Narcos is yet another Netflix original series indebted to the likes of Breaking Bad, and that’s not just the drugs. The success and trail blazed by Vince Gilligan’s phenomenon has signalled to producers that Netflix can be a place worth the investment. What we have here is an exquisitely made and shot drama that’s almost as addictive as its subject matter, but it’s just the plain old white stuff this time around. However, Narcos is far from perfect in its coke-fuelled hijinks.
Based on a true story, Narcos centres on the brutal drug war in Colombia between the narcos (drugs or narcotics dealers) on one side, and the DEA and Colombian government on the other. Over the course of the series, we follow the constantly shifting fortunes of drug supremo Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura) in a conflict that becomes so widespread that nobody is safe. Our perspective shifts between Escobar and his cronies to the American DEA agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), upon which the fight takes on all of the shades of grey. The direction the show will take is unpredictable and, in your pursuit of the answers, you might easily slide into a deep, dark binge session.
The narrative glue that holds everything together is the intriguing good/evil dichotomy that plays out over the series’ ten episodes. What is moral and immoral becomes increasingly blurred as Narcos asks some engrossingly searching questions of its audience. In a country so corrupt, where any government official or informant has their price, the cash-rich narcos can always be one step ahead of the DEA and Colombian government. The ‘goodies’ fighting against Escobar must constantly evaluate whether the best course of action is moral or the most effective, as it is rarely ever both.
The actions of the DEA become hard to predict in the face of the insidious reach of the drug lords, and it’s these mysteries that keeps hooking you back in to watch another episode. Characterisation is key here, as both Murphy, Escobar and their compatriots all have recognisably human lives with girlfriends and families. You will have trouble working out who to root for, as both main characters are capable of doing the right thing, but also, both are able to do whatever must be done in order to claim victory in the drug war.
It’s a shame then, that much of the key and secondary cast members struggle to convey the complexity of the plot. Despite, admittedly, getting a little more interesting later on, Holbrook is a bland, charmless hero, with himself and his wife Connie (Joanna Christie) struggling to capture the gravity of war-torn south american city life in a convincing way.
Things aren’t so great over in the narco camp either. Gustavo (Juan Pablo Raba), Pablo’s cousin, is particularly unsubtle as his leader’s conscience and check to power. Everything coming out of his mouth is a criticism of Escobar’s actions – which often are albeit warranted – and his function as his cousin’s foil in the drug lord camp is far too obvious. Maura, on the other hand, fares better as the charming leader of the narcos: Escobar is played with the complexity that allows us to perceive his exterior charm, in spite of the passionate red mist boiling under the surface.
The ending of the series is particularly frustrating, and it’s clearly evident that future series have been planned. It’s something you’ll no doubt have encountered before, but after such an addictive ten episodes the pain of such an abrupt ending with so few answers stings.
Narcos is a promising, if flawed, addition to Netflix’s increasingly rich and vibrant collection. It’s a well-made series with an excellent plot that knows exactly how to keep you watching. What Narcos captures excellently is the sense of instability, atmosphere and danger that spreads to all the characters. Unfortunately, much of the cast have difficulty in measuring up to the story, but, at the rate people are killed off, they’ll be entirely new soon anyway. The show’s ending isn’t satisfying enough, but on the other hand, plenty is left to be picked up on in later series. Narcos has nothing on the blue stuff, at least not yet anyway.