If, like me, you’re over the age of thirty, you may remember seeing the news of Pablo Escobar’s death on the telly. Perhaps, if like me, you were young at the time, it and his significance may not have had any impact. While you may have heard the name, you may not have known much about the reality of his life and his business. Remember now, this was in the days before you could simply Google it.
I have an additional excuse, as he died when I was thirteen or so. At that age, in particular, most of us have no need to concern ourselves with the facts surrounding internationally famous drug dealers, or facts about anything for that matter. Folk who used cocaine for recreational purposes back then probably didn’t either, but for entirely different motivations. This is the overriding theme throughout the first season of ‘Narcos’, we see instances of sociological hypocrisy and myopia that allow us and society to function as we know it, in a hedonistic, insular vacuum that suits us, especially where drugs are concerned. Because Narcos makes a point of emphasising that all of the main protagonists involved live in their own self-serving, morally bespoke vacuums, the interpretation of events we’re presented with is believable.
With Escobar it’s suggested that his pride became vanity, ‘coming from nothing’ fused with a form of nationalism, helping to encourage self-justifications for his metamorphosis into a tyrannical murderer. The reasons why we take drugs like cocaine, either for pleasure or for need, be it physical or psychological, and part of that process requires a hedonistic denial, namely us willingly ignoring the realities that accompany their production and distribution, are diluted affectations of the ruthless manner in which Pablo Escobar lived and did business. Namely, it was only about him and his immediate family and what he and they wanted and needed. The consequences of his actions for others were an irrelevance to him. In Narcos, which has the benefit of retrospect, we’re shown the destructive and violent results his desire for wealth and acclaim caused when married with and propagated by the money and power he was able to attain, and all because he sold something that people wanted and wanted enough to choose to be blissfully unaware of the human cost that allowed them to buy it.
Being a dramatized depiction of real events we shouldn’t take the interpretation of events that Narcos’ main narrator and one of the central protagonists, Steve Murphy, offers us, uncritically. The chronology is beyond dispute. However, Murphy’s views on Escobar’s motivations are, at best, informed speculation.
Indeed, Narcos is at its most interesting when it reverts to being a docudrama, sticking to universally accepted facts. We’re shown how cocaine, in the early seventies, was an undercapitalised industry, thanks, in large, to the military juntas that ruled South American countries supressing its production, viewing it as synonymous with communism and a form of funding revolutionary radicalism. That changed when people like Escobar saw the value that addictive opiates would have if transported on a mass scale to a first world economy where forms of hedonism were the accepted norm. We’re shown how easy it was, and still is, to produce cocaine, how abundant it is and the bewildering scale of its consumption. Not to mention the amount of money it made the Medellin cartel alone. The first four episodes, which chart Escobar’s rise and the genesis of his business model – moving stolen TV’s with bribes – and the ingenuity behind the multitude of ways in which the coke was smuggled, are fascinating, as is the political manoeuvring that facilitated it all. The focus by US intelligence on small groups of communist insurgents originally helped the free flow of cocaine into the States, but, ironically, later this free-for-all helped create another phony war for the machine – The War On Drugs.
Just as The Wire showed us the perpetual futility of underfunded local law enforcement fighting a drug war in a run-down inner city by targeting street level dealers, in Narcos the politics behind it is viewed with complete cynicism, primarily as it was an excuse for the US to meddle in the affairs of foreign countries. Murphy’s insight provides us the delicious irony of juxtaposing Nancy Reagan pleading with people to ‘just say no [to drugs]’ while many of the disciples of Reaganism were snorting the coke produced by Escobar and other Colombian cartels. So, not only were the entrepreneurial classes funding these drug empires, the Reagan administration were spending their ‘hard earned’ tax dollars to fight a war against it.
Murphy’s experiences on the streets of Miami chasing low level fungible drug dealers are shown fleetingly in an early episode, and preventing this drug violence is given as his main motivation for relocating to Colombia. One of the best scenes from season one sees Murphy and Pena’s moral crusade exposed for its complete self interest. They attempt to convince the Colombian government to resist calls to end the extradition law after Escobar escalates to a bombing campaign against the government. Cesar Gaviria’s aide challenges them as to why it’s better the Colombian government relents, when he tells them that ‘this is not a game’, ‘this is Colombia’ and that ‘people want the bombing to stop’, it is met with silence from both Pena and Murphy. Given the choice, they’d rather chase Escobar, which gave their work relevance when often they were mired in bureaucracy and it obfuscated the futile belief that capturing Escobar would truly change things, than settle for peace which would help the Colombian people immediately. Then again, without Murphy and Pena being so belligerent and hell-bent on succeeding, the chances of Escobar ever paying for his crimes would’ve diminished significantly.
The performances of the main cast members are, in the main, convincing, but there are certain aspects that stretch the realms of believability. Pedro Pascal, who plays Javier Pena, is too absurdly handsome to be anything other than a male model in an Armani ad, while Horacio Carrillo is portrayed as joyless, and entirely consumed by a pathological need for revenge to the point where the sociopathic Escobar manages to often come across as gregarious in comparison.
That the dialogue is almost entirely in Spanish enriches Narcos’ aesthetic, and quite right too, as it’s set in a Spanish speaking country. Contrast this with the fifth season of Homeland which was set in Berlin. It suffered by oddly fluctuating from scene to scene that involved private conversations between two German speakers, sometimes doing so in English, and at other times in German, all because, you suspect, the producers wanted to cut down on the use of subtitles. That the indigenous characters in Narcos nearly all only speak Spanish also allowed for the writers to create an amusing aside for the ‘gringo’ Murphy, who, despite having been in Colombia for a good number of years by the end of season one, still struggles with the language.
It may be nit-picking, but all this Spanish dialogue, may have, in part, lead to one piece of dreadful Basil Exposition that occurred when Elisa Alvaro explains why her English is so good to Murphy’s wife. I didn’t need an explanation as to why she could speak English. It’s perfectly realistic that educated people can speak foreign languages, it happens all the time.
But I digress, and minor quibbles aside, this is an engrossing show. Better yet it promises to be in season two, which, given we now know how it ends, for Escobar at least, tells us that watching the process of ambition turning to greed, allied by the hubris of success, and the willing corruption of one’s moral compass for one’s own desires, dreams, even delusions, will always be engrossing to watch. In Pablo Escobar’s case it’s something we can all believe in, because it means we can tell ourselves we’re not like him.