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On the dynamics of representation in Netflix’s Narcos

            In August 2015, Netflix put out the whole first season to another release in the series of original content shows the platform has been financing recently. After the House of Cards experiment in 2013 had proven a runaway success with its instant full season release, a model perfect for the “binge-watching” mechanic that by now dominates television consumption, the network was attempting to repeat its success with the new Narcos. Narcos, like House of Cards, deals with a morally reprehensible anti-hero trying to make his way into a position of power in his country, through any means necessary, political or extra-legal. However, as opposed to the first show, and to the power-thirsty character of Frank Underwood, Narcos’ main character takes the shape of a real life figure in that of infamous Colombian drug-lord Pablo Escobar. Although, like most other Netflix creations, the show is undoubtedly well crafted, with high production value and big names both at the helm and in front of the camera, the story it is telling deals with a whole complicated history that is foreign to those producing it. Thus, while the series received reasonable critical praise, it also incited an angry counter-response in the country it was depicting. The accusation being that the show was exploiting Colombia’s history of drug-related violence, and monetizing another country’s narrative for entertainment purposes. As a result, and as a Colombian myself, I find it valuable to try and understand what the show is trying to do, and at what points it succeeds and fails in this issue of representation, both through its final product and through its seams or manufacturing.

            A first step in scrutinizing a production like Narcos is going back to its making and understanding under what conditions it was completed and by whom. In recent years Colombia has attempted to market itself as a desired shooting location and subsidizing those who film on national soil, which has led to an unprecedented growth in the local film industry, and the show was essentially shot on location in Colombia. In fact the government financed part of the show, with a 2-million US dollar backing to Netflix’s production costs. Of course this push came with a warning, with Juan Manuel Santos, the Colombian president, meeting with one of the show runners, Jose Padilha, and other Netflix executives, and reportedly explaining certain details of the country’s history and urging them not to glamorize Escobar’s image. Granted, that kind of counsel is the only tool short of censorship that the government has in hoping a foreign film crew will depict their history respectfully, as if the production were denied, they would most likely shoot the same story elsewhere. In fact, the crew was denied permission to shoot in the house that served as Escobar’s actual place of death, and while attempting to get that permission reveals an obsession with “genuine-ness,” it also exposes a lack of tact in tackling a history that is still somewhat present.

            Then comes a look at the writers, participants and general players in the making of Narcos. First and foremost, there’s Netflix as a corporation. It is necessary to understand that Netflix’s prime concern is to sell a product to their consumers and to do this they must keep them entertained. Consequently this burden lies with those directly involved in the show’s scripting and filming. In this case, the show was penned by a number of writers, with Chris Brancato, Carlo Bernard, and Doug Miro taking center stage, none of which are Colombian. Furthermore the ten episodes produced were divided between four directors, only one of which was born in the country. This means that the larger part of the process was in the hands of people unfamiliar, until recently, with Colombia’s history. Even if it is a smart choice to include Colombian director, Andres Baiz, along an action-movie heavyweight like Brazilian Jose Padilha and other reasonably experienced names. It goes without saying that all involved went on to research the topic they were filming. Padilha himself reportedly undertook extensive interviews on the proceedings, but it is naive to assume that a few months of research are going to equal a lifetime of living the country’s context and the aftermath of the show’s events. The casting follows a similar pattern with Colombian actors included throughout in secondary roles, but with a Brazilian, a Chilean and an American playing the main parts of Escobar and the two leading DEA agents respectively.

            The most common complaint is that Escobar is glorified by the show. Americans are undoubtedly the good guys and yet Narcos also plays with the, by now overused, antihero trope, so it is worth questioning where Narcos wants our sympathy to lay. Escobar is the antagonist and yet he is the series’ focus. It’s a pattern seen elsewhere in TV in shows like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, but it’s valuable to understand whom the series wants us, as viewers, to root for. There’s agents Murphy and Peña, but these two are not nearly as captivating as Wagner Moura’s portrayal of Escobar. Even though in the long run, viewers are meant to root for the DEA and authorities, there wouldn’t be any excitement if they weren’t hoping for Escobar to get away with it again every now and then, as is the basis of the anti-hero model. It at least partly feeds off the rush people get by vicariously living as a rich, powerful, and fierce criminal. Consequently, when Escobar’s plans to run for president are foiled by minister of justice Lara Bonilla, Narcos appeals to it’s audience both on a level where “good” is triumphing over “bad,” but also in that it’s main character just met an obstacle and thus we should feel sorry for him and excited to see what he tries next. The show goes on to play the following scenes with a brooding Escobar as the victim. However, even if Narcos’ is often criticized for this, my argument is that the show has greater issues in other aspects of its representation. It seems too easy to say “this show doesn’t work because it glorifies drug dealers,” which isn’t the full truth either as of course it’s also shown how dangerous and misguided these men were.

            It is more revealing and interesting to look at other aspects of Narcos’ mechanics like for example how Spanish is on par with English as the language spoken throughout the show. It lends the material a level of authenticity, which is reinforced by cutaways to actual newsreel footage from the time, as I’ll go into later. However on a production level this points towards Netflix attempting to globalize its market and appeal to a broader Spanish-speaking audience. It makes sense, as the company has recently been increasing it’s presence and availability overseas as the next move in it’s business plan, with specific content available depending from which country a connection is established. Furthermore, as Padilha stated in an interview this hasn’t hurt US viewership either: “we’re doing great here in America, too. It’s not that much in subtitles. Only half of it is in subtitles. And a lot of people speak Spanish in America.” It seems like the gamble paid off, and it definitely appears to be a better solution than having an English speaking Escobar that might alienate Hispanic audiences.  In fact Colombian slang is often weaved into the dialogue, which was a pleasant surprise for me as a viewer. It’s a small detail that would make it seem as if the producers are actually making an effort to provide an honest account of the context and events.  However another issue that has risen constantly amongst Colombians who’ve seen the show is how Moura, the actor playing Escobar, is not a native Spanish-speaker, but instead is Brazilian and thus has a heavy Portuguese accent, having learned Spanish only in the months prior to filming. This in turn counteracts the idea of having Escobar speak Spanish as a move to satisfy Colombian viewers and makes it instead seem more like a PR call to sell the show as “genuine” to the very same American audiences an English version would have been directed at.

            Beyond language, the question must inevitably be raised however of historically accurate Narcos is. When it comes to the basic details, it of course changes the names of some of the real life participants: Virginia Vallejo becomes Valeria Velez, the show’s Poison is a combination of a number of sicarios, most famously Escobar’s hit man Popeye. This happens more times throughout the ten episodes, but realistically shouldn’t have any major reason to interfere with the broader story. Then there’s the actual incidents it showcases. Narcos’ first season covers events crucial to Colombia’s history. It deals with the assassination of the Minister of Justice, Lara Bonilla, as well as the taking of the Palace of justice by the M19 guerrilla. It somehow breezes over the murders of presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán, and journalist Guillermo Cano and the bombing of the latter’s newspaper offices, to name a few.

            All these did happen, and what’s interesting is that from a historical angle the show does try to be faithful to the real timeline, with the exception of some breaks in this logic. An example being Escobar killing M-19 leader “Ivan the Terrible,” midway through the season when no such thing happened to the real Iván Ospina (Iván Torres in the show). Another one is Gustavo Gaviria’s affair in the show with the Ochoas’ sisters, which seems like another element invented for dramatic content. But while the show does mostly narrate real events, even if it dramatizes them to superfluous extents and amplifies the DEA’s involvement, it never addresses what these events actually implied in a broader history. Thus the shock-terrorist acts Escobar commits, are no more than that, shock terrorist acts, with no greater implications or consequences, besides getting Agents Murphy and Peña hotter on his tail. The conflict between Narcos and Guerrilla that is shown early in the season is left at that. Instead there’s no reference to how it created a small war, and made Escobar enemies (like los Pepes, a vigilante group he persecuted), who also played a big role in finally bringing down Pablo. The big historical issue Narcos has, is not that its events are not true, but that they are not the whole truth. They might as well be a simplified look at what happened on a calendar.

            This is key, as it opens up the issue of what angle the show takes on what it depicts. It’s not about whether the show got the facts right as the promoting has gone so far to explain, with the participants calling the show a “genuine” retelling. The issue is rather about how these facts are tackled, and that’s why pointing out that the company and producers behind the show are mostly not Colombian, and hadn’t been involved in this history until recently, is important. This disjoint in objectives is clearly witnessed in the marketing campaign behind the series. The show was advertised with a number of posters showing its characters with a black background and surrounded by a cloud of cocaine in the air, one even depicting the South American map in an outline of the same white powder, with a small tagline that reads “There’s no business like blow business.” Of course it goes against the notion of not glamorizing a drug dealer that’s been at the center of the table every time Escobar is depicted on the screen, but at the same time it might be exactly the material that’ll reel in a non-Colombian viewer looking for an exciting unfamiliar story. There is another poster that may prove even more interesting in revealing the show’s dynamics. In a more minimalistic approach, this other poster is made up of a close-up of an American bill with a stain of blood right under the nose of the figure on the bill’s image, to make it seem as if the illustration itself has a nosebleed. This functions as a double edged jab, playing with how cocaine often makes its consumers suffer nose-bleeds due to it being inhaled, but also showing how the drug trade has hurt the American economy and public. Thus it situates Escobar and all the blood-spill that has taken place around the cocaine trade, not only as an evil threat to a South American country but above that as an evil that clashes with the American way of life.

            There is no denying that the drug-trade was an issue and that it hurt millions in the process, but it’s not solely an issue because it confronted the US’ lifestyle, but also because it cost countless deaths in Latin America and marked Colombia’s history, and that is what the show seems to overlook. It becomes apparent by looking at the way in which it is scripted. After all, the narrator, played by Boyd Holbrook, is an American agent who’s been sent down into a dangerous land to correct an issue Colombians couldn’t deal with. Going further, the show structure is set so that the confrontation between the DEA and Escobar becomes a clash between the White American lifestyle, and the ethnic or the foreign threat. It is not anymore the drug-lord criminal that terrorized Colombia, but a “godfather figure” that has been assimilated into an immigrant position in which he poses a threat to the United States. Regardless of the fact that Narcos is set in Colombia, in the show the setting is reduced to only serving as Escobar’s kingdom that the American heroes must go into in order to stop him. This idea pops up again and again in Murphy’s voiceover as I’ll come back to, but great examples can also be found when taking a look at the Colombian figures the show gives any real agency to.

            The Colombian characters that appear in Narcos can broadly be divided into three categories. First there are of course the criminals: there’s the Narcos, and the communist guerrillas for example. Then, going a bit broader, there are the corrupt officials. That is, those which can be bribed, or which are secretly working for the Narcos, and these include both police officers, and politicians. A perfect example being Suaréz, a police informer who must be paid extra to do his job and who plays for both sides, appearing occasionally throughout the season. The majority of Colombian characters on the show fall into this role. However, then there is the third category. That of the rare Colombian figure that means well but does not measure up to the DEA’s level and consequently ends up messing up. The foremost example of this is the show’s representation of Lara Bonilla, who having stood up to Escobar, then refuses Murphy’s safety recommendations and consequently is murdered. The same is the case with President Gaviria, saved from an exploding plane by Murphy’s warning, or with Minister Sandoval, one of the characters actually played by a Colombian, who disobeys American safety procedures and ends up a hostage to Escobar. This reveals a dynamic in which a fourth group, the Americans, are always the ones in the know, who have a chance of counteracting Escobar, and must save the Colombians from themselves, not always successfully. It is not surprising that the real life Murphy and Peña are consultants on the show, which speaks to the perspective Narcos has chosen to take in looking at the Colombian conflict.

            When confronted by Murphy, Minister of Justice Lara Bonilla mentions how standing up to Escobar was his doing and had nothing to do with the Americans. “We accept your help but never your condescension. When all this is over Colombians will be the heroes, and the victims. John Wayne only exists in Hollywood,” he defiantly states. The quote is perhaps the closest Narcos comes to painting a developed Colombian character, and in the process to tackling an issue it has been waltzing around. But in the very next scene the minister is shot and killed and the words end up framed as not being more than delusions of grandeur. In fact, the concept of condescension that the character mentions is often present in Murphy’s interactions with the Colombian environment, and most specifically in his narration.

             Some may take this as character traits or as the writers taking a creative license, but at the same time, this voiceover narration is a lens through which the show depicts the events for its viewers, and this of course stacks the tables even further. One could argue the element is meant to reveal Murphy’s American stubbornness and misunderstanding of a different culture, stating the device is “exposing Murphy not as a hero, but as a tool of the United States government.” (Fowle, but it would seem unlikely seeing as it is an American produced show and as the character has constantly been shown to be right with the decisions he makes, being further framed as reliable by narrating objective historical facts. Throughout his narration, Murphy constantly mentions how by logic things should have gone one way “but it was Colombia,” and consequently they went wrong. A particularly demonstrative fragment goes “Nobody can control the dreams they have… Especially if you grew up in Colombia. There’s a reason magical realism was born in Colombia, it’s a country where dreams and reality are conflated, where in their heads people fly as high as Icarus.” It flows well, but the notion that Escobar’s doings arise solely from a grander Colombian issue and the generalization of Colombians as “helpless dreamers” speaks precisely to the condescension towards the other, and to the “white vs ethnic” discourse the show has established.

            The genuine-ness of the show is another aspect which is worth breaking down, because one of the main selling points for Narcos was how it is telling “the real story,” as hasn’t been done before. Thus the newsreel footage and actual picture inclusions create the sense that what we are watching is as close to a docu-drama as anything made about Escobar. Already having broken down some of the historical splits the show goes through, this concept is somewhat exposed. Of course it has to shift events to fit the season format, and even the real life Murphy himself didn’t get to Bogotá until after Escobar had already been killed, and that’s fine, because after all, it isn’t a documentary. But the issue comes when the series is slyly marketing itself as if it is realer than it actually is.  This concentration on the genuine can be taken as Netflix’s assurance to its viewer that the series is meaningful.

            Narcos is entertaining television, no doubt, and once I got over the blues of seeing on display a history that is inevitably harsh no matter how you frame it, it wasn’t hard to get dragged along for the ride. That being said, there were blues. Of course the show was going to glamorize the drug-trade at points. It’s been done before. But the fact that Narcos is based on a real live criminal, and that it’s actually Escobar, just gave the whole undertaking the sickly feeling of something being off. However, moving beyond whether or not our sympathy is wrought towards Escobar at points throughout the show, I believe this “off” feeling can instead be pegged down to the other details of representation I circled on.  It is not the fact that audiences are entertained by the character that troubles me about Narcos, but the way in which the show approaches a foreign history and sells it as the real deal; the inside story. Where Colombians become accessories to Escobar because they couldn’t stop him while furthering an imperialist view of the US as liberator. There’s no harm in watching Narcos, but I do urge anyone who sees it go on to read about the period and the country itself. After all there’s always more than one side to a narrative, and going beyond the drug-trade and other issues that will forever remain a black mark on our history, there’s a brighter side to Colombia that can prove as enjoyable as anything the show has to offer.

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