Don’t be fooled by the English narration, delivered with noir-ish gravity by Boyd Holbrook, his eyebrow lifted ever so slightly in the direction of Archer. Narcos, Netflix’s hourlong drama about the Medellín Cartel (created by Chris Brancato, Eric Newman, and Carlo Bernard) is not the story of American divine intervention in a chaotic foreign place. America is embroiled, and it attempts to intervene, but rather than centering on Holbrook’s American detective character, Narcos’ approach is to give focus to the systemic nature of the chaos itself, and its origins.
In fact, Holbrook’s narration seems something of a functional ruse, an English-language framing to coax English-speaking Americans out of cowering in fear at the prospect of a predominantly subtitled and visually foreign experience: most of the show is in Spanish, and was shot in Colombia. Narcos presents something almost completely new to television audiences: freed from the national boundaries of networks, Netflix, with service in over 50 countries (and, as The Verge points out, its goal for expansion to 200), has the ability to feasibly create a series with international appeal — and it seems it has. This befits the subject; it’d be silly to do anything less with the Meddelín Drug Cartel, whose long reach extended from Colombia to Peru, Honduras, Bolivia, the US, Canada, and Europe.
At this point, if a crime drama wants to rise to “prestige” status, there’s a preconception that it must make its detective’s trauma-twisted backstory and inner demons just as central as the crimes — which is great, until (as was the case with True Detective Season 2) those demons become so untamable as to swallow the show whole. But the first few episodes of Narcos prove that societal and historical demons can be just as interesting as intricate character studies of white men. (Imagine that!)
The show frenetically skips across decades: the first episode starts with a shootout in the ’80s, then reverses to 1973, then goes forward again — and the show eventually stretches into the ’90s. Subverting the current crime drama norm, it seems Narcos cannot stop for long enough to give any character — even infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar (played with terrifically stoic unpredictability by Brazilian actor Wagner Moura) — time to develop without also moving the plot, and its somewhat fictionalized histories, forward. Sometimes this is refreshing — but if you watch too much of the show at once, it can start to feel less like historical fiction and more like a textbook espousing knowingly fictitious facts.
In the early episodes, at least, some of the most fascinating clues we get into these characters’ minds come in the midst of pivotal, gruesome acts. As Escobar commands his men to string a gaggle of brutalized collegiate radicals’ corpses (members of the M-19) to a tree in a park, a woman with a baby begins to approach. It’s tensely unclear what Escobar will decide to do with her, and what he does do says a lot. At another moment, while he’s mid-coitus with a reporter (Valeria Velez, based on Virginia Vallejo and played by Stephanie Sigman) who’s covering his frighteningly charismatic grassroots parliamentary campaign, he threatens her for “disrespect[ing] his wife.” He also hides millions of dollars in his mother’s couch as she looks on, asking whether it’ll still be comfortable. In other words, he’s a “family man” — one who destroyed thousands of families.
Meanwhile, DEA agent Steve Murphy (Holbrook) and his wife’s (Joanna Christie) futile protectiveness of the cat they bring over to Colombia from the States and — I don’t think this is spoiling much — the hasty, on-brand-disturbing murder of said cat establishes them as the obvious, naive outsiders. Game of Thrones actor Pedro Pascal’s character Javier Peña, another DEA Agent, is more ensconced in the system, forming romantic attachments with a sex worker who’s ratting on the cartel. But these moments of character development often take a backseat to the show’s sometimes-too-vast temporal scope.
The copious violence and brutal sex have a jarring quality at first, when you’re getting too mired in the panoply of times and places. But unlike crime dramas that focus on small-scale serial killers, creating atmosphere through depicting the most creatively, and gratuitously, repugnant murders, in Narcos, these elements underscore the immensity of the repercussions of drug wars, and seem key to their depiction. After a while, they stop being shocking and seem like décor: even this is crucial, as what’s so frightening about the world of drug wars is that they’re so desensitizing in their violence that murder, it seems, begins to feel like one of the least stressful parts of the drug-lord occupation.
Narcos makes statements about corruption on all sides, interweaving Murphy’s overtly heavy-handed narration with real footage. As he explains the cocaine boom’s impact on Miami — 3245 murders between 1979 and 1984 — he also suggests that it was not this number, but the fact that American money was disappearing into Colombia that got the US government concerned. Here, footage of Ronald Reagan passing around jelly beans overtakes the visual narrative. This gives way to Nancy Reagan’s famous “Just Say No” speech. Much like a scene where Escobar takes a mugshot, which transforms into the real-life kingpin’s photo, this makes the series seem almost documentarian, and like any documentary covering a long period of time, it can overwhelm with a litany of “facts” and “events.”
Indeed, Narcos throws a handful of settings and eras in the audience’s direction. Watching it is thrilling, exhausting, and upsetting, not because you’ll feel thrilled, exhausted, or upset through identification with any particular character’s emotional arc, but rather because, even with its partially fabricated transnational histories, you’ll feel the weight of these “histories,” both through the past and in relation to the current war on drugs. America may be a force that intervenes, but as one of the largest — if not the largest — consumers of illegal drugs, it’s just as much a perpetuator of the chaotic system as the individuals at the drug trade’s core. Perhaps it’s fitting that the show focuses less on the individual and more on the story: as news of El Chapo always exemplifies in its parallels to Escobar, power-hungry men who’ve come in contact with a naturally powerful commodity will always be horrifying, but they’d be nothing without a larger system through which to flourish.