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‘Narcos’ Betrays Pablo Escobar Story

By: Adam Dubove - @dubdam - Sep 3, 2015, 10:48 am

EspañolFor more than a decade, drug kingpin Pablo Escobar spread terror throughout Colombia. His history is enthralling. A meteoric criminal career — encouraged by his delusions of grandeur — catapulted him from small-time smuggler to king of cocaine. He quickly became the most feared criminal in Colombia, and perhaps even the world.

As he conquered the Colombian underworld, he left thousands dead in his wake. Escobar murdered ministers, judges, journalists, and police officers; blew up a passenger airplane in mid-air; funded the siege on the Palace of Justice; and detonated the headquarters of the Colombian intelligence service.

All the while, he bribed security forces in his hometown of Medellín — and everywhere else in Colombia — in order to operate with impunity.

The story of the ambitious Escobar is as intense as the new Netflix original series based on the life of the “Robin Hood paisa,” Narcos, but for different reasons. Condensing the 15-year criminal career of one of the most fascinating characters of the Latin American underworld into 10 hours is no easy task. And despite the high-production value and notable effort, the series stumbles along the way.

The show opens with the flaxen-haired DEA agent, Steven Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), packed with a strong southern accent, arriving in Colombia after seeing how Colombian drug dealers have taken over Miami. “The hippies had been replaced by Colombians, and these guys didn’t wear flip-flops,” he says.

Murphy takes on the role of narrator and relays key aspects of Escobar’s story for those unfamiliar with the origins of “El Patrón.” Before long, however, his voice becomes tedious, as he frequently describes what’s plainly on the screen. Yes, we’re watching Steve, and we’re not blind.

While Murphy is at times annoying and can prevent the story from moving forward, his colleague Javier Peña (the Chilean Pedro Pascal, or Prince Oberyn Martell from Game of Thrones) makes it more tolerable. His experience as a narco hunter in Colombia sets him apart from Murphy’s naivete and adds some spice to the series.

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And then we have Pablo Escobar, portrayed by the Brazilian Wagner Moura, which leaves us craving for more. His interpretation is interesting, but it is miles away from Andrés Parra’s Escobar in the Colombian telenovela Escobar, el Patrón del Malwho gives the character a heavier emotional load, and more effortlessly exposes the strong and violent nature of the white king.

It doesn’t help that Moura is Brazilian, and for native Spanish speakers, his “Colombian accent” will sound dubious at best. For the general anglophone audience, however, the large chunks of Spanish dialogue in the series may add enough realism that it won’t be an issue.

Don’t get me wrong, Narcos is no mind-numbing series at all. It is jam-packed with exciting action sequences and suspenseful storytelling. The underlying political thriller is no doubt entertaining, but it fails to deliver on the enormous potential of Escobar’s story and ultimately goes down as just another show about organized crime.

Where Brazilian director and producer José Padilha does succeed with this series is in its impressive aesthetics, and above all, effectively conveying the moral ambiguity of the drug war. The show consistently draws a parallel between the methods and tactics of the drug kingpins and their minions, and the security forces who resort to the same brutal techniques to accomplish their goals.

It’s never clear who is who in this world where double loyalties among Colombian security forces are the norm. Officers wore the insignia of the Colombian army on their chests, but answered to Escobar; police agents doubled as the Medellín Cartel’s shock troops; government authorities made receiving bribes and torturing suspects part of their daily routine; cartel henchmen turned on their bosses for the right deal, and nearly every politico was neck deep in corruption.

Ordinary Colombians citizens? They were defenseless — trapped in the crossfire between two warring factions, the state and the narcos, each claiming to be guided by a stronger moral compass than the other.

While Narcos may not be the best gateway into Escobar’s life, it mostly agrees with history, even if some events are told in the wrong order. The series mixes in real-life footage that provides some relevant context, including Ronald and Nancy’s Reagan “Just Say No” campaign, the assassination of presidential hopeful Luis Carlos Galán, and images of Escobar’s stint as a congressman in the early 1980s.

The next season of Narcos just confirmed — should include Escobar’s last year alive, even though the first season packed in over a decade and a half. Perhaps we’re in for a more informative, detailed, and entertaining round two that will force viewers to reconsider this sham called the War on Drugs.

Adam Dubove Adam Dubove

Adam Dubove is a journalist, co-host of The Titanic's Violinists radio show, and the secretary of the Amagi Institute. Follow him on Twitter: @dubdam, and read his blog: Diario de un Drapetómano.