Narcos is a Netflix Original Series that first premiered on August 28th, 2015. It is a collaborative venture between Netflix and the Spanish television network Telemundo. Narcos is a semi-biographical crime serial concerning both the rise and fall of famed Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar as well as attempts by both the American DEA and Columbian officials and law enforcement officers to capture Escobar. Narcos was created by Chris Brancato, Carlo Bernard, and Doug Miro, with the series primarily being written by Brancato. Famed Brazilian director José Padhila directed several episodes of the series, as well as serving as executive producer. The series stars award-winning Brazilian actor Wagner Moura as Escobar, and Boyd Holbrook and Pedro Pascal as Steve Murphy and Javier Peña, respectively, two DEA agents embedded in Columbia with a mission to take down Escobar.
Wagner Moura is best known for starring in José Padhila’s Elite Squad films. The 2008 film was a critical and commercial success, becoming somewhat of a cultural phenomenon in Brazil. Its 2011 sequel holds industry records as the highest-grossing Brazilian film of all time. In an extremely ironic twist, the two films star Moura as an incorruptible and experienced captain in Brazil’s paramilitary police squad, BOPE, Brazil’s answer to Columbia’s Search Bloc.
Narcos has a disclaimer that the show is based upon real events, but some names have been changed and altered. It is true that Steve Murphy, Javier Peña, and several other characters are simply composites based on real people, but I was still surprised at how much of the events featured in the show were, in fact, accurate. Narcos opens with a title card:
Magical realism is defined as what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe. There’s a reason magical realism was born in Columbia.
Not to spoil it for you, but Pablo Escobar was a ruthless, borderline crazy guy. The things he did to get his way, to bend people to his will, they are quite literally too outlandish to believe, but they happened. Narcos is compelling based upon its source material alone, but it goes even further than that.
Narcos has a lot of talent behind it. The standout cast member has to be its most important one, Wagner Moura. As someone who speaks a laughable amount of Spanish, some of his acting skill feels a little lost in translation, as do the majority of the non-English speaking actors in this series, but there is no denying Moura is extremely effective in this role. Pablo Escobar, as he is portrayed in this series, is at times extremely empathetic, and at times a downright terrifying, reprehensible monster. Moura steals the show here. I should mention that this series is very much a bilingual production, with the majority of the actors speaking Spanish when appropriate while still being able to speak fluent and clear English when the need arises. I sincerely and non-sarcastically appreciate the fact that the series makes me feel like I accomplished something with my three years of high school Spanish and extensive knowledge of extremely basic pronouns, nouns, and adverbs.
That is not to say the rest of the cast does not do a great job, as well. Boyd Holbrook, who had small roles in film up until this point, is very convincing. Serving as both narrator and protagonist of this series, Steve Murphy’s quest to catch Escobar turns into a dangerous obsession, so much so that there are points in the series you feel he is losing a part of himself the deeper he goes to catch Escobar. The weird thing is, while binge-viewing this season, I personally didn’t ever see him as going too far until I took a step back and thought about it. Even though you cannot compare the two shows at all, like Elliot in Mr. Robot, you as an audience member are inclined to see events of the series from the narrator’s (in this case, Murphy’s) perspective, even though their perspective may not always be the best one.
A question that comes up in Narcos throughout the series is “How far are you willing to go?” Columbia in the late-80’s and early 90’s was a virtually lawless country that made the American Old West look like Candyland. It is described by some as being Hell on Earth, and in many ways, it was. Because of people like Pablo Escobar, the War On Drugs is no longer simply a forceful saying. Things in Columbia got so bad, the Search Bloc was formed. The Search Bloc was a real, public, officially sanctioned paramilitary organization that comprised Columbian military personnel with the express directive of taking out the Medellin Cartel. The Search Bloc carried out operations with near impunity. I should also mention that capturing targets wasn’t really a thing with the Search Bloc, it was mainly a death squad. The series’ first episode opens in medias res with a raid carried out by the Search Bloc based upon intelligence provided by Murphy. The raid gets rather bloody and civilians are killed. The camera pans over the carnage as Murphy asserts that he has no regrets and calmly explains that he is not a bad man before the action turns back in time to show how this all began.
What I just described to you might seem jarring, and it is, but by the time the action gets back to the nightclub shootout, you understand that Columbia at the time needed extreme measures like the Search Bloc. Like I said, in Columbia, it’s clear that the War On Drugs wasn’t just a strong saying. Stuff hits the fan very, very, very quickly in Narcos; men, women, and children end up direct casualties of Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel, and at that point, you don’t have time nor the luxury to consider the political or moral ramifications of extreme actions against the men responsible. This all takes a rather dramatic toll on Murphy’s morality, his beliefs, and his relationship with his loving wife, Connie, who has gone to Columbia with her husband. This is where I feel Narcos shines. You are eased into the fight against Pablo slowly but progressively until you, like Murphy, find yourself “all in.”
Another interesting character in Narcos is Colonel Horacio Carillo, the fictionalized leader of the Search Bloc based upon real-life General Hugo Martinez, played by Maurice Compte. Carillo is first introduced as an associate of Javier Peña upon Murphy’s initial arrival in Columbia. Carillo is as incorruptible as he is ruthless in his pursuit of Escobar. Seemingly the only honest cop in Columbia, Carillo wastes no time in introducing the “fresh meat” to the harsh reality of Columbia. Relentless in his pursuit of justice, Carillo, who has seen too many people slain by the cartels, never seems to bother with morality in his pursuit of justice; under no circumstances will he stop until Escobar and his people are imprisoned or, preferably, dead.
Javier Peña, an experienced agent who has been stationed in Columbia for some time, and who long came to terms with the reality of the War On Drugs, serves as Murphy’s guide throughout the series. Played brilliantly by Pedro Pascal, the charming Peña provides some organic levity throughout the darkness of Narcos while also being nearly as dedicated to the job as Carillo is.
In addition to a rock solid narrative, Narcos also benefits from impressive cinematography by Mauricio Vidal and an excellent musical score by Pedro Bromfman. The score combines Spanish folk with what seems to me to be somewhat of a hard-boiled mystery feel. It is very good, and the theme song, Tuyo, will get stuck in your head. It is a forgone conclusion. I have no idea what the lyrics are saying but it hasn’t left my head since.
Narcos is an extremely addictive and very well-made biographical crime serial and another solid addition to Netflix’s ever-growing catalog of original content. Season 2 recently premiered on September 2nd, 2016 and was renewed for a third and fourth season soon after. With a total of 20 episodes now available, Narcos is definitely worth a weekend of your time. I have yet to start Season 2, but be assured you will have my thoughts on it ASAP.