Narcos: great on style, weak on history
Something tells me reality TV hacks should be worried because talent may re-enter the center of gravity in Hollywood. How else to explain the sudden appearance of a Sopranos-worthy made-for-TV series around the story of Pablo Escobar on Netflix?
From the opening sequence, when the narrator introduces Colombia as the center of gravity on magical realism, I knew two things were happening. One, these writers were a lot more inventive than the average action-adventure hack, and this series was going to play fast and loose with the facts. And I was not disappointed on either account. In fact, I don’t think I’ve had such a satisfying TV binge since Netflix released the Euro version of the Borgias. I watched all ten episodes of Narcos in two days.
Side note: Although you’ve been led to believe the term “magical realism” began with Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, it actually is as old as time and had surfaced in Europe during Germany’s Weimar Republic, one of my favorite periods, alongside expressionism and surrealism. A generation later, it was being used to describe the work of painters like Ivan Albright, who received a commission for the film version of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, one of the great horror classics, and an immensely rich (though heavily censored) philosophical ramble through the corridors of hedonism and spirituality. Dorian is a remarkably beautiful young man, who somehow retains his youthful good looks while everyone around him ages. Only his portrait changes and with each sin Dorian foments in the aid of his career, the painting becomes progressively ugly. When the film was released in 1945, the painting must have had a profound effect on a generation. Although shot in black & white, the film flipped to color at the very end, when the painting was finally revealed. The painting makes a wonderful illustration for the soul of Pablo Escobar.
Magical realism has a history that predates Borges, who is Argentinian, although Marquez is the most famous Colombian. Too bad the series doesn’t delve into Pablo’s relationship with Marquez, who served as go-between with Casto, whose brother was put in charge of cocaine smuggling. Much of the cocaine moving into Miami comes through Cuba, where smuggling has been an art form for centuries.
There is a ton of magic in Colombia, however, and I prefer to think the origin is related to the country’s biodiversity. Only one other country has more plant and animal species and that’s Brazil, and they have 7 times the acreage. And when it comes to birds, Colombia beats out Brazil. And bird feathers have always played a huge role in ceremonial magic. But then, so have intoxicating substances.
Narcos is told from the point-of-view of the DEA agent who claims credit for bringing Pablo down, so this is the officially sanctioned, DEA-approved version of the story, so viewer beware, disinfo rabbit holes abound. Still, there’s a remarkable amount of magical realism conveyed, like when the DEA employs terror tactics and becomes the bad cop in the good-cop versus bad-cop games. Reminds me of our CIA agents on the ground in Vietnam, who laid the groundwork for the Phoenix Project, our nation’s largest assassination program that’s been officially admitted to in Congress.
So when CIA asset Barry Seal is shot down, they refer to him as “ex-CIA” and don’t discuss his destination (Mena, Arkansas) or the fact he was ID’d by Oliver North’s testimony in Congress, and a Colombian hit squad hired so it would look like the cartel killed him, when the real problem was Seal was threatening to tell the world he worked for George Bush and Oliver North if they hung him out to dry, which they did. Bush’s phone number was found on Seal’s dead body.
When the Cali cartel emerges to compete against Escobar, who is making $60 million a week tax free and spending thousands every week just on rubber bands to hold the cash together, the series isn’t going to delve into the long and murky relations between the Cali cartel and the CIA.
Just google “Michael Abbell.” He was the top dude at Justice overseeing extradition of drug kingpins before departing to become the lawyer for the Cali Cartel. He eventually earned a 5-year sentence for money laundering, but that offense must have gone away, because he maintains his Washington DC law practice as well as his expertise in fighting extraditions.
As long as a drug kingpin runs his money through the right bank and makes the right payoffs, he won’t be bothered. Problem is, Pablo got too big, and his pride got to him, and he had a burning desire to be President of Colombia, but after he engineered a seat in Congress, the oligarchy shamed him and made it clear he would never be allowed to join their sons and daughters in their private ceremonies. I don’t know if Pablo was a psychopath before that happened, but he certainly became one afterwards, evolving into one of the most vicious serial killers in history, and paid out millions in assassination fees over the years.
The Cali Cartel assisted the DEA and Colombian forces take-down of Pablo, and afterwards, upped Pablo’s 80% world market share to 90% for a time, and were just as ruthless and vicious as Pablo, but a lot more low-key in the media. Plus, they had the advantage of amazing intel, and always seemed to know what the Americans, police and military were up to. And they ran their money through the right banks.