The Summer of Streaming: Narcos
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It is the temptation of a lot of TV series’ about real life events to glamorise or “artistically alter” the re-telling of those events so as to create more drama for the audience. This is especially so for True Crime. Real life is rarely as neat and tidy as a lot of TV shows would like it to be so various capitulations to the truth have to be made. It is to Narcos advantage, then, that the events surrounding the life of Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria were so astounding as if they had been pulled straight from the plot of a TV show. Escobar lived a life that was so notorious that, even 23 years after his death, the stereotypical image of a drug lord is a South American cocaine baron.
Narcos fully embraces the sheer oddity that was Escobar’s life with a quotation in its pilot: “There is a reason magical realism was born in Colombia”. This is a show that understands, from the outset, that many people will find much of what happens in the show to be wholly unbelievable and uses great techniques to ground the show in as much reality as they can. One of those is having DEA Agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) narrate the series retrospectively in a mostly informal style, often speaking to the viewer directly to express awe and disgust at what happens in the show. Based on the story of the real Steve Murphy, it is through the eyes of this DEA Agent that we see most of the series and how we are introduced to the world of the Colombian Drug Trade from the late 70s through to the 90s. We see him partnered up with another DEA Agent Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal) and are taken through the various efforts that people took to take down Escobar and everyone who profited from the drug trade. The seedy underbelly of Colombia is laid bare through the eyes of Murphy and we see his character in a typical arc of young, brash officer stuck in a criminal world in which he is mostly out of his depth.
We also see the story through the eyes of Escobar himself (played brilliantly by Wagner Moura). We are introduced to the life of the drug lord behind the glamour of the media. We see a man who surrounds himself with family and friends whilst building up, controlling and slowly losing a massive drug empire that changed the face of the world. Set side-by-side with each other are tender portrayals of a man who fiercely loves his family and home town but also one who commits horrible and reprehensible acts so as to be called the world’s first “narco-terrorist”. This is where comparisons to Breaking Bad can be drawn and it seems that the shows runners are well aware of the potential comparisons. Showing horrendous violence and hugely damaging terrorism, whilst coyly telling the audience that everything they see here actually happened, hits the places that Breaking Bad couldn’t mostly in the suspension of disbelief. Anyone who reads up on the history of Escobar can find that a lot of what is shown here corroborates to actual events, with maybe a little artistic licensing but for the most part is unflinchingly realistic.
Another technique that the creative team use in hammering home the realism is having it bilingual in Spanish and English. We see Colombian nationals and fluent Spanish speakers on screen accompanied by subtitles and, actually, comparatively few English speakers. A clever technique to show the passage of time for Murphy’s character is his slow uptake of the Spanish language so that, by the end of Season Two, we see him able to understand a whole briefing in Spanish but still only able to speak a few phrases to people. Having a show made to host two languages can be seen as a bold move for any show and most other shows wouldn’t be able to as seamlessly transition between either language, or at least do it justice, but Narcos manages to create a tone that makes the decision gel perfectly. The difference in languages does feel a little jarring at first but by the end of the first season the viewer won’t even be bothered by the change. The major upshot of this is that the viewer will learn many phrases in Spanish that he or she never thought that they would need to know simply by watching.
There are many problems with translating a real life story to the screen; lack of potential for a protagonist as people have a tendency to die unexpectedly, the morally grey actions people take in life that can sometimes put an audience at odds with a “good character” and many other things. The major issue, however, is with timelines. Quite often a story can run out of steam as the beats can be so few and far between in real life. Someone can go months from one action to another in real life but everything in-between still matters to the story. Narcos does fall foul of this during the first season with the story being stretched over, roughly, 10 years just so the rise of Escobar can be told by the end of its premier season. Season Two, however, is much more concise, telling the portion of Escobar’s story where his drug empire starts to fall apart slowly over a period of a few years, and the terror that the people of Colombia faced during those last few years leading up to his death.
The beauty of a real life crime drama is that a lot of what happens is only told in retrospect and the proceedings only often focus on the major events themselves. Narcos utilises this by padding the major criminal events with some beautifully written human drama from both Steve Murphy and Pablo Escobar’s side of the story. The beauty of Narcos lies in that the viewer starts to empathise with Escobar towards the end of his character arc despite the deplorable things that he did and that should be the mark of a truly great TV show. Narcos will last for a long time in the zeitgeist. Rather than try to outdo Breaking Bad the show plays its own, slightly recognisable, tune hauntingly in a way that lasts long in the audience’s mind after they’ve finished watching.