May 28, 2020
Narcos Season 2: Reality takes a holiday
Spoiler Alert Level: Medium
Despite its many faults (all neatly laid out in my first season review), Narcos Season Uno had some serious storytelling chops. It was a little bit Traffic with the multi-lingual multiple point of view, a little bit Pulp Fiction with the nonlinearity, a little Goodfellas with the voiceover, and of course more than a little Scarface with its story of a gangster’s rise and fall. It might not have been original, but the mélange somehow made it fresh. It wove truth and fiction together in a way that made fact checking while watching a thing. It was addictive, if not epic. It tried really hard, even if it didn’t always succeed.
Given the scale, we needed some guidance. But why was our guide Steve Murphy? At its core, Narcos was a tale about a strange land with interesting customs, told to us by the whitest of gringos who had just arrived from Gringoland and didn’t speak the local lingo. That could be grating. But we ended on a cliffhanger: Pablo Escobar had just busted out of the world’s cushiest prison.
We came back for Season Dos because even if the first go-round showed Pablo Escobar to be nothing more or less than a thug, he was a thug on a grand scale, a sociopathic narcissist who declared war on his country because they wouldn’t give him what he wanted: absolute power, adoration of the masses, and respect from the upper classes.
While Wegner Maura’s “Colombian” accent might have sounded more ridiculous to actual Colombians than Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson combined playing New Orleans cops, there was something true and haunting in his performance. Besides, this show wasn’t made for Colombians (who have already told the story and moved on) but for us.
So how does Dos go?
In movies, the director is generally considered to be the true “author”. Television doesn’t work that way. There may be a different director of every episode. In series TV, it’s the “showrunners” who, uh, run the show, and Narcos is back with a different showrunner, one who seems to be trying to dismantle a lot of what came before—even stuff that worked.
While Season Uno began in the middle, like the most famous novel ever written by a Colombian, and then went back and forth over many years, Season Dos is a straight-shot chronology of the period of time from Pablo’s escape to his death, about a year and a half.
It’s not a spoiler if we all know it’s coming, is it? But the pace is so leisurely that we’re not always sure we’re going to get to the inevitable.
Seven episodes in, I was beginning to wonder if they’d stretch out the chase for another season. We’re not watching Pablo’s rise or fall. We’re watching him run, sometimes slowly. For a while, he manages to manage while still being the most wanted man in Colombia, but how many times can we watch him pop himself into the trunk of a taxi? How many close calls and late night escapes were there? (Probably not more than two, but that’s at least one too many.)
Gone is the giddiness of time travel, but the show still has its penchant for subplots that may or may not go anywhere. We learn more about the origins of Pablo’s pathology. Natch, it’s all his mother’s fault, and he has a distant relationship with his father, but in terms of the arc of the season, how interesting is any of the predictable domestic drama? Do we really care about the tension between his wife and mother? In the first season, we might have gotten an actual flashback to Pablo’s mom stealing shoes so her child wouldn’t look like his parents couldn’t afford to buy them. In Dos, Mama just tells the story to his wife, and it sounds like filler.
There are other side plots as well to fill up time, with more people we’ll either never see again or don’t care about. There’s Limon, Pablo’s driver, who mostly taxis around prostitutes until he’s ensnared in Pablo’s evil web, which we know will eventually turn him into a killer and lead to his death. Because that’s how it always goes. There’s the young single mom who Limon carelessly drags along with him. Will she wind up being an important witness against the cartel? Or will we just revisit her story a few times until it ends? Steve’s wife is here too, trying to win the Skylar White award for most unpopular spouse in a drama involving the drug trade. Thankfully, she soon goes back to Florida so that her husband can spiral downward and flirt with the dark side the way men do when left to their own devices.
Speaking of wives, Pablo is miffed when his family isn’t allowed to escape to Germany, and takes revenge once again on the Colombian people. And while this is stuff that really happened, complete with authentic media coverage blended in, it feels like last year’s shtick, a recall of greatest hits like that time he blew up an airplane.
Those who hated Murphy’s musings and lectures will be relieved to know you won’t be hearing them much this season. The voiceover is almost gone. In the finale, when Murphy drones on about finding out that Pablo in the end was a mere mortal, he’s interrupted by the sound of another bullet, which may be a meta-way of announcing the voiceover’s demise.
One small improvement over last year is the acknowledgment that maybe the United States’s role in Latin America and its drug wars were just a wee bit more complex than the benign tech support and assistance from the DEA we saw last year (although the idea that the DEA was somehow forced to fight dirty because that’s the Colombian way is maddening.)
This season, we at least get a sneaky CIA agent who’s working with the para-militaries. There’s even a brief mention of the School of the Americas—and where is that voiceover and those flashbacks when you really need them to tell the audience that the “school” was a U.S. military training ground to teach Latin American paramilitaries enhanced interrogation techniques and mo’ betta ways to kill guerrillas and flush out subversives? We hear little about the “excesses” of the paramilitaries, and we see even less. It’s like the writers wanted to get that in, but didn’t want to offend their DEA, flag-waving sources too much.
Where do the paramilitaries fit in? They’re collaborating with Los Pepes, a group of narcos burnt by Pablo and desperate to flush him out, kill him, and take control of his empire in time for Season Tres. We see the cover of New Yorker magazine with an article about them. The “real” article, “Exit El Patron”, is also the title of the eighth episode. Los Pepes worked by taking out people associated with Pablo, not just his henchman and assassins, but his lawyers as well. They had contacts and informers in law enforcement, and are shown in Narcos as often being two steps ahead of the police. In the show, DEA Agent Javier Pena is one of their police contacts. The real Pena and Murphy deny, deny, deny ever crossing that line. While Murphy is not shown working with Los Pepes, he is portrayed as knowing about his partner’s activities and being a silent witness when Colonel Carillo extra-judiciously executes a teenager to make a point.
Narcos is a drama, not a documentary or even a docudrama. Despite the real names, and even the juxtaposition of real images, it’s fictionalized. The problem is when the show decides to top reality with highly unlikely plot twists that never happened. Last season, Steve Murphy didn’t just adopt a Colombian baby, as the real Steve Murphy did. The fictional version found his new daughter in the apartment where her mother was slaughtered by Pablo’s guys because she knew too much. His wife, a nurse, also managed to meet the one person still surviving who could connect Pablo to the slaughter of the M-19 radicals and their raid on the courthouse. Both these events make Steve more central to the story, but they both scream: FAKE!
This season, the show continues its attempt to outdo reality. Two featured characters with real-life counterparts are killed off. Neither of the real people died. Both of these characters were given different names from the people they represent, although one character shared the initials and many traits of the real-life counterpart. They were sacrificed to make points: In one case, to show us how powerful and dangerous Pablo was, even on the run. In the other case, to show us how ruthless and dangerous Los Pepes were. Neither were people we cared much about, but if we know the true story, both deaths feel like enormous cheats. We didn’t see this coming, because it never happened. Which would be fine if everyone had a fake name, because in that case, not even Pedro Estevez (the Pablo stand in) would have to die.
This more conventional season also winds up with a more conventional ending. Where does the show go in Season Tres, the post-Pablo world? To Cali of course, where there’s another cartel waiting. The final scene involves one of our favorite DEA agents thinking he’s about to face the consequences of his compromises, but it turns out he may have a new assignment. Isn’t that a lot like how Season 1 of Quantico ended?
So what it comes down to is this: If you liked Season Uno, will you like Season Dos?
Your humble recapper admits to watching all the episodes over a three-day weekend, but then again, she doesn’t have a life. Still, watching a show straight through and liking it may be two different things. In Season Uno, Colombia was a character; granted, a character often seen through a lens of exoticism, with nods to magical realism, but a character nevertheless. Distorted or not, it was interesting. After last season showed us the kidnapping of a journalist which led to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “nonfiction novel” about it, I was really hoping Gabo would have a Season Dos cameo, maybe touring the Search Bloc headquarters for research or pontificating on a talk show, or both, with both an actor portraying him and real life footage. But as always, you review the show you saw, not the one you wished you’d seen.
Yes, you will like Season Dos if you loved Season Uno. You might like it more than the first season if you found the first season too gimmicky and prefer a more standard police procedural, or you might like less if you’re a sucker for big-canvas, non-linear, multiple point-of-view storytelling.
Will the show return to the complex storytelling of Season Uno when we land in Cali? Will fictionalized Steve and Javi be along for the ride? The show could survive either way on both of those questions. The bigger question is, can it go on without Pablo at its center? There may be tons of stories left to tell about the narcos, but Season Dos didn’t get very far in establishing interesting candidates for the new Big Bad.