When I was in high school (post-stone tablets, pre-iPad tablets), there was a girl whose nickname was “The Queen of the Snow.” I just thought she liked skiing a lot.
When I was at Stanford, if you wanted drugs, it wasn’t hard to find some. I even knew a couple of dealers, none of whom was ever worried about getting arrested. After all, they were white guys who were at Stanford. I also knew a girl whose brother Fedexed her coke. (I assume Fedex has gotten their drug sniffing paraphernalia act together since then.)
During the Eighties and early Nineties, there was much snark about “Just Say No” and “The War On Drugs.” Both of which seemed like a complete load of crap at the time — “What, we’re suddenly going to defeat drugs?” But The War On Drugs quickly became the number one foreign policy problem at the time. (Until, of course, we discovered how bad our BFF Saddam Hussein was.) We’ve since learned a whole lot more about the US and the drug trade, and we all know what constantly being “at war” has done to our local police departments and system of justice. How we got here is pretty interesting.
“Narcos,” is a Netflix-original series about the War on Drugs. The first season is pretty much the War on Pablo Escobar, the first major cocaine kingpin in Colombia. Escobar had the sense to apply his hard-won criminal skills to the mass production of high-quality cocaine and to zero in on where the best market would be. He immediately becomes the focal point of what would eventually be named the War on Drugs. The show tells us why this phase of drug importation was different, why what the DEA and the Colombian government and military was up against almost impossible for them to defeat, and why in some parts of Colombia you can still find pictures presenting Pablo Escobar as a hero, not a villain.
The ostensible main characters of “Narcos” are DEA agents Steven Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) and Javier Pena (Pedro Pascal, who is way more charismatic than Holbrook, who’s bland). The actual main character is Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura, who’s even more baby-faced than the actual Escobar was). For most of the show, it’s Escobar’s world and everyone else is just living (and, quite frequently, dying horribly) in it.
I liked the show a lot, despite the docudrama aspects of it. (As well as the severe, and constant violence.) I looked up what happened to various players in real life versus what happened in the show — the show is more concerned about getting the feeling of what was going on instead of the historical truth. There’s chaos and there’s insane wealth, and watching what happens when the people who are behind both get desperate is pretty, uh, addictive.1 The fact that anyone, anywhere, whether the Colombian military or the DEA, can find people who will keep fighting this is pretty remarkable.
The show did intrigue me enough to pick up Killing Pablo: the hunt for the world’s greatest outlaw by Mark Bowden, a nonfiction account of the hunt for Escobar. The book starts off with an account of Escobar’s rise to power and internationally sought after criminal, and not surprisingly the real life story is somewhat messier and less clearly defined than the way it’s portrayed in “Narcos.” On the other hand, the series does follow the flow of Escobar’s life rather closely.
Next on my list to read is The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow, a novel about the war on drugs here at home.
Just as there hasn’t been a “happy” ending in the real world to the never-ending War On Drugs, there isn’t a happy ending to “Narcos” — instead, we get a small introduction to the rise of the Calí cartel, who seem to present themselves as the Harvard MBA alternative to the middle-class Robin Hood.
“Narcos” has been renewed for a second season. There’s a ton more story left to tell.
(The violence throughout the series is frequent and very graphic. There’s also sexual violence in Episode 2.)
A couple of other things about “Narcos”:
- Even if you have no interest in this topic or watching ten episodes about the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar, I highly recommend watching Episode 1. There’s violence (later episodes are much worse), but the depiction of the rise of the drug trade from the small-scale to the multi-billion-dollar international crime syndicate is worth watching. Two DEA busts in Miami are included for you to make the obvious comparisons.
- Yes, the constant voiceover is slightly annoying, but the show has so much information to push at you in such a short period of time that the voiceover is necessary.
- At least 50% of the dialogue is in Spanish, so you can’t watch “Narcos” without, you know, actually watching it. Maybe this is the wave of the future: multilingual shows so we have to read all the subtitles.
- Few if any of the actors are actually Colombian, and this has annoyed the hell out of actual Spanish speakers. The actor who plays Escobar is Brazilian and apparently speaks Spanish with a noticeable accent. I don’t speak Spanish, so none of that bothered me.
If you enjoyed my entries about Story Structure (or why Jon Snow is just fine, thanks), pay attention to Episode Eight of “Narcos.” And how much that hits the “all is lost” theme that marks “the end of Act 2.” Half of the dialogue seems to be “Escobar has won!” or “The Colombian government/the US/the DEA has lost!”
But also notice how the seeds of how the good guys eventually “win” (for some definition of winning) are also sown: Escobar’s victory turns out to be as much of a problem for him as it does for the people working against him.
1 Periodically I make jokes about the parallels between the insane wealth flooding into Colombia and the insane wealth flooding into the Bay Area during the current tech boom. Big money makes for the big crazy.