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.

I Spy a Good Show: A Review of Netflix’s The Spy

When I first read about The Spy, I remember thinking that it was impressive that Sacha Baron Cohen learned Syrian Arabic for the part, but I didn’t feel any burning need to watch the show. I kind of just went huh, that’s cool to myself and then moved on with my life. What with cv19, I am indoors a lot more than I used to be so I decided to check out Netflix’s bountiful offerings. As someone who finds it really hard not to binge a good series, I figured it would be smart to find a miniseries to sink my teeth into, rather than a multi-season epic that would probably destroy my sleep cycle. The Spy kept coming up on the list of best miniseries on Netflix so I decided to check it out and I am really glad I did.

James Bond films would have us believe that international espionage consists mainly of glitzy parties, casual sex, high-octane car chases, frenetic fisticuffs, and diabolical plots to destroy the world. The Spy would have us believe otherwise and gives audiences a much grittier depiction, one less glamorous but more grounded. To be fair, there are many edge-of-your-seat moments in The Spy and I wouldn’t be surprised if the writers played up the drama surrounding certain events for the sake of the audience. However, what makes The Spy different than the typical Bond film is these sequences aren’t exciting so much as they are exhausting. 

Exhausting has negative connotations, and I want to be clear that I don’t mean that in a bad way. Part of what makes The Spy compelling is that we know from the very first episode that Eli Cohen, the protagonist of the show, gets captured by the Syrian government. As a result, every time we see Eli put himself in danger, we have to think to ourselves: is this how he gets caught? Any relief we feel when he survives a brush with danger is fleeting because we know every success only encourages him to take greater risks. And boy, does he take some great risks. He doesn’t just pop into Syria for a quick peek–he ends up living there for nearly half a decade, brushing shoulders with some of the dangerous people in all the country and building a facade so consuming it ends up, well, consuming, him.

Reading some reviews online, I notice some critics took issue with the depiction of Eli Cohen and contend that the show writers should have done more to develop Eli as a character. To some degree, there is validity to this criticism. There are only a few episodes in the series and Eli gets precious little time to be himself–rather than his altar alias, Kamel Amin Thabbet–or spend time with family. However, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing we know Eli primarily as a spy. I think in some respects, it makes for a more honest depiction. Eli has to play the part of his altar alias so much that it becomes him and his downfall is all the more brutal because of it.

His handlers should have stepped in before he was caught, but they do as much to enable his downfall as Eli’s penchant for risk-taking. Eli has given them such great information, has triumphed in the face of such spectacular odds, they convince themselves Eli can’t be caught. This delusion proves deep-seated and, ultimately, tragic. In an odd twist of fate, Eli becomes so valuable to the state of Israel that he becomes expendable. His eagerness to serve dooms him, and the Israeli Intelligence Services lose their golden goose because they are unwilling to quit while they are head. Instead of pulling Eli out when he relays extremely privileged information, they encourage him to discover even more privileged information even though they can do nothing to protect him once the Syrians start wondering who is leaking the privileged information. Sure, he’s their hero, but that just means he has the honor of taking more risks on their behalf.

The question of how we treat our heroes is an important one then as much as now. Many of the same people who are lauding frontline medics for their selflessness in the fight against cv19 are loathe to practice social distancing measures themselves. In some cases, they flagrantly violate them. One has to wonder if we perhaps ask too much of our heroes.

The Spy probably isn’t for everyone. It’s hard to imagine the show has much viewership in Syria, which is ironic considering the trouble Sacha Baron Cohen went through to learn the lingua franca, and it has flown under the radar with a lot of American viewers also. The Spy is not as action-packed as a modern Bond film, nor is it as heady as a John le Carre adaption, but it’s worth checking out and I recommend it to all viewers interested in Israeli history, Syrian history, or foreign espionage.

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