It's obvious that the history of art, or any history, can be summarized as an obsession with ourselves. For many centuries, speaking broadly, our collective inquiry into human nature has focused mostly on men and what the study of the sex, or the sex's study of itself, can tell us. (There's a reason why writers, when writing mostly about themselves and the specificity of their miserable lives, are heralded as the voice of their generation.) More recently, women have pushed to be included and included themselves in the grand project only to be met with accusations of narcissism, but that's a different article.
So if the appeal of all cultural products is abstracted to its utility—arguably, challenging our assumptions or comforting our assumptions or simply being profound—then everything we consume must be useful to us in some way. I thought of this while I was deep into serial watching the second season of "Narcos," Netflix's docudrama about Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura) and the circumstances that created him, as one of Colombian drug lord's henchmen shot each woman in a lineup of prostitutes, point blank, in an effort to get them reveal who ratted out his location to the police. The camera panned out to reveal all the women dead and bloody before cutting away.
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When telling a story about the drug war—which was bloody and filled with death—in the 1980s and '90s, this is, of course, all part of it. However, "Narcos" is fictionalized, and how it chooses to frame the story is telling. It's not just about the relations between the United States and Colombia, and the former's motives to play political chess under the guise of ending cocaine trafficking—it's about Escobar himself. It is a somewhat classic exploration of the really bad guy as someone whose depths and facets are worth exploring.
"One of the things that sets [Pablo Escobar] apart from, I don't know, your typical Scarface story of the rise and fall of the gangster is that kind of postmodern quality that he has," Doug Miro, on the writers and creators of the show told me over the phone. "It allows him to be different things to different people. For the poor, he has this Robinhood quality. For the DEA, he was the monster who was corrupting America. For the agents that were after him, he was the villain they wanted to take down." He added, "I think for the casual viewer his rise to power is just fascinating."
Indeed, "Narcos" operates on this assumption. The first season invited us into the kingpin's world to watch him cleverly build his empire, paying off cops and anyone else because the whole country is corrupt. We see Escobar as a business man; he's simply exploiting an opportunity. We also watch him concurrently run for public office on a people's platform that he had cultivated through funneling his drug money to improve the city of Medellin and buy its silence and loyalty: Escobar as a folk hero. Thus far, his cocaine empire has been in the shadows and neither government has the paper trail to corroborate his activities. He ascends to Congress, through a series of bribes, but when he gets there, Justice Minister Lara and the DEA have finally found some evidence to go after him. In front of everyone in the Chamber, Lara calls him out, and Escobar, clearly humiliated, leaves.
Then we get to watch him lash out: He sends his men to kill Lara in a haze of gun fire. He leverages the communist insurgents in Colombia to execute an attack on the Palace of Justice. More horrible things happen. It's like watching a petulant boy meets a power-hungry man try to preserve what he believes he owns outright, and at whatever cost. In the end of the first season he wins, too. Escobar gets to go to a sweet prison/mansion and subsequently escapes. Season two opens with him on the run, successfully bribing some police officers in the search party to let him pass. The opening credits punctuate the moment and invite you to however reluctantly delight at the display of influence.
This character study of Escobar is, I guess, compelling, in that we all love to watch shows about violence that have some sexyness interspersed. (It's a plus that it also makes us feel like we're learning something historical.) I know that I do, despite myself. When I watch it with my boyfriend I'm always saying, "These men are awful," to try to mitigate the fact that I'm compulsively viewing them. I asked my boyfriend why he likes the show, and he said it was "interesting" to watch how someone becomes powerful and unstoppable, however briefly.
I asked Miro what he personally liked about the Pablo Escobar story. "This is one of the great nonfiction crime stories that exists. The opportunity to tell it was incredible and something we wanted to do for a long time. No one, at least in America, has had that chance," he said. "[The story is great] on several levels—what it says about narcotics issues and the war on drugs—but also just the character and drama. There's such an epic downfall for a man who rose from nothing and built this huge empire by manipulating and tricking, if you will, the Colombian government and the American government. He built his own prison. But then he makes some fatal mistakes and finds himself on the run. Then makes one mistake after another and unravels all the things he built so carefully. That is a classic tragic story, which as a writer you can't get anything better."
The second season is mostly about the chipping away of Escobar's power, though "Narcos" still invites us to look at Escobar in another light: The family man. "I'm very fascinated by Escobar the character, as a man who was a prolific killer and also devoted to his family," Miro said. "He rose from nothing but was so incredibly egotistical that he didn't know what it meant that he rose from nothing. He has these bizarre contradictions and ticks. For me, the man's character was really intriguing."
According to "Narcos" executive producer Eric Newman, this longform look into Escobar has its artistic merits. "They've been trying forever to make a Pablo Escobar movie, but the reality is that in two hours you can't really get to know someone well enough beyond what is the most glaring aspect of his personality," he said. "He has to be a bad guy. In very rare cases do you see another side to people. I think the movie Downfall by Oliver Hirschbiegel [a film about Hitler's final days] where you could briefly see humanity in these monsters, and they were monsters. Similarly with Escobar, we had to know him well enough to see his humanity. Monsters, in my opinion, aren't born. Even the worst of us, if you're close enough to them, have some redeeming qualities."
In season two, the writers underscore this by focusing a lot of attention on Escobar being sweet to his kids and wife and mean to other people. But what does it tell us—that murderers don't want to murder everybody, just some people? The only thing this offers is the fact that selfish and bad men protect the things they own, which we can already extrapolate from his whole thing about maintaining his drug operation through murder and force. Pablo Escobar was a bad man—what purpose does it serve to humanize him? Meanwhile, "Narcos" hardly asks us to consider women at all. The women of the show barely feature in their own right, and it is painfully apparent in season one. Season two fares a bit better in this regard, but most of the women are still victims and wives or dead sex workers. The improvement is the result of the number of women in the writer's room going up from one to two.
We might be truly risking something if we don't tell stories that attempt to present a prolific killer in painstaking detail, but I'm personally tired of consuming the narrative that bad men are good, or were once good, or could be good. There's some room, I think, to lay off it for a while. In the season's penultimate episode Escobar has moved to hide out with his father on his farm. He's starting to think he could just lay low there forever, even bring his family. His father basically calls him delusional and a murderer. In protest, Escobar retorts that it's his actions that made their surname famous. "So what?" his dad shoots back.
It's telling that after "Narcos" premiered last year, it recharged his name as a cultural reference in rap, where masculinity is often performed and leveraged. Kanye West's "Life of Pablo" almost certainly alludes to him, though the artist says it was named after Saint Paul, from the bible. On "No More Parties In LA," West raps in a muddled Spanish accent that he "feels like Pablo" when he is working on various ventures or is in the news. He says this like it's a good feeling, a boss feeling. Most likely he's referring to Escobar as business man, and not the others. Maybe he's not explicitly ignoring the rest—the rapper Rich Homie Quan got a tattoo of Escobar, which appears to be a commitment to him wholly—but usually when it's argued that we look at "all sides" of a terrible thing, we're ignoring something important, or focusing on the wrong part. When West says he "feels like Pablo," it always reminds me of something else he says on the album in "Facts": Do anybody feel bad for Bill Cosby?
Conversely, though, the show asserts that good people aren't one hundred percent good, as the Americans and the Colombians fighting Escobar resort to their own monstrous tactics. That aspect of "Narcos" is given less attention than the inner workings of Escobar's mind as conveyed alternatively through the menacing and depressing facial expressions of Moura, who is very good at them. That the show is continuing without Escobar for a third and fourth season (obviously, he dies) seems hard to imagine, given that the greater conflict of America's destructive war on drugs has so far taken a backseat to the banal question of "Who was Pablo Escobar?"