Narcos, Netflix, and Notoriety

Narcos has always had a difficult needle to thread. In dedicating so much screen time to Pablo Escobar and the likes, Netflix has been accused of glorifying some of the world’s most notorious terrorists. The writers of Narcos have always been sensitive to this slight and made a concerted effort to include the bad and the ugly when it came to Escobar. His bombing of Avianca Flight 203 and the DAS building are both given prominent attention in the series, and his penchant for violence completely undercuts his occasional acts of charity. 

If I had to give Narcos: Columbia a grade, I would probably give it a B+. Escobar was definitely an interesting aspect of the show, but he was never the sole reason to watch the show. I personally considered the conflict between the CIA and the DEA to be one of the most compelling aspects of the show and had that storyline been fleshed out a bit better, Narcos: Columbia could have earned a place in the pantheon of great TV shows.

While Narcos: Columbia almost makes the cut, Narcos: Mexico falls well short of the mark. The first season of Narcos: Mexico was decent, but the second season was a muddled mess. On paper, there is a lot to like about Narcos: Mexico. It has a great cast–Michael Pena and Diego Luna are the main draws for Season One–and the subject matter is undeniably interesting. Unfortunately, there just isn’t much to latch on to with the show. The voice-over narration is frustratingly dry, not to mention overdone, and the characters aren’t all that compelling. With the exception of Kiki, we aren’t given much reason to root for the characters. If anything, we are given reasons to not like them.

Walt Breslin is a good example of this. He comes into the show relatively late, and I think the show creators assumed viewers would find him sympathetic because he purports to be on the side of law and order. He does enter the story with some degree of goodwill because of his connection to Kiki, but it’s immediately squandered on a brutal torture sequence. For reasons I can’t understand, the show creators assumed we would find Breslin’s character more interesting once we watched him lop fingers off a restrained prisoner. In all fairness, the man is a member of Mexico’s DFS–the functional equivalent of the SAVAK if we are to believe the show–but that doesn’t make the sequence any easier to watch. The victim ends up succumbing to his injuries, but not before volunteering the information Breslin needs.

I always find it odd when law and order shows endorse torture as an interrogation technique, and Narcos: Mexico has enough torture to make Jack Bauer blush. Again and again, the bad guys spill the beans because of the miraculous effects of torture, though the good guys never admit anything under duress of course. Somebody who watches Narcos: Mexico could be forgiven for thinking the problem with the criminal justice system is there too much emphasis on getting warrants and too much emphasis on respecting due process.

Torture issues aside, Narcos: Mexico doesn’t seem much interested in the established facts. For the most part, the show is more interested in creating a story inspired by history more than it is based on history. This isn’t a deal breaker per se, Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad includes plenty of storylines that are extremely out of place for the era and it’s still a good read, but it does create some interesting production issues for Narcos: Mexico. During a flashback sequence, Salinas accidentally kills a maid during a historical reenactment gone wrong. Rather than concerning himself with the well-being of his former playmate, the youthful Salinas frets his family will be upset about the bloodstains on their very expensive rug. The depiction is anything but flattering of Mexico’s future president, and I have my doubts Salinas was involved in any such incident. I have no doubts, however, that Salinas was involved in the efforts to rig the 1988 vote. PRI officials have already admitted as much, President Madrid for example, and it’s only logical to assume that Salinas was involved in the vote-rigging efforts that culminated in him being elected. Narcos: Mexico isn’t willing to suggest as much, however, and bleeps out his name in reference to the 1988 election. The attempt at censorship is as baffling as it is illogical. After all, it’s pretty easy to Google who won the 1988 election. Moreover, Narcos: Mexico suggests he was involved in all kinds of disreputable skullduggery so it seems odd for the show to pull its punches when it comes to the skullduggery we know he was involved in. 

Narcos: Mexico could have been a very interesting show. It could have explored Shakespear’s dictum that absolute power corrupts absolutely or Machiavelli’s dictum that the ends justify the means. Instead, we ended up with a show that revels in violence and stints on interesting characters.