'Narcos' Episode 3: Netflix Has Me Empathizing With Pablo Escobar

We've left reality behind for a dramatic character study. 


The third episode of Narcos was the point I realized that if I’m rooting for anyone, it’s Pablo Escobar. Or at least the Narcos version of Pablo Escobar. This is not a development I was expecting, ‘cause the real Escobar was one of the most unsavory characters of our lifetimes.

After running a shadow campaign for Congress as “Un Robin Hood Paisa,” Escobar is finally ready to take his place in Congress. He runs as an alternate to plant Jairo Ortega, who on election night once the results roll in immediately abdicates his position to good friend and man of the people, Pablo Escobar. On his way into the legislature, having been unaware of the dress code, the newly-minted representative stops to buy a tie off a man’s neck, telling him that the wife who picked it out will go down in the history books. Five minutes later, he has been booted out by Minister of Justice Rodrigo Lara (Adan Canto), who tells the assembled representatives that they can no longer tolerate an appearance of cartel influence in their government. Escobar’s dejected face as he shambles back out of the legislature and presses the tie back into its original owner’s hands is the saddest I’ve felt for anyone in the show so far.

Which is, I think, the way Netflix wants me to feel. The episode, The Men of Always, spends most of its time with Escobar teasing me over the question of whether he truly wanted to become a populist champion. He flat out asks, “Do you believe me or what?” to a neo-Nazi who’s running cocaine to Miami as the Medellín argue over his true intentions, and whether his populism is really just a ploy to armor them against reprisal. We never get the neo-Nazi’s answer. What we do get is Pablo on the stump, promising to fight for the people who grew up in the same desperate poverty) he overcame with the drug trade. Of course it’s hubris, but Narcos stops short of being cynical about its motives. If Pablo Escobar had just been worse at his job, history would remember him more generously.

That probably runs the risk of sounding way too generous an assessment, but at this point in the series, as our tour guide/DEA Agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) is talking about how magical realism could originate only in Colombia, he may as well being talking about how this show is using Escobar’s legend as scaffolding for a crime drama. We’re talking about a fictional character study based on the recollections of a DEA agent sent to Colombia even though, as he spits in one scene as his partner chases the murder of Murphy’s cat, he doesn’t speak Spanish. Even Breaking Bad’s fake cops were more competent about knowing the culture they were trying to police. When Hank Schrader got bumped to the DEA, his new colleagues scoffed that he couldn’t even ask for directions a la biblioteca. Everyone Murphy and his fellow American authorities encounter is expected to accommodate their culture, which is always, in this show, the better culture.

Were any of them really so above the fray? To justify their investigation into Murphy’s cat’s murder, they invoke the memory of agent Kiki Camarena, who had been kidnapped, tortured, and murdered, and whom Murphy invokes as the agent savior who died for all their sins. A martyr who sparked an extreme reaction from the American government that made it clear to the drug lords that DEA agents were off-limits. That’s the Narcos reality. The real reality after 30 years of dogged investigation into Camarena’s death implicates a complicit CIA.

Dialogue to remember

“We accept your help, but never your condescension,” Lara tells Murphy as he refuses the agent’s insistence he needs a bulletproof vest. By the end of the episode, he’s gunned down in his car. The vest wouldn’t have mattered.

Cartel history lesson

So what would Colombia be like if Escobar had realized his political dreams? Because, historically, when the drug cartels take control it’s not exactly a win for the people. Take Mexico, where, as New York Times profile details, cartels have taken over swaths of “government apparatus,” including cops.

That culture of narco-politics demonstrated that it has the same answer for political protest as it did rival dealers in the 2014 Iguala massacre when 43 Mexican trainee teachers were taken and murdered on the orders of a cartel that mistook them for gang members. The students had traveled to the city to protest the government’s discriminatory hiring and funding practices. As they were kidnapped, one boy who tried to run had his eyes gouged out and his skull flayed. Iguala’s mayor and his wife were even arrested as chief suspects in the conspiracy as was the deputy police chief, and the case drew international condemnation.

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