‘Magical realism’ drives narcotic novela


Special To / The Advocate

(L to R) Maurice Compte, Boyd Holbrook and Pedro Pascal star in NARCOS.

By Brian Boyle, Staff Writer

The only thing necessary for evil to prosper is for good men to do nothing.

This is just one of the themes explored by on one of Netflix’s newest original series — “Narcos.”

“Narcos” follows the dramatic life of Pablo Escobar — one of the most infamous drug lords to ever live, and the efforts of the DEA and Colombia’s various police forces to bring the drug lord, and his infamous Medellin Cartel, to justice.

The show, which premiered its first season in its entirety on Aug. 28, is yet another smashing success from Netflix. Coming off the popularity of “Breaking Bad,” “Narcos” shows that when talking about the violent world of illicit drugs, truth is far more interesting than fiction.

Though “Narcos” is embellished in some areas for drama’s sake, the show sticks as close to the reality of the events that transpired from 1976 to 1993, the time which a young Escobar, played by Wagner Moura, trafficked and profited from selling cocaine.

During the 1980s, Escobar held Colombia in a grip of terror as he subverted the government in Colombia by buying those he could, and killing those he could not. During that time he was tied to thousands of murders, a ruthless bombing campaign and he was even alleged to have hired a communist guerrilla group to hold Colombia’s Supreme Court hostage.

The show’s creators collaborated with the original DEA agents who hunted Escobar throughout the 1980s — Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal) and Steven Murphy (Boyd Holbrook). Murphy, as the show tells, began his career chasing hippies in Miami for selling marijuana, and very quickly evolved into a daily fight for his life against Escobar’s minions.

Escobar’s cocaine empire was said to have earned $60 million per day during its peak, what would be an estimated $130 million if adjusted for inflation today. Escobar himself was said to command a personal fortune of over $25 billion. With this unimaginable fortune, Escobar waged what was essentially a civil war in Colombia, holding the country hostage with his particular style of negotiating, which always boiled down to, “Plata o Plomo” (silver or lead).

Escobar was protected by the people of Medellin, largely because he paid for the construction of schools, hospitals, soccer fields and literally handed money out to the poor in the streets.

Moura delivers an outstanding performance as Escobar. He manages to portray him in a calm, stoic manner, while still radiating danger. Escobar was deadly when crossed, and Moura makes that perfectly clear in his performance. Every word Escobar utters during the course of the show is laced with threat, and Moura’s portrayal of Escobar makes it obvious the only thing more dangerous than his scowl is his smile.

Murphy, the “gringo” DEA agent hunting Escobar, begins the show as an idealist in love with his job of taking drugs off the streets of Miami. Yet, as the show continues, his steadfast idealism is withered, until he becomes a hardened veteran willing to do whatever is necessary to stop Escobar. Holbrook’s portrayal of Murphy is almost as compelling as Moura’s of Escobar. He is a man possessed when it comes to Escobar, but has to balance his obsession over the drug lord with his duties as a father and husband.

Murphy’s story explores one of the other major themes of “Narcos”  —that when one hunts monsters, one must be careful not to become one.

Peña, Murphy’s partner in Colombia, serves as his foil. Where Murphy is an idealist, Peña has been in Colombia for far too long, and has gathered serious doubts about whether anyone can be trusted. In real life, Escobar proved the old adage that every man has his price, buying politicians, judges, military commanders, CIA agents and whatever local police stood in his way.

In the show, Escobar’s success in this area has made Peña edgy, and paranoid, and Pascal manages to demonstrate this while also showcasing a fervid love of the various pleasures of life. Peña is a character who believes that no one around him can be trusted, just as he is also a character that believes every day could very well be his last.

Escobar’s life was not only violent, but he had his own share of sordid love affairs. In the show, Escobar beds a journalist named Valeria Velez (Stephanie Sigman). Velez is loosely based off of Virgina Vallejo, a journalist now living in America who once upon time was Escobar’s lover. She has detailed her life in her book, “Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar.”

Velez’s career benefits tremendously from her affair with Escobar. She is able to be the first journalist on the scene of all of the atrocities Escobar’s cartel committed. Velez’s character is a hard one to like. She is self-serving, greedy and clearly willing to go to whatever lengths are necessary to advance her station.

The show is done in the style of magical realism, a style which was birthed in Colombia, the country in which the show is filmed. The show strives to capture as historically accurate an account of Escobar’s cocaine cartel as possible, while using dramatic flair to instill its message.

Long shots which display the beauty and wildness of Colombia, Murphy’s voice-over narration and even the subtle; yet dramatic, lighting of the show combine in a way to make “Narcos” is less of a show and more of an experience.

While watching, one can go from pondering America’s responsibility in creating the massive drug trade still plaguing Latin America to this day, to be gripped to the edge of their seat as Escobar’s men wage their war in an instant. Viewers go from laughing at the variety and beauty of life, to having their stomachs seize with the sheer brutality of which man is capable.

The show sticks as closely as it can the history of Escobar’s drug war and imparts a lesson about the U.S.’s own responsibility and effect in the world at large.