You Don’t Belong Here
by DICK CHENEY
creators Chris Brancato, Carlos Bernard & Doug Miro
Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) is a DEA agent sent to Colombia who does not speak any Spanish. His partner Javier Pena (Pedro Pascal) has to do all the translating, which is really what Narcos is about — making an audience of people who barely know anything about history understand why it was important, more important than any human life, to capture a man who sold drugs of roughly same power as those available in pharmarcies.
Pablo Escobar became very rich because someone, at some point, decided that it would be better for everyone if the people who wanted cocaine had to pay a higher price for it. In Narcos he is played by veteran Brazilian actor Wagner Moura as an introspective genius who used drug trafficking merely as a means to power. Many times Narcos has Escobar explaining that he came from nothing, which is really true. It is hard not to admire anyone like that, so this Netflix series spends a lot of time explaining, sometimes ineffectively, why Pablo Escobar was bad for anyone.
Narcos starts off very slow, and by the time Escobar is having politicians and judges assassinated, the show’s cliche-ridden writing has worn a bit thin. “An honest man blinked,” crows Steve Murphy’s onerous WP (white person) voiceover, which is strung through every single scene of Narcos in a style extremely reminscent of Scorsese’s Casino and Goodfellas. It is a pretty exhausting way to convey something in a ten-part television series.
The only scenes which are not wrapped around by Murphy’s goofy explanation of geopolitical events are the ones between he and his wife Connie (Joanna Christie), who you hope will be assassinated by Escobar at nearly every turn. (Instead, the cartel only kills his cat.) As Murphy, Boyd Holbrook is a former male model, which pretty much says it all. He is so ridiculous in the part that you almost wish there was a Narcos Without Steve Murphy version of the show akin to Garfield Without Garfield. It is also a bit grating listening to a white man expound on ‘magical realism’ and explaining a Latino man’s story for him.
Without the presence of Pedro Pascal as DEA agent Javier Pena, Narcos would be hard to watch. They should have never killed off Oberyn Martell, because Pascal has it all as a performer and is the best actor working in television today. In one scene, Pascal has sex with a prostitute to gain important information about the cartel, and he turns this nothing encounter into a moment so nuanced and emotional that you wish all the other context that Narcos offers about every aspect of the drug trade would disappear so that we could follow this man anywhere.
Escobar, in contrast, is just not that interesting a guy. Escobar himself is the only one who doesn’t have to constantly suffer from Murphy’s overwrought narration. Occupying so much screen time, he becomes a far more sympathetic figure in fiction than he ever was in life. Moura is excellent in what is an unforgiving role, as his Escobar only displays understated emotion and for the most part does not really get involved in any of the show’s real action.
Narcos portrays Escobar as being incredibly smart and cunning, so much so that the show has trouble making a cogent argument for why an individual who only took advantage of the world he was given could be the villain of this piece. Narcos doesn’t really work unless you want the DEA to destroy Pablo Escobar, and as many awful things as the man did, the entire situation is so gray that you would feel like a monster asking for even one more body.
The astonishing number of sets, costumes and locations here is the most impressive aspect of Narcos. Director José Padilha has his coming out party — Narcos is a visually stunning representation of an entire era. The use of historical footage to give the narrative a documentary feel adds rather than detracts from the immersion. The insane breadth of Narcos dulls the power of individual characters, but you have to admire the ambition present here. I would definitely recommend the show, but I don’t know what to take as significant from its miasmia of places, events and people.
Maybe I just resent Narcos because I truly believe I should have been the main character. By 1989 the Cold War was ending and a lot of people wanted to dry up funding to the military infrastructure.
I remember brainstorming with a few buddies about what war we would come up with. A bunch of them wanted to invade Germany because why not, but I suggested Latin America was more convenient logistically. Thus the drug war. Being the defense secretary during this period was like taking Viagra every single morning and having it last until dinnertime.
I tried cocaine a couple times during 1988. We were confiscating it right and left, but the cartels didn’t care because we could only ever get like 10 percent of the total import. I never really understood the appeal of the drug. You can get hyped up for a few minutes on a lot of things, but cocaine makes you feel terrible after those few minutes are over. This is a useful metaphor for Narcos, which does have some cheap thrills. After those moments pass, you start wondering why the story of a drug lord was important at all.
Dick Cheney is the senior contributor to This Recording.
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