TV Series Review: Narcos

Narcosby David Norris8/29/15
This superbly produced Netflix series is part crime drama, part history lesson, and is definitely worth watching. I didn’t have a lot of background about the Columbian drug cartels going into this, but much of the ‘headlines’ from the 1980’s came popping back into my head as the story unfolded.

I noticed some similar themes to modern day headlines as well including: competing drug gangs (cartels), communist rebels (instead of guerilla fighters, we have guerilla ‘activists’), social unrest, corrupt politicians, corrupt police, and the besieged poor caught in the crossfire.

Pablo Escobar started out as a smuggler and then found his way into the lucrative cocaine trade. Before long he had created a ‘partnership’ with other drug lords called the Medellin Cartel. He was making so much money that they couldn’t ‘launder’ it fast enough. Coming from humble beginnings himself, he had a vision of helping the poor, and of one day becoming president of Columbia. He saw himself as a ‘Robin Hood’ type figure and began promoting himself as such by building schools and hospitals and housing for the poor.

Pablo is portrayed as a jeans wearing, down to earth, nice guy. He is a loving family man who does not put on airs, someone whom you would invite to a backyard barbeque. He is somewhat quiet and contemplative with a sense for business ‘opportunities’. Whatever you do though, don’t make him angry.

As he becomes more wealthy and powerful he begins to get more resistance from the government. His way of dealing with this resistance is that he gives people a choice; they can have silver (bribes) or lead (death).

As cocaine use becomes epidemic in the U.S., the D.E.A. is called in to investigate.

Now Pablo is fighting the Columbian and U.S. governments. He begins to become more and more daring and murderous, using assassinations and bombings to terrorize the populace (“no snitching”) and his enemies.

Even with all the blood-shed, Pablo remains a sympathetic character, you know someone who had some good intentions at first, but then ‘over-reached’ and it all went to hell. Of course I’ve only watched the first five episodes so far, so this view of him could change.

An interesting part of the storyline was the inclusion of the “M-19” communist guerillas who are seeking ‘social justice’ for the people, and keep talking about “redistribution of wealth” (sound familiar?)  At one point, out of desperation, Pablo hires them for a million dollars to stage an assault on the capitol building. He asks them to destroy a room full of records while they are there. These records are key to the legal proceedings to take down the Cartel, and with them destroyed Pablo and company are now in the clear.

Afterwards he brings the guerillas their money, and hails them for their courage, exhorting them to “keep up the fight” and to know that he is in their corner. The moment their guard is down however, he has them all shot dead (sounds familiar too).

It’s really hard not to like this program, and not to like Pablo, but I do wonder about this show and those like it (some examples being: The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Wire, Sons of Anarchy) where we are asked to view these criminal and sub-culture types, as ‘people like us, that just made a few wrong turns in life’.

I think I’ve heard this described as “moral relativism”, and it does leave me a bit unsettled and wondering about humankind.

Was I supposed to write “spoiler alert”? • (1596 views)

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22 Responses to TV Series Review: Narcos

  1. Anniel says:

    I find this very interesting because a very good friend of our family comes from Medellin and, as far as I can tell, was very much into the drug trade. He goes home a few times a year and says those particular cartels no longer rule the trade, but any drugs, even things like insulin, even the biggest name brand in the U.S., are available at ridiculously low prices. He stocks up on insulin for his wife all the time for about $1.25 a bottle. The same bottle sells for $95.00 all over the U.S. Some insurance companies will only pay half of the price, so no matter what even the legal drug trade here makes a killing.

    Our friend seems to be the kind of person who never got addicted even though he took all the drugs he could find. He came to Florida in the mid 1990’s and realized one day that drugs were a waste of time and money, so he quit everything, cold turkey, started going to a church, and has never really looked back. Not everyone is so lucky. I’ll have to ask him if he knew Pablo Escobar.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    Robert Bloch once pointed out that the novel The Scarf, about a serial killer, could be re-sold in the later 1960s with the main character being an anti-hero. This worried him, since such characters aren’t meant to be likeable. Later, in an interview in Twilight Zone magazine, he commented that Burt Reynolds’s movies were far worse than anything he wrote — after all, no one would actually want to be a pathetic villain like Norman Bates in Psycho. (On the other hand, Zodiac was inspired by General Zaroff in “The Most Dangerous Game”. But Zaroff at least isn’t intended as a sympathetic character.) There is a point to humanizing villains — after all, they really are humans. But you don’t want to make them so sympathetic that their villainy becomes desirable.

  3. Steve Lancaster says:

    I watched the first two of the series. I don’t think I will watch any more. I know where this is going and I do not find anything about the drug trade interesting. Escobar and the rest of the Columbian gangs are despicable people. Americans seem to be intrigued by criminals be it real or fictional wether its Corleone or the Clintons they peak our interest. Perhaps its as Balzac said, “great fortunes are always born of a great crime”

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Edmund Pearson, a classic writer of true crime, once noted that “Eight of every ten people are interested in murder, and of the two who aren’t, one is only pretending.” (Molly Lefebure, sometime secretary to British forensic pathologist Sir Keith Simpson, reported a similar observation in Witness for the Crown.) So none of this is new, or confined to America.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I watched the first 15 minutes of this tonight. It looks okay. I can see how one could get into this. And I’m sort of with Steve on this. I can see where it’s going.

      That’s not to say that it’s not good drama. It probably is. But if you want to watch a truly wrenching and disturbing movie on crime and drugs, watch “City of God.”

      I overdosed on this kind of stuff after a couple seasons of “Breaking Bad.” And what finally made me gag on this stuff completely was hearing Jonah Goldberg pontificate on how much of a conservative show “Breaking Bad” supposedly was.

      Goodness gracious, the man is blind these days. At least admit one’s guilty pleasures. “Touched by an Angel” is a conservative show. “Dragnet” was a conservative show. But “Breaking Bad” was the kind of show you needed to take a shower after watching. You felt somewhat awful (or should have) for watching that kind of stuff as entertainment.

      A little, fine. As Timothy said, this is the kind of drama (death and murder) that makes for good drama and that people like to watch. But only so much for me.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Steve, the drug dealers are indeed despicable people. One of the best scenes in season two is when the white DEA agent beats the hell out of a guy in a restroom who we caught snorting Coke. He basically said the “do you know how many lives does it cost for you to have your little habit.” It was a great scene and a great reminder to those fucking idiots taking drugs that there are costs involved besides the dollars that they hand over.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        Further proof, if any was needed, that drugs and booze act as multipliers of bad behavior, was on display Sunday night in Plano.

        Some asshole, who was going through a divorce with his wife, sat drinking at a nearby bar before going over to their house and proceeding to shoot her and eight other people watching the Cowboys/Giants football game.

        Would he have done this had he not been boozing? I don’t know, but alcohol tends to remove inhibitions and distort judgement.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Forgive any spelling or grammatical errors on that previous post. I had posted the above via my iPhone using voice recognition. It works pretty well but it’s nowhere near perfect.

          Funny that some of the above in that post sounded a like like the bad Chinese translations (or whatever) that you sometimes read online. I would imagine that’s for the same reason. There must be some computer automation going on.

          Some women can certainly drive a man to drink. But I’m not sure what’s up with some guy going nuts like that and killing so many people. I’m sure the alcohol and/or any drugs he was taking greased the skids for murder.

          This “Narcos” series is a good reminder of the devastation wrought by drugs. One could make a weak argument that if only drugs were legal, you wouldn’t have gangs fighting over it. But the devastation would just move down the line to the end users.

          Assuming the series is reasonably accurate, it’s a strange thing to be pulled into the familial relationships of Pablo. It’s tempting to dismiss him as a psychopath (although he was a terrorist and murderer). He had deep feelings for his family. And yet there was this huge contrast between us-and-them. He could be tender toward his wife or mother and yet would kill dozens of innocents just to send a message to the government.

          It impressed me just how much Obama and Trump are taking this country down to third-world status where all that matters is either red hats or blue hats. There is no moral anchor other than pure tribalism. I do recommend this show as great drama. But there are a number of important themes that can be garnered from it as well.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          This effect on inhibitions is one reason I avoid alcohol. I have a choleric personality at times, and it wouldn’t be good to set that off when my inhibitions are removed.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            I think there’s a moral neutrality regarding the “inhibition” thing that should be recognized. I don’t drink anymore, but when I did and was with friends, I was funny and congenial. Other people — and we’ve probably all known a few — get belligerent. Some extremely so.

            Whatever shell I’m wearing, or whatever “true feelings” I’m suppressing, more resemble a standup act than an act of violence. But for some people, good golly, there must be something dark inside.

            • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

              I think there’s a moral neutrality regarding the “inhibition” thing that should be recognized.

              I don’t know if I understand you correctly, but I think there is no doubt that many behaviors common among people need to be inhibited. When some type of drug, such as alcohol, removes these inhibitions, it is not morally neutral. It is bad.

              I would posit that a lack of self-control is, generally, not a good thing. It can sometimes be funny, but I believe it more often leads to less than optimal situations. I believe much of the whole leftist/libertarian philosophy is built around resentment of the societal requirement for self-control.

              • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

                I don’t know if I understand you correctly, but I think there is no doubt that many behaviors common among people need to be inhibited.

                What I was meaning to say, Mr. Kung, is that “uninhibited” need not automatically mean “destructive.” That it often does shows you why, indeed, people need much of their natural behavior to be inhibited. It’s a glimpse into human nature…and a scary glimpse it can be.

                But when I drank, I was funny. Never had a bad impulse at all (other than having another beer). But the world is full of people who drink a few drops and just become nasty.

                Surely that means it’s likely that various forces are inhibiting their behavior (including, especially, internal factors) when not drinking, and thank goodness for this.

                And I’m not saying I don’t have bad impulses and such. Everyone does. But fill me with liquor and I’m more likely to make you laugh than to shoot you…unless it’s with a squirt gun.

              • Timothy Lane says:

                I can remember some squirt gun fights at a friend’s house in the late 60s. The winner tended to be whoever got hold of the large syringe (his father was a doctor, and he eventually became one as well). This provided not only a lot of water, but shot it at a steady stream.

              • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

                Ahh….the innocent days of squirt gun fights. This has kinda-sorta been picked up in a modern version with the airsoft guns. And as my brother informs me, there’s even a thriving industry of modifying Nerf guns to shoot at a higher velocity.

  4. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    It’s raining outside (or was) so I watched a couple more episodes…in fact, about five. It does work as drama. And because I wasn’t glued to my TV set at that time, this is all mostly new to me. I have no idea, for instance, if Escobar is captured or killed…or even if he commits suicide, so don’t tell me how it all ends.

    There’s a lot of mixed messages in this. We could call this a conservative series if we take the implicit message that drugs are devastating to a civilization. Legal or illegal, they create huge problems. No land is worth living in when hard drugs are common. Period. But I kept thinking that otherwise it looked like a Libertarian paradise.

    The overt message is that fighting Commies was for fools (after all, they were just trying to help the peasants…as Pablo claimed to do while killing them by the bushel). And the whole “war on drugs” thing (even after the drugs had devastated Miami) was written off by the libtard script writers as business in Miami just wanting to stop losing business.

    Ya think? If drug dealers (who operate outside the law, are violent, and don’t even pay taxes) moved into your neighborhood and people were spending so much of their money on drugs that they couldn’t afford the shoes you were selling, wouldn’t you want the government to do something? But again, the libtard filmmakers just dismiss it as the predatory behavior of “big business.”

    I didn’t do drugs when I was young. And I was at least “socially conscious” enough at the time to tell my friends that the drugs you take are not harmless. They create and foster an entire very nasty and murderous industry. But no one cared then and few care now (narcissism and chasing Utopia tend to do that to a person). There was one great line in this (from the one president of Columbia who has not yet been killed) who suggested that America take all its forces home and deal with the drugs on its own home turf. That’s where the problem ultimately lies.

    And he was right. But no politician wants to look into the TV camera and tell Americans “You’re a bunch of foolish bastards who are wreaking havoc not only on yourselves but innocent parts of the world.” Yes, Nancy Reagan, much to her credit, said “Just say no” — and she was roundly derided for even that mild rebuke.

    Americans do have blood on their hands because of the drugs they bought back then and still buy. It’s very doubtful that anyone will get that message from this series. But as they say “those with eyes to see.”

    Pablo Escobar himself looks like a harmless little fellow with the slight pot belly and teenage 80’s multicolored striped shirts and blue jeans attire. I didn’t like Boyd Holbrook as Agent Murphy early on, but he’s grown on me. And they show both the real Escobar and Murphy in the credits, so I can see why they picked this guy. Boyd looks a lot like him. Nice attention to detail.

    Pedro Pascal as Javier Peña is the true stand-out of the cast. I could see him in his own spin-off cop show (if he isn’t killed eventually…odds are). He plays a good character…but not so good that he won’t sleep with witnesses who are under his protection. Speaking of which, there is ample T & A sprinkled throughout this to nice effect. The blood, of course, is wall-to-wall.

    The dried-up old hag who plays the American ambassador is an interesting (although minor) character as well. I don’t like her. But then you’re not supposed to like her.

    There’s only one message you should take away from this series.

  5. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Holy smokes. Pablo’s mother will never win Mother of the Year. But the part is well acted.

  6. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Even with all the blood-shed, Pablo remains a sympathetic character, you know someone who had some good intentions at first, but then ‘over-reached’ and it all went to hell.

    You got me hooked, David. I’m about 8 episodes into this. It’s pretty clear that “the poor” were ever only stage props for Pablo who either was assuaging guilt for selling doom (drugs) to people, wanted to be liked, and/or had his eyes on buying his way to the presidency of Columbia.

    But a guy (spoiler) who blows up an entire airliner full of people to get one guy is hardly a guy who “over-reached.” He was evil from day one. And it’s interesting to see “the poor” used as cannon fodder just as “the poor” are used as cannon fodder in our country. The politicians don’t actually care about “the poor.” They merely use them as a means to power.

    Even with all the blood-shed, Pablo remains a sympathetic character, you know someone who had some good intentions at first, but then ‘over-reached’ and it all went to hell.

    What seems to be a clearly libtard orientation of the series producers shows in the down-playing of Communism as some trumped up threat by the over-zealous crewcut cowboys in the military. But to their credit they do show this one Catholic priest who is probably barely Catholic and nearly fully a Communist…which, as I understand it, is very common in South America (and explains the current Pope). Still, given that libtards love bashing Catholics (unless said Catholics are Leftists, not Catholics), I’m not so sure that they weren’t thinking they were showing this guy in a bad light.

    where we are asked to view these criminal and sub-culture types, as ‘people like us, that just made a few wrong turns in life’.

    I think “Breaking Bad” had that “There but for the grace of god — and the willingness to sell drugs to people which will clearly ruin their lives — go I.” I think there’s some of that in the early-going regarding Walt. But I no way do I sense the Pablo was ever anything but a criminal. I don’t see the “just made a few wrong turns.” He did everything he could to make those turns because he wanted to get rich from selling drugs.

    Whether the series shows a sympathetic view of Pablo or not, I’d have to know more about the real story. But certainly they don’t flinch (too much) from showing us that the guy murdered thousands in order to keep out of jail and keep his drug empire alive. I doubt that even a libertarian could come away from this with positive vibes about Pablo. But you never know.

  7. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I think I’ve heard this described as “moral relativism”, and it does leave me a bit unsettled and wondering about humankind.

    I think one of the most unsetting things about these shows is indeed the moral relativism. Real life in the trenches shows just how often it is little but the law of the jungle that rules when some other force is missing. All Libertarians should watch this show to get rid of their crazy dreams of no-government anarchy where any kind of “coercion” is a no-no. Well, just see the coercion that quickly will fill that vacuum.

    In this series, we see the government — reluctantly — give in to the criminals. We see the Catholic priest who doesn’t believe in Jesus but who certainly does believe in Karl Marx and Communism. We see mothers (such as that of Escobar) who have absolutely no moral center other than what her son wants and what will keep him alive or out of jail. She is a moral monster, just as her son is. And we see people such as Escobar who will do anything to promote his drug empire.

    These shows, at least for me, show why it is better to put up with a little inconvenience of sometimes too much government than to dispense with it altogether. And it also shows — whatever the ultimate truth of our existence may be — that without a moral center anchored in something more than just convenience or personal benefit, you cannot craft a society that is just, safe, and enlightened.

    Sure, we watch this kind of stuff for entertainment. And part of the entertainment factor is that of watching a wreck along the side of the road. It’s interesting and compelling in that the tragedy has happened to someone else, reassuring us that we’re okay. And yet those who see where our culture is going understand that the third-world thugism of Columbia is coming here…both because of the Marxists and because of the third-worlders streaming through our borders (and because of Republicans who will not uphold the rule of law regarding various things).

    Ultimately I believe that all forms of Leftism in our culture represent either the desire to enforce one’s own personal law of the jungle (using “the poor,” homosexuals, or whomever as a means to this end) or a desire to get lost in foolish, airy notions of Utopia whereby we never have to grow up and never have to face the harsher aspects of the world. We just wish them away.

    And there are many attempts by both the Left and libertarians to wish-away the harsh realities. One of those harsh realities is the devastation caused by drugs. Legal or illegal (that is, the problem is not law enforcement…or having laws), drugs bring societal breakdown and chaos. And the take-away adult lesson from this is that we indeed do need a few prohibitions in society. The child-like belief that if we would just define deviancy down is not a workable solution.

    Your heart goes out to that one president of Columbia (Cesar Gaviria) who is (at least according to the history presented in this series) between a rock and a hard place. He eventually reluctantly makes a deal with Escobar. But clearly this is letting the lunatic win and run the asylum. We’re getting a taste of that here as well.

  8. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    If you don’t mind several spoilers, read on.

    I’ve blown through to the end of this series. Netflix clearly intends to create a second season. The first ends with a Columbian special forces raid on Escobar’s self-built prison. Evidence had turned up that he had committed a couple murders on the premises.

    The season also ends with hints of the American DEA and/or the CIA getting in bed with the Cali cartel in order to get Escobar. Agent Murphy (the main character) of the DEA is politely kidnapped by the Cali cartel leader, Pacho Herrera, in order to try to make a deal with him…using a little blackmail as well. Murphy is returned and no harm done. But he wonders if his Columbian partner (Javier Peña) gave him up, such is his desire to get Escobar (and you can’t really blame him if he did).

    It will be interesting to find out how closely this series tracks history. In the last episode, the Minister of Justice is acting as a negotiator for the president. The presidents relays to Escobar that he wants to move him to a new cell so that he can renovate his “castle” for security reasons. This is a lame excuse and even Escobar comments on that. Maybe I missed something. I don’t know why the president was actually moving him or had such a lame excuse. I don’t think this is explained.

    Anyway, the military surrounds Escobar’s “castle” prison. The general in charge on the scene apparently defies the president’s orders to take Escobar into custody and tells the Minister of Justice, who arrives on the scene, that his orders are only to surround the prison and make sure no one goes in or out. Was he bought or just sympathetic to Escobar? We don’t know. But, incredibly, the Minister of Justice walks into the prison to negotiate face-to-face with Escobar…and is quickly taken as a hostage. I’d like to know if there was actually a Minister of Justice who was stupid enough to have walked into that prison alone.

    Well, the president has had enough. He sends in the special forces and all hell breaks lose. But Escobar escapes through one of his secret tunnels. The end. We’ll have to find out what happens next season.

  9. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I’d be in the minority on this, but I think for a violent, gangster-oriented series, this is better than “Breaking Bad.” “Breaking Bad” did hold together for a season or two. But the catch was always the same: pornographic violence.

    I’ve always found it interesting that Christians (not to pick on them…just sayin’) tend to be upset more by sexual content in TV and movies than violence. I don’t know why that is. I’ve heard Dennis Prager says why, but I’ve forgotten what he said. Maybe someone here knows why that is.

    But there’s little doubt to my mind that the appeal of “Breaking Bad” was the danger and the pornographic violence. With “Narcos” there is plenty of violence. But at least it seems less gratuitous. Whether this is a rationalization or not, one can at least suppose that such violence as depicted is typical of what actually happened. It serves the story rather than being the main attraction.

    Another thing “Narcos” has over “Breaking Bad” is that they don’t have the equivalent of the mousy and annoying little character of Jesse Pinkman. He was good for one season, and then should have been killed off. But what do I know? The show was a huge success…even to the point where some conservative commentators rationalized it as a conservative series.

    I doubt that “Narcos” can stretch much more out of the material it has. If I were them, I would have wrapped it up after a 14 episode single season and gone onto something else. So we’ll see how bad the series deteriorates as they try to milk it.

    But whereas “Breaking Bad” tended to have comic-book-grade characters, those in “Narcos” seem very realistic. And although the bad guys are bad, the don’t become mere caricatures of bad guys. There is a much more deft hand at work in this series than the hamfisted “Breaking Bad.”

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      I’ve always found it interesting that Christians (not to pick on them…just sayin’) tend to be upset more by sexual content in TV and movies than violence.

      Maybe because it is easier for or more likely that a person will fornicate than shoot someone or slit a throat. Thus it is closer to real life.

      This may have to do with the fact that fornication is a lot more fun than murder, for most people.

  10. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    They now have three seasons of Narcos on Netflix. I blew through season two in a bench in the last few days. It was very good. It’s a violent, yes, but at least the violence isn’t gratuitous as in so many other series. It’s what really happened.

    I’ve just started season three. A slight spoiler alert here, but Pablo has been killed. Starting season three, it’s the Coley cartel that is now the subject of the series. And apparently the series is fairly accurate. In fact, one of the shows technical consultants is in protective custody he. How they got his cooperation, I don’t know. But season two was riveting and season three looks OK but it’s early yet. But this is been a very well produced series.

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