(WARNING: MAJOR spoilers for Narcos and Breaking Bad below)
Perhaps a couple of years ago his name wouldn't have carried with it any discernible connotations. To you, Pablo Escabor was just a distant, unknown figure whose reign of criminal terror began and ended before most of us were even born.
With the release of Netflix's #Narcos, Pablo Escobar has been thrust back into the public eye. Who was once a mysterious and illusive figure now has a face — a face belonging to Brazilian actor Wagner Moura. Moura's interpretation of Pablo is part of the reason as to why Narcos has become such a global phenomenon. He has crafted a relatable, almost Shakespearean-esque antihero. Moura's Pablo is a family man, one with motivations that we can all relate to. Much like Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, the Pablo of Narcos commits very terrible acts, to which we as the audience seem to morbidly forgive — as we recognize that such action was only taken as a last resort, or a similar list of excuses that we generate from our own denial to recognize our protagonist's guilt.
However the main difference between Narcos and #BreakingBad is that while Walt's more violent actions did not actually occur in real life, the actions of Pablo Escobar did. Yes, this means that Pablo Escobar did actually order the bombing of a civilian passenger plane. He also used a car bomb in order to hit back at the state of Columbia, killing 24 people, 4 of which were children.
The Pablo Paradox
While it is easy to throw around examples of what could have been done, Narcos simply cannot afford to make its antagonist too evil or too unrelatable, because then that would lead to lower viewership across the board. However make him too "good" and critics would invariably attack Netflix for whitewashing Pablo's more morally grey decisions. This is "The Pablo Paradox," a situation in which Netflix is currently stuck.
While some online critics have already criticized Narcos for side-stepping the historical tragedies that it features almost episodically, I want to delve deeper into the taboo. Is it wrong that we enjoy Narcos? Has the gap widened enough from the brutal reality for it to become acceptable entertainment? What is interesting to note is that there was not nearly as much criticism given to Netflix's other surprise success of 2015 -#MakingAMurderer. This is almost comic, as Making a Murderer essentially transformed a real, brutal murder case into pulpy, "who-dunnit" reality TV. But where does the blame lie for the backlash from certain critics? Is it on Moura's sympathetic portrayal of Pablo, or is it our fault for reacting to Pablo the way that we did?
The Blame Game
Narcos paints Pablo Escobar in a non traditional way. Instead of making him a sinister figure in the background, we actually follow his story and his family, over the course of 15 years. He enjoys barbecues with family. He enjoys music, dancing, and playing with his children. In an unusual twist, Narcos manages to make Escobar a tragic and relatable antihero, instead of a cardboard cut-out villain. However, I believe that this was the intention from the beginning with show, as actor Wagner Moura states (in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter) that:
I’m 100 percent convinced that Pablo Escobar was a human being. And he was a very interesting one. For sure, he was a very, very, very mean and awful human being in many senses, but he wasn’t an alien. He was a person. He had friends, people laughed at his jokes. And he was a very contradictory person as well. He was this guy that — aside from reasons that made him who he is, because they are very complex as well — did all these things for Medellin, for poor people in his hometown. He was a very loving father.
But is the show itself (as well as its enigmatic lead) to blame for Pablo's newfound place in modern pop culture? After all, he is the most "attractive" version of the character to date, with many a fangirl swooning over Moura's mustache-laden mug, creating a kind of appreciation for Escobar that there hadn't been before. He is also seen to be quite a jovial man, enjoying laughs with friends and family. Like Moura has said: He was a loving father. So is his portrayal (and furthermore, the show's portrayal) of Escobar the reason for criticism and controversy from online critics?
I'd argue that it isn't.
The reason for this is because the show's intention (from the beginning) was to show that there was a human side to Escobar while at the same time doing justice to the thousands that he killed. We never completely look up to Pablo throughout Narcos, and in some moments in particular he becomes a terrifying force of nature. Despite this, we never come to truly hate Escobar, which reveals the genius behind Narcos. It isn't a somber documentary-style show. It is serious, yes, but there are elements of comedy within the show's episodes. After all, Pablo's story is one that seems laughably ridiculous even today, and the show makes a point of showcasing its magical realism during extended narration scenes.
On a different side of the coin, the online reaction to Narcos has been a hugely successful one, becoming one of Netflix's hottest exports. However, there is a different kind of online reaction to the show: memes.
The Internet's Reaction
Yep. You've likely seen them all over Twitter or Instagram. The online meme community has transformed Pablo Escobar from a notorious and hated figure into a respected badass. He has also been made a larger-than-life figure as a result. Perhaps that is why it is easier to dress up as Escobar for Halloween than say, Hitler? The humanization of Pablo through Narcos has unwittingly paved the way for him to re-enter pop culture, as a mythical Heisenberg-like figure.
Pablo Escobar has been made to feel as if he never existed outside his own show. That way, it has become OK to poke fun at his character. While the Internet has created its own interpretation of Escobar as a jolly, larger-than-life badass, are critics completely to blame for decrying Narcos' interpretation of the character? I again argue that this is not the case: There is a fourth suspect. Not the showrunners, or Moura, or even Netflix themselves. The marketing department.
The Narcos PR team, (or at least the team associated with all social media accounts) is my fourth and final suspect. While yes, the show features elements of comedy, the social media accounts related to Narcos makes the show out to be a sort of comedic look into the drug world. Faux-motivational posters feature regularly. Fun, show-related content is the main focus here. For example, tips on how to dress as your favorite characters from the show (including Pablo), or how to learn Spanish insults featured on the show.
While I personally have no quarrel with the social media accounts related to the show, is the team behind them partially responsible for the supposed cheapening of the real-life events? If you had never watched the show, you'd assume that Pablo is the good guy, smiling broadly in promotional material. Impressive facts, such as the amount of money that Pablo made during his career, go down a storm in the comments, with many saying (jokingly) that they should get into the drug business. This type of promotion for the show has been going on since the first teaser, so perhaps this is the approach that the PR team had in mind from the start. In their defense, they obviously had to sell the idea that Pablo was the focus, as well as raising awareness of what Narcos was trying to show about the drug war: the sheer scale of it. However, some online critics have taken offense at even this, as Bernardo Garcia writes in Salon in an article entitled "Narcos Isn't Breaking Bad":
That my student was wearing a shirt stamped with the picture of one of the most ruthless murderers in recent history is unsurprising if one considers the social-media marketing that Netflix has employed to promote the show.
Just a little black humor? Perhaps. But tell that to the families of the hundreds of Medellín police officers that he killed or the orphans of the Avianca flight that he blew out of the sky. My student didn’t know any better, but the show’s promoters have no excuse. To turn those tragedies into marketing is sick.
Garcia's strongly worded argument against the show reveals that the marketing for it can sometimes backfire. However, I have to agree with him on a number of points. In Columbia, the story of Pablo Escobar is still a taboo subject. For some Colombians, seeing comments like "I should start a drug empire," might cut a little too close to the bone. In my opinion, Narcos succeeds at creating compelling, gritty entertainment, but it fails at making Pablo's antics something to be seen as unobtainable. The show's PR campaign is almost worryingly motivational then, in a sense.
If Pablo could do it, why can't I? Who's to blame?