clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Fake History and Real People: The Genius Pulp Nonfiction of ‘Narcos’

Welcome to the age of explainer TV—Netflix’s drug saga has already mastered it

Netflix/Ringer illustration

At a time when TV auteurs are routinely canonized in The New Yorker, Narcos is on its third showrunner in three seasons. The show’s dialogue is at least 85 percent Spanish and is typically boilerplate, no matter what language it’s in. Two of its most recognizable actors and their characters—Wagner Moura’s Pablo Escobar and Boyd Holbrook’s DEA agent, Steve Murphy—are absent from its 10-episode third season, which Netflix released Friday night. There is no real hero or antihero, but rather a sprawling cast of interlocking characters on both sides of the law, to the extent that the law matters in this world. There is no mystery, there are no fan theories; if you want to find out what happens, just Google it.

Imagine watching Game of Thrones while listening to Binge Mode at the same time. That is essentially the storytelling model showrunner Eric Newman and his team have perfected over the past three seasons. It’s artfully done Explainer TV. When a money launderer character is introduced early in the third season, he comes with a brief, punchy description of money laundering. With its overhead establishing shots and incessant expository voice-overs, Narcos has more in common with a docuseries like NatGeo’s Drugs Inc. than it does The Wire. It is essentially a collection of hyperstylized historical reenactments. And yet it is, right now, the best crime show on television because it understands one very important thing: There are only so many crimes—what matters is the crime scene.

Narcos has Colombia. Nothing else matters. Shot on location using a run-and-gun aesthetic established by director José Padilha in the first season of the show (which he brought with him from the 2007 Brazilian hit Elite Squad), Narcos goes barreling through luxury apartments, tin shacks, and grease-stained cafeterias. It goes careening down avenues in beat-up jeeps and rappelling out of helicopters into dense jungle. Characters tap pay phones in the back of run-down gift shops, eat lunch at melancholy strip clubs, and have conspiratorial coffee off of teeming public squares. By the end of the third season, the viewer has a mental map of Cali and Bogotá. Some shows you binge to find out what happens; with Narcos, you keep watching because you never want to leave.

Now, is that map “real”? Is the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar (encompassing the first two seasons of the show) and emergence of the Cali Cartel in his place (the third season) told truthfully? Authenticity and historical accuracy are not the same thing. The show says it is based on real events, and Newman has described Narcos as “50-50” in terms of its balance of fiction and nonfiction. But this is not about fact-checking the show. What I’m talking about is using setting—something that, more often than not, is a choice networks and producers make based on budget concerns rather than storytelling—and how it creates a depth of experience.

We talk about this all the time in relation to Game of Thrones. One of the more disappointing elements of Season 7 was the feeling that we were receding into the contained corners of George R. R. Martin’s world rather than exploring its vastness. Contrast this season—scene after scene of conversation in throne rooms, antechambers, and crypts—with more languorously paced past seasons, where similar plotting played out in military encampments and on roads crisscrossing Westeros.

Characters feel more real in places that feel like characters. Clichés come to life. Narcos still has a relentless curiosity about the world in which it is set.


Spoiler alert: Pablo Escobar is gone now. Newman told The Hollywood Reporter that they named the show Narcos instead of Pablo Escobar for a reason—so that they could go wherever the drug war took them. The fourth season is primed to move the action to Mexico, with rumors it will begin to tell the story of infamous Sinaloa chieftain Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who was already active in the mid-’90s, when the third season of the show ends. Before that, Narcos has unfinished business in Colombia. And frankly, given how deeply this show’s success has been rooted in the place, you can see why it would be slow to close up shop there.

A flashing GIF that says SPOILER ALERT

In Colombia, Narcos finds strange beauty in moments surrounding unspeakable horror. In the third season’s first episode, unsubtly titled “The Kingpin Strategy,” one of the “Gentlemen of Cali” (the nickname for the four leaders of the cartel), Helmer “Pacho” Herrera, played with smoldering menace by Argentine actor Alberto Ammann, travels by motorcycle to a back-road bar/nightclub. He is there ostensibly to squash a beef with Claudio Salazar, a fellow member of the cartel from the North Valley. Pacho enters and everyone looks at him; he greets his adversary, steps up to the bar, and orders a bottle of aguardiente and requests a song—Angel Canales’s version of “Dos Gardenias.” He proceeds to passionately slow dance with his male lover, much to Salazar’s disgust. Then Pacho has the guy drawn and quartered by motorcycles. Ammann is terrifying, and the scene is a reminder that the Cali Cartel, for all its efforts to legitimize its business holdings, is capable of barbaric violence. But it’s nothing without the sense of place.

Netflix

The food, the soda machines, the lovers on the dance floor—these things are tactile. You are there. There’s a river running off to the side, and the music is played through a PA system. During the sequence, the camera assumes the perspective of curious bystanders in the bar—stealing looks at people reacting to the brazen display of affection wherever it can.

Netflix

Tables are littered with leftovers, and everyone’s clothes are just a little rumpled from a long night of dancing in the tropical humidity. Details like that are the difference between bullshit and poetry.

This is not Pacho’s story, though he is perhaps the most compelling character, and Ammann gives the most traditionally charismatic performance in the season. The story isn’t really Peña’s either, although Pedro Pascal is the public-facing star of the show and his troubled DEA agent is the relentless engine that drives the efforts to bring down the cartel. In the absence of a unifying figure like Escobar, and Moura’s gravitational work in the role, Narcos plays out as many strings as it can. No one Cali Cartel member needs to power the 10 episodes of Season 3, so we spend time with all of them, with their drivers, their accountants, their sicarios, their families, and their enemies.

If the season has “main” characters, it’s the two least charismatic ones: Cali Cartel no. 2, Miguel Rodriguez (played by Francisco Denis), and the Cali security chief, Jorge Salcedo (Swedish actor Matias Varela). Miguel begins the season as a socially awkward nag who slowly comes into his own when his older brother, Cali boss Gilberto, is sent to prison. Salcedo was the DEA’s man on the inside—a confidential informant who used his knowledge of the cartel’s counter-intelligence efforts (known as “the Cali K.G.B.”) to help the Americans and the Colombian police put all four Cali godfathers behind bars.

Varela gives an especially strong performance as the walls start closing in around his character. Salcedo rarely loses his cool and refuses to carry a weapon, instead using his intellect and ability to create distractions. At the end of the season, the character of Salcedo is forced to go to extreme measures to extract his family from Colombia. The real Salcedo, now residing in the United States having lived in the witness protection program for the past 22 years, did not leave the country in a hail of gunfire. Your mileage may vary on how much that matters, but it shouldn’t take away from the way Varela’s work keeps the show tethered to a kind of reality, if not exact history.

Netflix

In the season’s most terrifying sequence, Salcedo is brought to a remote compound for a surprise meeting that turns out to be an execution conducted by Miguel’s unhinged son, David (played with a sadistic, Joffrey-like glee by Broad City’s Arturo Castro), as the GZA’s “4th Chamber” plays in the background. Varela never hams it up until the absolute moment when overreaction seems totally normal. The same goes for Denis, who spends most of the season uncomfortably fidgeting in his chair, or rearranging items on his desk, before fully embracing the role of heavy, just as the DEA and police acquire him as a target. Not every cartel member was a chieftain, and not every hero kicked down doors to arrest them.

Both of these performers are remarkably steadying influences on the tone of the show. In a way, these actors sacrifice themselves—anyone could fall into Scarface karaoke—to maintain a feeling of authenticity. Narcos spends more time on cops and robbers chambering rounds and committing stunning acts of violence than poring over accounting numbers to find shell companies or tending to the mundane day-to-day operations of a billion-dollar business. It’s essentially a chase film told over 10 hours, one side doggedly pursuing the other. Characters explicitly state their intentions—if you want to know what the C.I.A. thinks of all this, the C.I.A. character lays it out for you. There is no real nuance to the text—this thing is all text.

That means everything—from the food trays at a restaurant, to the pigeons gathering on the steps of a government building, to the silk shirts worn by cartel hitmen, to the cramped apartments the DEA uses as safe houses—has to vibrate with detail. What’s that, down that alley? What are they selling in that store? What kind of soda are they drinking? One whiff of backlot, one scent of make-believe, and it all falls apart. For three seasons, the people behind Narcos have gotten that part right, even if they’ve been making some of the history up as they go along. It’s pulp nonfiction. But by God, it is brilliant television.