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Reviewing Netflix's Narcos after viewing all 10 Season 1 episodes


Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura) had money to burn. Netflix photo

Premiering: Began streaming Friday, Aug. 28th on Netflix
Starring: Wagner Moura, Boyd Holbrook, Pedro Pascal, Juan Pablo Raba, Luis Guzman, Raul Mendez, Paulina Gaitan, Joanna Christie, Stephanie Sigman, Danielle Kennedy, Ana de la Reguera, Gabriela de la Garza
Produced by: Chris Brancato, Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Colombia’s cocaine kingpin presided over a companion powder keg of murders, kidnappings, bribes and cartel wars.

Netflix’s Narcos is the latest to recount the life and very turbulent times of Pablo Escobar, whose thirst for violent reprisal claimed hundreds if not thousands of lives while he shrugged and told an underling, “Geniuses are always branded as crazy.”

Or at least that’s the way it goes down in Hour 8 of Narcos’ 10-episode first season. Typical of the docudrama genre, it’s based on a true story but with some scenes fictionalized for “dramatic purposes,” according to Netflix’s opening disclaimer. A few names are changed, too, during a depiction replete with narration from Drug Enforcement Administration agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), who in real life also is Steve Murphy.

Episode 1’s sluggish start is due in large part to a long, flat narrative buildup. In due time, though, the exposition proves to be somewhat helpful (if not always well-written) in sorting out all the interlocking motivations, deals and double-dealings. Even so, an editor’s pencil would have been mightier than Murphy saying in Episode 3, “When you get too close to the sun, your dreams may melt away.” Still, it could have been worse. It could have been, “You get burned.”

The makers of Narcos otherwise have taken the bold and admirable step of letting Escobar and his fellow Colombians speak in their native Spanish tongue, accompanied by English subtitles. This requires extra vigilance on the part of non-Spanish speaking viewers while at the same time bolstering the drama’s authenticity.

Escobar is played by Wagner Moura, who brings swagger and presence to the role of a prosperous smuggler from a dirt poor background who hits the jackpot after meeting a cocaine manufacturer known as “Cockroach.” It’s Escobar’s idea to expand horizons and introduce the drug to the U.S. by all available means, including in small bags swallowed and carried by preferably pregnant women whom airport customs inspectors were likely to let pass.

“Imagine how much it would sell for in Miami,” Escobar says. He got that right -- to the tune of additional billions in revenues gained during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Escobar and his operatives literally didn’t know what to do with all of this cocaine-generated money. They buried some of it and also handed out cash to the poor during Escobar’s people-pleasing “Robin Hood” years.

But violence quickly became a byproduct, both in Miami and Colombia. In Murphy’s narrative view, the growing number of murders were inconsequential to the U.S. government. But all of that money pouring out of Miami got the attention of the Reagan administration. So it was time to set up the DEA in Colombia’s U.S. embassy, with agents, including Murphy, initially posing as janitorial employees. His new wife, Connie (Joanna Christie), joins him.

Narcos soon kicks in as a fascinating game of cat and mouse. Separating who’s on the take from who isn’t becomes a full-time obsession for both Murphy and his DEA partner, Javier Pena (Pedro Pascal), who regularly are hamstrung by protocol and other wrong-headed priorities. Escobar also has his hands full. Which government and military officials can be bribed and who simply needs to be bumped off? Which rival dealers can be relied on to do the “right” thing in return for the proper enticement?

The Medellin Cartel becomes a kingdom unto itself, with Escobar relying in times of emergency on his cousin and boyhood friend, Gustavo Gaviria (Juan Pablo Raba). Only he can get away with calling Escobar a series of pointed names to his face. Others are subject to severe reprisals, and Narcos doesn’t spare the rod in terms of the many violent acts triggered from all sides.

Escobar otherwise is a “family man” who’s kind to his only son and devoted to wife Tata (Paulina Gaitan) except when he’s being intimate with a beautiful sell-out TV journalist as a means of justifying his ends. In real life she was Virginia Vallejo, whose name has been changed to Valeria Valez.

The most familiar face to American audiences is Luis Guzman (Anger Management, How to Make It in America) as henchman/assassin Jose Rodriguez Gacha. Narcos also has at least one genuinely honorable politician in President Cesar Gaviria (a strong performance by Raul Mendez), who shows up in the second half of the series.

Narcos sets itself up for a second season with the open-ended denouement of its first. Netflix hasn’t yet officially committed to it, but a go-ahead seems very likely. Moura as Escobar doesn’t bring the overall manic and sometimes comic intensity of Al Pacino’s Tony Montana in Scarface. He’s never dull, though, giving Narcos a thoroughly sinister presence who’s capable of anything and will stop at nothing.

“He’s only comfortable at war. He’s taking us to the slaughter,” an underling murmurs out of earshot during a very strong Episode 5. That’s a precise and accurate reading of Escobar. But you know how those self-described “geniuses” can be.


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