In some ways, the second half of Narcos improves on the first by the mere virtue of featuring more of what makes the show work best: more action-packed setpieces, more of Wagner Moura’s terrifying charisma as Pablo Escobar, and more of the strange-but-true historical anecdotes which give the show its opening quote and many of its story beats. While these elements keep the narrative bumping along at a consistent rate, they have the unfortunate effect of bringing out the flaws in Narcos which tend to be the most glaring.
Foremost among these is Murphy’s descent into madness and moral murkiness. “Good and bad are relative concepts,” he says in “La Gran Mentira,” and the words come across as the premise he attempts to prove in the final episodes, with the relativity being heavily influenced by the world he inhabits. The problem with the arc comes in part from the lack of new ideas it brings to the show — Narcos has been emphasizing the banality of evil from the first episode, and showing a white character embodying it doesn’t give the concept a particularly fresh angle. While it’s nice to see Narcos avoiding “white savior” tropes with Murphy, what the show comes up with as an alternative doesn’t feel much more convincing.
But the arc ultimately gets most weighed down by how obvious the “banality” becomes. Even though we’ve gotten to hear Murphy’s voice throughout the season, his narration serves only to lay out the show’s plot structure and universe rather than to provide insight into the narrator himself. Whereas Martin Scorsese uses voice-over narration to engage in piercing psychological exploration of villains such as Henry Hill or Jordan Belfort (and the way audiences view them), the tactic has no such dimension in Narcos. As a result, we don’t get to know Murphy well enough to have much stake in his moral downfall.
And even with Escobar, who gets a stronger characterization in the show in spite of speaking less (in large part thanks to Wagner Moura’s outstanding performance), his comparable descent (albeit from an ostensibly lower moral starting point) still feels underdeveloped. The brutal murder of Kiko with a pool cue in “La Catedral” appears loosely linked to Gustavo’s death, but the connection lacks too much subtlety to feel believable. Given the lack of sentimentality Escobar shows throughout the show, it’s hard to buy the death of one man (even if he’s Escobar’s cousin) directly causing him to commit an action as heinous as it is sloppy. Rather, the attack comes across as a sloppy attempt to position Escobar and Murphy as foils entering similar downward spirals. But whereas the strongest literary foils have complex identities of their own which are enriched by the characters they’re paired with, neither Escobar nor Murphy are all that well developed, and it accordingly becomes hard to care about the ways in which the men relate to each other.
As a result, Narcos resorts to cheap tactics to depict just how “bad” these characters are. (I discussed this briefly in my review of the first five episodes, but it’s worth exploring more.) Escobar has, among others, the aforementioned pool cue scene, and Murphy, in the same episode, chokes a truck driver. Both of these scenes are appropriately brutal. However, due to the show’s narrative interests, the brutality feels used more to portray the assailant’s moral degradation than to show how it affects the victims. Worse, even though Narcos does seem committed to the sort of moral murkiness which Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin invokes as justification for depicting rape, Murphy’s assault on the driver reeks of the “torture as patriotism” mentality for which 24 has been rightfully excoriated. Even if Murphy is hard to root for, he remains on the side aiming to stop Escobar and his cronies, and seeing him torture someone in the interest of achieving his objectives comes across as an excuse for the actions. Again, Narcos does a respectable job of steering clear of “good white guys/bad brown guys” dichotomies, but that also ends up feeling like a way for the show to justify raping and torturing whoever it pleases.
In spite of all this, Narcos has a very watchable first season. The narrative is well-structured, there are some entertaining personalities on display, and the setpieces make for exciting exclamation points without feeling like overt betrayals of history. But these become all the more frustrating in conjunction with the ultimately shallow characters and weak attempts to explore the nature of evil which keep Narcos from achieving what seem to be its lofty aims.
Max Bledstein (@mbled210) is a Montreal-based writer, musician and world-renowned curmudgeon. He writes on all things culture for a variety of fine North American publications. His highly anticipated debut novel will write itself one of these days, he assumes.