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Netflix’s ‘Narcos’ Is a Flawed, Epic History of the ‘War on Drugs’

Netflix's 'Narcos' Is a Flawed, Epic History of the 'War on Drugs'

As “King of Cocaine” Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura) prepares to assume his seat in Colombia’s House of Representatives, in the third episode of Netflix’s new drama, “Narcos,” the image alternates between the unkempt fields of his peasant youth and the chamber’s imposing façade. Distilling Escobar’s rapid, violent rise to power to a single juxtaposition, the moment nonetheless fails to demystify the famed figure’s strange ambition, which was to command the drug trade through threats, reprisals, and assassinations—and then to redistribute the resulting wealth to Colombia’s poorest ranks in the form of houses and hospitals.

For the voice we hear is not his own. In “Narcos,” a series with more voiceover narration than your average radio play, the dominant perspective is that of DEA agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), a pretty blond gringo sent down from Miami as the U.S. opens an international front in the “War on Drugs.” “There’s a reason magical realism was born in Colombia,” Murphy remarks as Escobar ascends the steps to Congress, echoing a title card from the series premiere. “It’s a country where dreams and reality are conflated, where, in their heads, people fly as high as Icarus. But even magical realism has its limits.”

That “Narcos” itself neglects to test these boundaries is but one of the structural flaws excavated by Murphy’s “deep” thoughts. Far from the phantasmagorical fables of Gabriel García Márquez, the series is a standard, sometimes chauvinist history of the Medellín Cartel and its fiercest opponents. Almost quaint in its reluctance to investigate the motivations of a real-life antihero, “Narcos” splits the difference, and emerges as a series full of promises it can’t keep.

In “Narcos,” the central problem posed by the subject matter, the very vastness of the conflict, ultimately proves insurmountable. With his commitment to the longue durée, pausing to consider Richard Nixon, Pinochet’s Chile, Colombian guerrillas, Escobar’s populism, and American business interests, writer Chris Brancato displays an incisive understanding of the trade’s many tentacles, but as in Frank Norris’ 1901 portrait of corrupt railroad monopolies, “The Octopus,” the result is a narrative of breadth, not depth.

Rather than a crutch, then, the heavy use of voiceover seems a desperate, even risky attempt to balance the demands of history with those of drama. From this struggle, unfortunately, neither comes out a clear winner. Murphy’s retrospective commentary serves only to obscure Escobar’s inner life, constantly crowding out the Colombian’s own understanding of events, and yet for all his reams of words, Murphy himself remains a cipher. There’s a faint, niggling sense that “Narcos” wants us to see Murphy as an unreliable narrator—”Don’t call me a bad guy just yet,” he ventures in the pilot’s opening set piece—but neither Brancato nor director José Padilha quite manages to undercut Murphy’s blinkered framework for explaining the politics of the “War on Drugs.”

Whether “Narcos” is a critique or an endorsement of Murphy’s notion that a “commie” priest’s liberation theology is just another form of villainy, for instance, remains unclear, and this opaque stance reflects the series’ muddled development of character and context alike. As Murphy and his partner, Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal), pursue Escobar and his affiliates into the 1980s, the tension regularly flags; for every stylish sequence—a beautifully filmed shootout amid the illicit purples, reds, and blues of a Colombian disco, or a striking montage of drug smuggling seeping into unexpected corners of the Colombian economy—there are two or three interludes of extended exposition, which disappointingly gloss the many complexities of U.S.-Latin American relations as simply “too strange to believe.”

Of course, Escobar’s campaign to “Liberate Colombia,” as he terms it in “Narcos,” is eminently believable. Despite its gestures at the long shadow of U.S. interference in Central and South America, however, the series prefers the relative simplicity of a world in which the rebels “read too much Marx” and a high body count is the substitute for drama. Displacing its interest in magical realism onto an unwaveringly naturalistic treatment of the “War on Drugs,” viewing Escobar’s surprisingly radical politics through the eyes of an American conservative, “Narcos” in fact violates the principle of its apparent inspiration. 

“The interpretation of our reality through patterns not our own,” Márquez said in accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982, “serves only to make us ever more unknown, ever less free, ever more solitary.” Contemporaneous with the events “Narcos” depicts, the Colombian novelist’s wisdom suggests that Netflix’s series is the real Icarus here, high on ambition but fundamentally limited by its perspective. The flaws in “Narcos” are fascinating, even promising, but they’re flaws nonetheless.

“Narcos” premieres Friday, Aug. 28 on Netflix.

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