Saturday, August 29, 2015

REVIEW: 'Narcos' - Pablo Escobar Builds His Drug Enterprise While Agent Steve Murphy Joins the Fight in 'Descenso'

Netflix's Narcos - Episode 1.01 "Descenso"

Chilean drug chemist Cockroach brings his product to Colombian smuggler Pablo Escobar. DEA agent Steve Murphy joins the war on drugs in Bogota.

Narcos has almost a documentary feel to it in its first episode. This hour has so much story to set up. The narrative arc of the season is the battle between drug smuggler Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura) and DEA agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook). The premiere ends with Murphy and his wife landing in Colombia and beginning their interference of Escobar's enterprise. This episode uses its time to tell how things got to that point. Why did the Murphys feel they needed to go down to Colombia in order to address this growing issue? How was Pablo Escobar able to build his vast drug network? There's a lot of meticulousness in the way creators Chris Brancato, Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro tell this story. It is based on real-life events. The narrative is also able to weave in archival footage from the time period to help paint a fuller picture of global events for the audience. Those had an importance in the storytelling.

This premiere is so confident with the story it wants to be telling. However, it largely just sets the stage for what's to come next. It gives the audience all the backstory that they could possibly need in order to enjoy this depiction of the events. Several years are covered over the course of this hour. The audience sees how Pablo got connected to cocaine. He grew his empire over several years. But that story could only really be dramatized over one hour. Time moves forward with such precision here. It makes it seem like the cocaine trade came about so quickly and suddenly. It did take years. But it had a huge impact. That is abundantly clear throughout this opening episode. Pablo and his partners were able to get rich very quickly from this deal. The first time taking the product into Colombian netted half a million dollars for them. Things escalated into the millions very quickly after that. The enterprise and demand grew so exponentially that Pablo had to come up with more creative ways to transport the product into Miami.

It's devastating to see just how much this drug effected the community of people in Miami. It hit the streets and became so addictive so quickly. It created a drug problem too severe for the DEA to handle. Before that, Murphy and the agents were able to hit the streets during the day and go out bowling and hitting on ladies at night. Their tactics needed to change - just like the exporters - in order to combat this new drug. Even that wasn't enough though. The hopelessness of the situation does come across very well here. The fact that whatever they did didn't even scratch the surface of Escobar's empire was chilling. It got to the point where the best form of attack was to hit the enterprise before it entered the country. That's why Murphy was allowed to go to Colombia and work with the corrupt officials down there.

However, so much of this story is more interesting to watch from a character perspective whenever Pablo Escobar is on the screen. Moura does a wonderful job at convening the menace but everyman quality he had. This story is being narrated in hindsight. The audience is aware of just how much destruction Escobar did across his life. He is a man who will stand his ground and fight any challenger to his operation. Despite having all the money he could possibly dream of, he doesn't let that get to his head. His business associates may get some smart ideas after learning about the scope and size of the operation and the money. But Escobar always knows how to handle them in a way that doesn't disrupt the enterprise. Sure, it could be problematic that he takes out Cockroach after learning of his betrayal given that he is the man who is creating the product. But the story smartly includes a scene in the middle that shows that Cockroach isn't crucial to this operation. He is allowed to sit down and rest in the middle of the work day while everyone else is hard at work creating the drug. Escobar also understands his competitors in the smuggling trade who he takes on as partners in order to expand his enterprise. He knows that Gacha has grown hard and distrustful of anyone in his business while the other family has grown a little too detached from the day-to-day life aspect of the criminal deed. They will be important people to keep an eye on - as Murphy notes in his narration of the events.

It's also interesting that Holbrook is fantastic as the narrative of this story. It's the kind of wry delivery that really works for a story as horrifying as this will become. It establishes that he will survive long enough to get to tell this story somehow. And yet, a bounty is placed on his head in the present-day. That establishes that things are only going to get more complicated between Murphy and Escobar moving forward. That holds a lot of potential for the show.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Descenso" was written by Chris Brancato, Carlo Bernard & Doug Miro and directed by José Padilha.
  • The series also opens with the following line: "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." That certainly applies to the Pablo Escobar story.
  • Both Steve and his wife Connie are given explicit reasons why they feel personally motivated to travel to Colombia to fight in this drug war. That's a little too transparent. Steve's partner is killed while on a sting operation with the killer being able to sneak out of the country while Connie can't save a pregnant girl in the ER because two of the cocaine balloons burst in her stomach.
  • Pedro Pascal appears all too briefly as Agent Javier Peña in Colombia but he will certainly be an important character moving forward as well.
  • I'm curious if the narration will continue to be as prominent in future episodes as it is here.
  • Also, there's a lot of subtitles to read. It does help give the show an authentic feel though. When in Colombia, the characters are actually speaking Spanish!

As noted from previous series released all at once, every episodic review was written without having seen any succeeding episodes. Similarly, it would be much appreciated if in the comments section, the conversation would only revolve around the show up to this point in its run.