The Netflix series Narcos (2015) is not only a well-told story about the sharp rise and gradual fall of the drug lord Pablo Escobar, but it also gives us a glimpse of what occurs behind the scenes of drug trafficking. Essentially, the series plays out as a suspenseful cat-and-mouse game wherein crafty DEA agents are fighting their war on drugs trying to pin the powerful and ingenious narco entrepreneur Pablo Escobar.
What makes this take on narcos slightly different from most other films is that we get a glimpse of both sides of the fence, the criminal as well as the procedural side. Surprisingly (or not), there is only little separating the two. The lines between heroes and villains become somewhat blurred as Pablo does occasional good, such as helping the poor (he portrays himself as the "Colombian Robin Hood"), while the DEA also overstep - on a number of occasions – the boundaries of legality and morality in order to get to their target objective.
The series is based on actual events, as nerve-wracking and unbelievable as they may seem. Most of the information is given to us via voice narration by the DEA agent Steve Murphy. Although he is not the main character (that would be Pablo since he is the main subject of the series), Murphy's voice-over gives us the background and crucial details on the drug trade and the war on drugs.
Interestingly, there is a significant gap between the narrator and the character Steve Murphy; the former is much more interesting, likable and well-versed than the DEA character we get to meet onscreen. This might have occurred either because the story is told to us by an older and wiser version of the character or simply because the actor does not convince us sufficiently (of course, a mixture of both is also possible). It may be also due to their juxtaposition in their temper and personality: The DEA agent turns more and more ruthless in his obsessive quest to stop Pablo Escobar, while the narrator quite calmly and with occasional humor expounds and elaborates upon the events.
Be it as it may, we learn how Pablo mounted his drug empire (but learn little about his past), and for the most part of the first season, we see how he tries hard to sustain his operations amid pressure from his drug lord rivals and cartels as well as the conflict with local and foreign police, agencies and politicians (at least those who are honest and do not succumb to threats and / or money).
According to the Rotten Tomatoes consensus, there are no likable characters one can sympathize or identify with. That is only partly true. The DEA agents (even the quite convincing Peña) in comparison to Pablo seem rather bland and not well-developed enough. What makes the Pablo character so intriguing is his inventiveness and resourcefulness despite the mounting pressure around him. We also see the ambivalent sides of his character: He starts off as a person who might have meant to do well for his people and country but becomes corrupted with his own megalomania and eventually alternates between states of depression and uncontrollable bursts of anger.
The series is produced by José Padhila who directed the excellent Elite Squad films, Elite Squad (2007) and Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (2010), which are based on specialized police forces fighting drug cartels in Brazil, and wherein his main actor was the outstanding Wagner Moura. He was the good guy troop leader in those films, but here he plays Pablo himself. He not only gained significant weight (about twenty kilos) for the role, but he also learned to speak Spanish. Most of the times, he is quite convincing in his language skills although for the trained ears there are a number of slips in his accent and pronunciation. But this does not take away from his embodiment of this fascinating and enigmatic drug kingpin.
I cannot but recommend this series that grows on you with each episode. The constant narration may feel odd at times, but it serves the purpose of filling in the blanks and adding relevant historical and political background information for the viewer. Unlike cocaine, this series may not immediately hook you, but it will stimulate your pleasure center and keep you on the edge of your seat craving for more. Thank God, this series was almost immediately renewed for a second season and I for one cannot wait for more!