).

At the height of its power, Escobar’s drug empire spanned several countries and was bringing in more than $60 million per day—he famously even made the Forbes billionaire list in 1989. Basically, Pablo Escobar made Walter White’s meth empire look like amateur hour.

Image: Wikimedia Commons / Netflix

Image: Wikimedia Commons / Netflix

The story of the infamous ‘King of Cocaine’ seems too insane to be truth at times. It’s full of unbelievably callous acts of violence (the Medellín drug cartel’s bombing of Avianca Flight 203 comes to mind) and mind-boggling twists (such as the creation of La Catedral, a prison Escobar built for his own incarceration).

His biography lends well to a Netflix series then, as his incredible life provides several unpredictable moments that will leave you completely addicted.

However, the fact that Narcos follows the story of a historical figure is both a blessing and a curse for the show, with the series sometimes having the feel of a detached documentary. Pablo Escobar’s drug empire is a huge, sprawling operation that results in endless bombings, assassinations and innocent deaths. As a result, several of these significant events are just mentioned or shown in passing, while many likeable characters are killed off needlessly and then never spoken off again. This of course is just a reflection of actual events but it does give Narcos a dispassionate tone.

Further contributing to the documentary feel, scenes are often interspersed with archival footage of the Cartel’s bombings or the bodies of those who opposed Escobar. Perhaps the most significant reason why the show feels so detached though is the fact that there doesn’t seem to be a central sympathetic protagonist to lead us through this complex, messy narrative.

It would be fair to assume initially that the protagonist of the show is Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), a DEA agent who is sent to Colombia on a U.S. mission to capture and kill Escobar. He guides the viewer through exposition via voiceover, and is one of the few characters on the show who isn’t a ruthless criminal. However, as an individual in his own right, the character is pretty bland. We hardly get an insight into Murphy’s life outside his mission and in several episodes, he’s essentially reduced to side-character status—he’s almost completely absent in the final episode, for example.

Then maybe our protagonist is Escobar himself and Narcos is an anti-hero story. The problem with this though is that the viewer predominantly remains an outsider to Escobar’s operation and plans. Throughout the season, he orchestrates several bombings and assassinations which we aren’t aware of until they actually happen. It’s true that we are granted a limited insight into Escobar’s family life but for the most part, the audience is never entirely on the same page as the infamous drug lord.

This lack of a clear and sympathetic protagonist plays a large part in the show’s detached, documentary tone which can sometimes leave the viewer cold.

Pedro Pascal. Image: Wikimedia Commons / Gage Skidmore.

Pedro Pascal. Image: Wikimedia Commons / Gage Skidmore.

However, that’s not to say that Pablo Escobar isn’t depicted in an engaging and strangely likeable way. Moura delivers a really solid interpretation of the cocaine king, giving a performance that is both terrifying and charismatic but also hints at a sadness and despair hiding within Escobar. Pedro Pascal (aka Oberyn Martell from Game of Thrones) also delivers a thoroughly enjoyable performance as Javier Peña, the reckless DEA partner of Steve Murphy.

In keeping with the show’s mission to depict an accurate and factual depiction of Escobar’s drug war, a large majority of the dialogue is in Spanish to make the retelling as authentic as possible. Narcos therefore requires you to pay attention constantly to make sense of its complex plot, which spans several characters, countries and political movements.

If you’ve been looking for a show to binge-watch since Breaking Bad finished, then you can do a lot worse than Narcos. It’s addictive, unpredictable and features impressive cinematography, especially in the chase scenes through the slums of Medellín. Perhaps best of all, it provides an unflinching account of the sometimes romanticised ‘King of Cocaine’—one that doesn’t shy away from accurately portraying the bloodshed and horror he brought to Colombia.

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