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The Bleak, Transportive Pleasures of ‘ZeroZeroZero’

The Amazon Studios series, which alternates between the perspectives of the sellers, buyers, and brokers in an international drug deal, is tonally grim and visually beautiful

Amazon/Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

A shipping mogul arrives in Monterrey, Mexico, to put the final touches on a transcontinental, multimillion-dollar transaction—one that has sent her from New Orleans to Mexico, back to New Orleans, then to Morocco, Italy, and now back to Mexico again. As she enters the compound owned by her business partners, she sees bodies strewn across the expansive front lawn; birthday balloons float aimlessly over the carnage. She is escorted inside the mansion—she sees the corpses of her partners on either side of a sofa and sits between them. This theatrical display underscores a rather simple point: The business is under new leadership.

I probably don’t even need to tell you that this scenario ties into the drug trade; prestige television has become so synonymous with the world of drug trafficking and money laundering that viewers who can distinguish their McMafia from their Narcos and Ozark probably will have become desensitized to this kind of macabre display. It’s what it is.

ZeroZeroZero, in other words, isn’t going to break the crime drama wheel—what the show aims to be is the ideal, blood-soaked, cocaine-dusted spoke. A coproduction between Amazon Studios, Sky Atlantic, Canal+, and Cattleya, and adapted from the novel of the same name by Roberto Saviano, ZeroZeroZero gets into the nitty-gritty of the international drug trade, dividing its time between the buyers (an Italian mafia), the sellers (a Mexican cartel), and the brokers (a wealthy shipping family from Louisiana) of a giant cocaine shipment worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

There’s a lot on the line—beyond just the unconscionable amount of money being exchanged. For aging Calabrian mob boss Don Minu (played by Adriano Chiaramida), procuring all this coke is his last-ditch effort to retain power over carnivorous rivals that include his scheming grandson, Stefano (Giuseppe De Domenico). Manuel Contreras (Harold Torres), a sergeant in the Mexican army secretly working for Monterrey’s biggest cartel, sees an opportunity to incorporate his military cunning into the criminal underworld; he trains an army of narco soldiers, if you will. And as shipping magnate Edward Lynwood (Gabriel Byrne) begins passing the torch to his daughter Emma (Andrea Riseborough), his son Chris (Dane DeHaan), who has Huntington’s disease and spends much of his time smoking weed, becomes entangled in the messier side of the family business.

With the cocaine shipment slowly making its way from Mexico to Italy across the series’ eight episodes, the three story lines intersect intermittently—often shifting perspectives in key moments before revealing the full picture for the audience. (Hint: The full picture involves a lot of double-crossing and murder.) For the kind of viewer who hopes Narcos ends up having as many seasons on Netflix as Supernatural’s had on the CW and believes turning Sicario into an emergent franchise was the greatest idea a major Hollywood studio has had in years, ZeroZeroZero will be catnip. (It’s only fitting that one of the show’s cocreators is Italian filmmaker Stefano Sollima, who directed Sicario: Day of the Soldado and 10 episodes of Gomorrah.)

But to everybody besides crime drama loyalists, ZeroZeroZero will likely be an all-too-depressing addition to the bingeing rotation these days. Anecdotally, I’ve found people would rather seek out wholesome content or something mindlessly entertaining—shout-out to Netflix’s No Sex Reality Show—as a salve while we spend much of our days indoors in the middle of a global pandemic. It’s a sentiment I empathize with, and in case it wasn’t already clear, ZeroZeroZero is unfailingly nihilistic viewing that won’t exactly restore your faith in humanity. For your own sake, avoid the show in which a man is killed by a sledgehammer to the chest if you’re not up for it.

But having inhaled ZeroZeroZero—which hit Amazon Prime on March 6—earlier this month on the endorsement of enthusiastic colleagues and the convincing elevator pitch from a Twitter mutual, I’ve found that the series is a genuinely transportive experience that already feels like it came from a different era. I wouldn’t say we won’t get something like ZeroZeroZero ever again, but the show might be the last of its kind for a long time.

That’s because ZeroZeroZero does an unprecedented amount of legwork, production-wise, that is usually reserved for shows with built-in fandoms and immense viewership, like Game of Thrones. It’s one thing to write a series where characters bounce around between New Orleans, Mexico, Senegal, Morocco, and Italy—it’s another to fastidiously film on location in all of these places. When Riseborough appeared on The Watch podcast, she said the show’s entire production process took a year and a half, though the series was also delayed because the actress was injured while shooting in Morocco, along with other conflicts, like an election in Monterrey. It’s unclear how much ZeroZeroZero cost to make, but given the way it looks and the fact that it was a coproduction between four reputable companies, I’m going to err on the side of Very Goddamn Expensive.

This Herculean effort results in total immersion for the viewer. The world of ZeroZeroZero is vibrant and thrillingly alive; you get the sense you’d find a bunch of new conflicts and compelling characters around the corner of a street vendor if the camera went in a different direction. Every detail on the series is a thoughtfully considered flex—the way the sleek mansions of the buyers (Stefano in Calabria) and sellers (the Leyra brothers of Monterrey) are stationed above their respective cities, illuminating the belief that they’re above everyone else. Their perches stand in contrast to Don Minu’s digs—he literally lives underground in the middle of the mountains for fear of retaliation, a reminder of how disposable those in power really are. (Don Minu is also, incidentally, social distancing goals.)

While this impressive ambience gives the series a sense of authenticity, ZeroZeroZero fills out its world with characters as vibrant—and violent—as its surroundings, none more memorable than Manuel. Introduced with his squad poised to take out the Leyra cartel in the premiere, it doesn’t take long for the audience to realize that Manuel is a double agent: a corrosive influence on the one organization where everyone isn’t on the cartel’s payroll. (Several police cars come to the aid of the Leyras when they’re ambushed by the Mexican Armed Forces at a fancy dinner with Edward and Emma Lynwood before the shipment is on its way.) Manuel feels like he came straight out of the Nicolas Winding Refn Cinematic Universe: He’s a stoic, cold-eyed, largely wordless perpetrator of violence. He orders the execution of innocent civilians to send a message; he guns down a soldier loyal to the army in a nightclub and later develops a relationship with the man’s pregnant, unwitting girlfriend. And the character’s most beguiling trait is his affinity for Scripture and frequent churchgoing—Manuel believes everything he does is reflective of the Lord’s will because God hasn’t told him to stop. It is exceptionally fucked up.

This brutality, of course, serves a different kind of higher power: capitalism. ZeroZeroZero takes the notion of putting money above everything else to its extreme; the characters who survive are the ones willing to sacrifice anything and everyone to achieve their goals. Don Minu, who already had his son killed years ago to resolve a mafia dispute, is offered another poisoned chalice in the finale. To finalize the cocaine transaction, he fatally stabs Stefano—satisfying Emma’s desire for revenge for the death of her family during the drawn-out shipment. And after flirting with the prospect of settling down with the girlfriend of the soldier he killed once she gives birth, Manuel instead tells her the truth and closes himself off from any personal attachments as he bloodily seizes control of the Leyra cartel’s empire.

For all the ways ZeroZeroZero evokes an odd feeling of nostalgia for the effortless manner in which characters travel through our interconnected world, it is the show’s cynical view of opportunistic monsters eroding society from within that seems most resonant. Whether in the confines of government and other institutions or within the criminal underworld, greed is the deeply entrenched, driving force behind it all. (If you don’t want to take my word for it, read it from the guy who wrote ZeroZeroZero and actually exposed some of these illicit operations.)

If not a traditionally fun binge, ZeroZeroZero is an instructive one—impeccably shot, well acted, and delivered on a global scale rarely seen on the small screen. It might have a more nihilistic streak than some viewers are comfortable with, but all the violence serves to make a larger point. When Emma brings this lucrative deal to its conclusion, surrounded by corpses from Manuel’s hostile takeover of the Leyra cartel and reeling from the loss of her family, she has only one question for Monterrey’s newest narco: “I need 2,000 kilos in three weeks for a shipment headed to Russia, can you do that?”