QVH: From my perspective, you are placing too much importance on the opening reference to magical realism and the obvious correlation to Gabriel García Márquez. First of all, Narcos shouldn’t be constricted to one man’s interpretation of an artistic ideology, and the filmmakers don’t explicitly reference the Colombian author by name. If they had, Narcos would have been about magical realism in the sense that Game of Thrones is about magical realism. However, Narcos isn’t about a fictional fantasyland — it’s about a real time and place, a real person, a world in which characters appear and disappear without being allowed to tell their story (more on that later). The opening quote of Narcos alludes to the birth of magical realism, and the series captures the birth of an evolving mythology surrounding Pablo Escobar. With that being said, the “limited omniscience” fits perfectly with the narrative presented.
Furthermore, I don’t understand how the opening quote “disregards the style’s debts to the folk tales of the Latin American people” given Escobar’s polarizing effect on the Colombian people and the varying opinions about who he actually was. Escobar was a folk hero to some Colombians, and therein lies the magical realism of Narcos, as that very concept is “too strange to believe.”
MB: First of all, the “one man” is the name North Americans most associate with magical realism (and rightfully so) by a mile, so I don’t think we can place “too much emphasis” on his opinion. Even if he’s not explicitly referenced, I would argue that it’d be naïve to mention the genre and not expect his name to come to viewers’ minds. That being said, I’m sure the writers us gringos don’t link to magical realism quite as readily would also agree: the style belongs to Latin American folk traditions. Although it’s used to provide symbolic interpretations of real-world events (as in Marquez’s work), the “magical” elements are the result of stories and mythologies passed down through generations and generations.
However, in my reading of the quote which opens Narcos, the creators suggest that magical realism owes more to the historical events which have afflicted Latin America (such as Escobar’s rise) than the stories of the people who’ve felt their effects. By defining magical realism through the use of elements “too strange to believe,” then depicting historical events many 21st century First World viewers would identify as “strange,” the show suggests that violent figures like Escobar are more responsible for the genre than the people whose traditions form its narrative fabric. Again, in the case of Marquez (and others), interpretations and applications of the stories are used as a way to artistically represent the historical events, but I don’t think that means we should place more emphasis on the events than the stories (as the creators of Narcos do).
More problematically, this emphasis indicates a lack of interest in Latin Americans other than Escobar and the powers he opposes (which is why I opened my review with a discussion of the quote). For the most part, everyone outside of these organizational structures is depicted in relation to them. Although we do get occasional hints of their hopes and dreams (which usually have nothing to do with Escobar), they’re subservient to the power struggle between Escobar, the DEA, and the government. At its ugliest, this disregard for the people’s agency manifests itself in the brutal rape and torture scenes, in which the victims are depicted as ants for the “cruel kids” amongst the DEA and narcos to burn with their magnifying glasses.
These sort of limitations are hard to fault a show for, in that there’s only so much time one has in a given episode, but they’re frustrating given the attempts Narcos does make towards providing a well-rounded view of Escobar’s rise. (This was why I titled my review “Limited Omniscence.”) In depicting a variety of perspectives, Narcos shows a humanism which is often lacking in narratives of this nature. But it’s the perspectives Narcos doesn’t show which undermine its humanism, and the opening quote betrays the sort of mentality which leads to such omissions. Achieving a broader omniscience certainly is a challenge, but as I point out in the review, Show Me a Hero and The Wire are perfect examples of how one can do so.
QVH: Again, in the case of Pablo Escobar, the events depicted in Narcos are part of an evolving narrative within Colombia and beyond. By omitting a direct reference to Gabriel García Márquez, the creators emphasize a new narrative of storytelling without directly referencing a more distant past.
To be clear, I appreciate your interpretation of Narcos as a David Simon-like character study lacking the appropriate homage to tradition. However, in my opinion, I view Narcos through a Scorsesian lens, a story indebted to the tradition of magical realism but not limited by it. For example, Scorsese created a world of magical realism in Hugo and paid his respects to Georges Méliès, but the film was ultimately about the reach of cinema in a modern world (3D).
If one is to compare Narcos to David Simon’s The Wire, well, then one will obviously expect a world of fully developed characters. However, given that I’m a huge fan of director José Padilha’s previous work with Wagner Moura (Pablo Escobar) in Elite Squad (2007) and Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (2010), I was fully expecting a gritty, no-holds-barred series with Moura as the obvious star. Much like Scorsese’s more violent films, Narcos is less forgiving, especially for a more sensitive 2015 world.
As a North American viewer, yes, I immediately thought of Marquez during the open of Narcos (given the Colombian connection), but just as I pondered the magical realism of Marquez when I read Memories of My Melancholy Whores in a Barcelona bar several years ago (while tracing the footsteps of one of my other favorite writers of magical realism, Roberto Bolaño, a Latin American writer who didn’t care much for Marquez), I’ve pondered Escobar’s influence on the people of Los Angeles when I lived there as well. From my perspective, Narcos adheres to a certain sense of tradition both within Colombia and beyond.
MB: I do recognize the influence of Scorsese on Narcos, most readily seen through (but not limited to) the use of voice-over narration. But whereas Scorsese ultimately critiques the violent, hyper-masculine universes (and the figures who inhabit them) he depicts (I’m thinking most directly of The Wolf of Wall Street and Goodfellas), what’s presented in Narcos feels a whole lot less critical. I read the show in the way many read Wolf (an opinion I vehemently disagree with) — a celebration of excess which functions only to celebrate those it portrays. My critique of Narcos may appear to echo those who decried Scorsese for ignoring Jordan Belfort’s victims without understanding that the ignorance (amplified by giving Belfort the cinematic mic in the voice-over) was the whole point, but therein lies my problem with Narcos — I don’t see what point the show is trying to achieve. The brilliance in Scorsese’s construction of Wolf lies in how the film’s structure directly reflects the way we as a society view figures such as Belfort (made most explicit during the pan over the audience in the final scene), and there’s not anything that complex going on in Narcos. Sure, there’s an obvious parallel between Belfort’s iniquities and those committed by Escobar, but Scorsese’s film held up a much needed mirror to the way we view such actions and their perpetrators, and I don’t see the same sort of need for a comparable perspective on Colombian drug dealers. If the point of Narcos is to position Escobar as a Latin American Belfort or Henry Hill and pull off something similar to Wolf or Goodfellas (which would lay at odds with who the showrunners give a narrative voice), the show needs to be clearer about its intentions. Without that clarity, Narcos winds up feeling like a mere glorification of brutality.
QVH: As far as the Scorsese comparison, I’m referring to the intensity and tone of Narcos, as the series leans more towards The Departed and Mean Streets Scorsese than anything else. And though it’s easy to compare Narcos to Goodfellas or The Wolf of Wall Street because of the voice over, both of those films were narrated by the primary subjects who were based on actual people. Narcos was never meant to be a starring vehicle for Boyd Holbrook, and to be honest, I’m not even sure that his character was a real person. Murphy is a pawn in the game just like everybody else. Escobar is the big swinging dick of Narcos — not Murphy — and he was far more than just a Colombian drug dealer, even if that’s how many North Americans like to remember him.
The point of Narcos? Well, North America has received its fair share of condensed Escobar documentaries, and I’m not convinced that the average viewer knows the specifics of the full story. What Narcos offers is a different perspective — a Latin American perspective — from a Latin American director, José Padilha, along with a major Latin American star, Wagner Moura, in the leading role.
Lastly, directors don’t always need to justify their actions or close arcs simply to please audiences, especially when it comes to stories based on real-life figures like Escobar. That may seem harsh, but that’s the point. What happens on Game of Thrones comes from the minds of its creators, and while Narcos obviously contains a fair share of fiction, nobody conceptualized the life events of Pablo Escobar and the systematic elimination of locals. I agree that Narcos could have explored more territory, but I think that will come in Season 2. The primary objective of the first 10 episodes was to explore the myth — the magical realism — of Pablo Escobar’s rise.
MB: I agree about Escobar being the star (in spite of the real-life Murphy serving as a consultant on the show), and your Scorsese comparison does make more sense in reference to the tone rather than the voiceover. But even in Mean Streets and The Departed, Scorsese leaves room for the viewer’s critical distance, and I’m missing that breathing room. Without it, Narcos too often ends up feeling like Entourage with guns and even more coke, a work of lifestyle porn lacking skepticism towards its characters.
I appreciate having the Latin American perspective, but I was disappointed by Narcos not doing more with it. Portraying various sides presents an opportunity for empathy, but the show didn’t seem all that interested in humanizing people. Instead, what we we got was an entertaining but disposable tale of Bad Boys (whatcha gonna do?) which failed to examine their evil or the effects it had on others in any real depth.
In spite of all of the negative words I’ve written about this show, I think you may be right about Season 2, and I’ll be watching. The praise I snuck in towards the end of my review wasn’t half-hearted, and I look forward to seeing what the filmmakers can do in the future. I think there are some serious flaws to be addressed in the show’s overall approach, but nothing that couldn’t be tackled in future episodes.
Q.V. Hough (@qvhough) is a freelance writer and founder of Vague Visages. He lived in Hollywood, California from 2006 to 2012 and has bachelor degrees in Communication-Mass Media and History. He now resides in Fargo, North Dakota.
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.