Ahead of season three of Narcos, which premieres on Netflix on 1st September, we take a look back at season one, for those of us who’ve watched so much TV that the plots become a messy mental blur.
If you haven’t watched season one yet, you need to bump Narcos up your watchlist – there’s still time to binge seasons one and two before September. But you might want to skip reading this, as it contains spoilers.
“Magical realism is defined as what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe… There is a reason magical realism was born in Colombia.”
The opening shot of Narcos season one is this quote, and it seems out of place at first, but it is actually a fitting start to a story which is based on true events, but at times seems like far-fetched fiction.
Season one of the Netflix show about the life of infamous druglord Pablo Escobar charts his rise from a cocky smuggler in a bad Hawaiian shirt in the late 1970s, to a billionaire druglord in bad polyester button-downs in the 1980s.
The action is narrated by American DEA Agent Steve Murphy, played by Boyd Holbrook, who finds himself to be a naïve fish out of water as he is transferred to Colombia as part of President Ronald Reagan’s obsessive “war on drugs”. Murphy’s abrasive and world-weary partner is Javier Peña, played by Pedro Pascal – a DEA agent who smokes too much, drinks too much and who is not afraid to bend the rules when necessary. As the war on drugs continues, Murphy predictably transforms from an idealist All-American hero, to a pragmatist who becomes gradually more adept at dealing with Colombia’s murky politics.
After the Chilean drug industry is all but shut down, one key player comes to Colombia to enlist the help of Pablo Escobar in the production and distribution of his new product – cocaine. Escobar’s grand ambitions for their business see them finding increasingly ingenious ways of transporting a huge quantity of cocaine into Miami, starting with boarding a flight wearing a jacket packed with cocaine, and finishing with audacious antics such as making an entire boat out of the stuff. The DEA are tasked with the seemingly impossible job of helping the Colombian government stop the influx of Colombian cocaine into the USA, by finding and shutting down Escobar’s operations.
With billions of dollars at stake, Escobar and his men are willing to do whatever it takes to keep their business going, whether that means getting involved with notorious communist militants, assassinating politicians or blowing up planes. Escobar is played excellently by Wagner Moura who, fun fact, is Brazilian and so not a native Spanish-speaker, having to learn Spanish in order to play Escobar. Moura’s portrayal of the billionaire drug-lord sees him fluctuate between a loyal family man and hero of the Colombian working-classes, to a terrifying madman prone to violent outbursts – all while sporting an incredible array of 1980s white trainers and unflattering dad fashion.
Escobar was a hero to a lot of Colombians, he grew up in a poor neighbourhood, and as he became richer, he funded community projects and even handed out bundles of cash in the streets. Many Colombians saw him as a Robin Hood figure, which meant that public opinion often went against the police operations and politicians who opposed him. The lengths Escobar went to maintain this image, and his position as one of the richest men in the world, are exactly what the “magical realism” quote at the start of episode one was alluding to. From a cat murder, to Escobar attempting to get elected, to the theft of a historically significant sword, Narcos is packed full of bizarre events. The police have built up a case against Escobar? Never mind, he can just hire a group of communist militants to burn down the courthouse that contains the evidence they’ve collected. Escobar is sent to prison? It’s not a problem when you can build your own luxury prison complex where you can serve your sentence while you carry on running your drug empire.
And just as you’re thinking to yourself that these parts must be made up to make the show more exciting, the makers cut to archive footage of these things actually happening, leaving you with the realisation that truth is indeed stranger than fiction.