Narcos – Season one review

Just like cocaine: Netflix’s latest true crime drama chronicling the rise to power of notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar is highly addictive.

Set almost entirely in Columbia and told from the viewpoint of an american DEA agent, Narcos is Netflix’s attempt to expand into the international market while maintaining a strong US audience. It’s likely that Narcos will succeed on this front, as it an engaging dramatisation of  a fascinating story of the rise and fall of the Medellín cocaine cartel.

Indeed, it is the insane true story of Pablo Escobar that is the hook of Narcos. The sheer amount of wealth and power that Escobar obtained over Columbia, and the methods he employed to do so, are terrifying and at times, unbelievable.  It helps that spliced within the narrative is real life footage and photographs from the time period, reminding viewers that the unfolding events were not dreamt up by a Hollywood writer, but actually occurred.

Of course that is not to say there is not a degree of dramatisation employed in Narcos. In particular the DEA/FBI/Colombian Army scenes often play out like any typical cop drama: cross agency arguments about jurisdiction, macho posturing and plenty of scenes of someone bursting into a meeting and slapping important intel on a desk. Likewise, the ongoing voice-over narration by DEA agent Steve Murphy (played quite lifelessly by Gone Girl’s Boyd Holbrook) is filled with one-liners and explanations of the obvious that attempt to exaggerate a tale which requires no exaggeration.

While Boyd is far from engaging as the man trying to bring down Escobar, he is balanced out well by his DEA partner Javier Pena, played by Game of Throne’s Oberyn Martell  Pedro Pascal. Pascal is pure charisma and chews up the scenery just like he did in his short time on Game of Thrones, only with a cool 70’s swag.

But by far the man of the hour is Wagner Moura who gives a nuanced and subtle but completely engaging performance as Escobar. Moura, who packed on the pounds, moved to Escobar’s home town and learned Spanish for the role, convincingly portrays Escobar as a mild-mannered, but at times intense and psychotic head of the Colombian drug empire.

An issue however is Escobar’s character arc. We are introduced to Escobar when his trucks full of illegal goods are stopped by Colombian police. Escobar convinces the police to turn a blind eye when he addresses each officer by name and reveals intimate details of their loved ones. It’s a great scene and sets up Escobar’s character as intelligent, calculating and rational. However, for the rest of the season, this version of Escobar is never really seen again.  The story  quickly moves to when Escobar is at the height of his power,  during which he transitions between brooding contemplation, violent outbursts and psychotic decision making that seems out of place for the Escobar we were introduced to. There is no real explanation for this eventual behavior and it causes Escobar’s character arc to feel disjointed. I assumed this was a result of the writers attempting to fit Escobar’s entire story into a single standalone season; however I was surprised when the final episode didn’t conclude the tale and I discovered that a second season is in the works.

While I’m skeptical as to whether a second season is necessary, as season one seemed to cover the bulk of Escobar’s legacy, Narcos is well worth your time as a highly addictive portrayal of a bloodsoaked period of history.



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