How much you enjoy the first episode of Narcos depends very strongly on how you feel about voiceover. The first hour of Netflix’s new Pablo Escobar series is essentially a long montage of character moments and exposition, none of which is particularly cohesive. It seems like it’s stylistically trying to evoke Goodfellas, but ultimately it feels clumsy and lazy. Every little piece of information is told to us by the drawl of Boyd Holbrook’s Steve Murphy, who gives us no reason to empathize with him unless you’re drawn to cheesy lines and posing machismo. There is no sense of tension or stakes and it’s hard to care much about any of what is happening on screen.
Outside of what he did for a living, my knowledge of Pablo Escobar is pretty much non-existent, so I came into the series with no expectations and a mild curiosity. And if I was reviewing the first episode alone, I wouldn’t have much positive to report. Luckily, Narcos improves strongly as it continues and the story it wants to tell comes into clear focus, providing a fascinating insight into a compelling true crime saga.
Focus is the big problem with the pilot. We are by turns introduced to our major players; Holbrook’s All-American-Hero DEA agent, his eventual partner Javier Pena (Pedro Pascal) and Escobar himself (Wagner Moura). After a flash-forward cold open, we basically get beat by beat introductions to the characters that do very little work to link any of what is happening outside of Holbrook’s voiceover promising us that this will all come together. This is immediately annoying and comes across as lazy, the very antithesis of the “show don’t tell” rule of screenwriting. To be fair the pilot has an enormous amount of information to convey, but it’s hard not to wish the writers had found smarter ways of managing it. Voiceover can work and it’s easier to forgive in a docudrama format like this, but there’s a distinct feeling of being spoon fed which is a little alienating.
Another major problem is the paper thin characterization of Murphy. Our ostensible protagonist, Murphy is a bland character in a show full of morally grey players. It’s hard to care much about him when he’s constantly side by side with the interesting Pena; a seeming good guy who nonetheless proves himself more susceptible to crossing ethical lines than his partner. It doesn’t hurt that, as Game Of Thrones fans will mournfully attest, Pedro Pascal exudes an effortless charisma that makes him extremely easy to watch even as his actions are sometimes questionable.
In fact, outside of Murphy, Narcos’ biggest strength is the moral ambiguity of just about every character. While we’re clearly meant to be on the side of the DEA against the cartel, the line between good and evil is never completely clear. Good guys do bad things and vice versa; it makes for a refreshingly challenging and ambivalent take on recent history. Pablo Escobar is a mass murdering drug lord; he is also charming, honourable and in the hands of the excellent Wagner Moura, more likable and captivating than any of our heroes. The show is careful to always show us both sides of his personality; the aspiring politician striving to help the poor and the ruthless monster with no issue murdering innocent people if it serves his purpose. It’s a fantastic performance that Moura really inhabits, from his inscrutable expressions to the way he moves. Moura dominates the series and it’s a testament to his strength that within a single scene he can make you hate and root for him in equal measure.
There’s also a matter-of-factness to Narcos that lends it believability. I don’t pretend to know anything about the real events behind this, but Narcos presents even its more explosive moments (and there are many of them) without flashiness, suggesting that this is simply the world the characters live in and consequently stylisation would be tasteless. The body count in the first six episodes alone is enormous and would seem excessive if it wasn’t based on well documented fact and the total lack of obvious sensationalism (again, I can’t be sure how much is fictionalised) really does wonders as the violence escalates. In the case of certain killings the narration actually adds impact, as Holbrook’s matter of fact explanation of events overlays a series of brutal murders all carried out in the service of attaining one relatively simple goal. It creates a sense of the story simply being laid out for you without censorship; believe it or not, the show seems to say, this is how it was.
But Narcos is generally at its strongest when it pulls back on the voiceover and simply lets the events unfold in front of us. Luckily this becomes the norm as the series continues, with the narration only really serving to explain bits of context where necessary. Once we’re used to the world, the characters and the stakes, the show really comes into its own, and the final fifteen minutes of the sixth episode in particular is thrilling, pulse-pounding stuff. Bit by bit Narcos gains an epic quality that feels earned thanks to its grounded, realistic nature.
Narcos underlines the reality of its happenings through snippets of actual news footage and photos of the real-life figures involved in the story. While at first it can be jarring to see Murphy and Pena refer to a photo of the real Escobar before the scene cuts to Moura’s portrayal, regular glimpses of the reality the series is based on serve as perpetual reminders that no matter how outlandish things seem to get, this is a story based in fact, and this means that all the seemingly arbitrary murders have a weight to them that many crime dramas lack. It’s arguable that the quasi-documentary style of Narcos means that the series, while compelling, is never really comfortable binge viewing. For all the gunfights, explosions and graphic sex, the stakes feel high and real. The characters are never glorified; these are ugly people in an ugly world and while there are certainly moments where we empathise with them, Narcos never lets us forget who we’re watching and consequently there is little satisfaction in the victories of these criminals. For all his charm, Pablo Escobar is no Walter White, but that almost seems to be the point.
Narcos manages to overcome a weak start quickly enough to be a compelling binge watch and a fresh take on real events. It is by turns a mildly interesting history lesson and a nail-biting thriller underpinned by strong performances, clear storytelling and gritty realism. If you like your crime dramas with shades of grey and zero glamorization, then this is very much worth your time.
See the Narcos trailer below: