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Netflix's Narcos has mastered their portrayal of Pablo Escobar


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There are many figures in history whose very names conjure up images of evil: Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, Stalin, Pol Pot... All are associated with death and oppression.

But these men are always seen one-dimensionally. Very few people feel they are the villain in the story that is their life - these people were human and therefore lived a life with many similarities to ours despite their deeds.

Narcos' brave take on the notorious narco-terrorist Pablo Escobar creates a completely rounded character and really tries to get inside the head of a person who perpetrated so much suffering. You simultaneously empathise and despise Pablo - and the creators of the show, Chris Brancato, Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro must be commended on creating such a thoughtful and balanced portrayal of Escobar.

Pablo himself is a walking contradiction: a man who will fight for the rights and lives of his family but also happily order his minions to carry out bombings on other families, just like his, around Colombia. He is a man who has a sense of decency and honour but will order drive-by shootings on policemen without a second thought.

Throughout the two seasons of the show, we have found ourselves wanting Escobar to evade capture and thrive, but concurrently, we've also been rooting for DEA agents Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) and Pena (Pedro Pascal) to catch him. An early moment in season two that emphasises our complex relationship with Pablo is the death of Colonel Carrillo (Maurice Compte). Carrillo is a charismatic force that has always been willing to go toe-to-toe with Pablo, whether it be throwing his minions out of helicopters or arranging the death of Pablo’s cousin.

Pablo and his sicarios eventually ambush Carrillo, incapacitating him. Pablo emerges to personally execute the Colonel and it is bittersweet when he takes his revenge. He neutralises the only real threat to him; the man who killed his cousin; the man he had nightmares about. But it has also taken away the only man who could stop him at the present time.

Season two is far more reflective than season one. It's where Pablo’s empire comes crumbling down and rips his family apart. By the last episode, the bearded and dishevelled Pablo makes his way back to Medellin, where he lives out his days in squalor with his driver Limon. It is a miserable existence and again, we can't help but hope that Pablo finds some way to rebuild his empire.

Irritated by the shackles of living incognito, Pablo heads off to a town square. He orders ice cream from a local Café and sits on a bench admiring the life going on around him. Again, a man who has done so much to destroy the lives of the people he is watching conveys his detachment from what he has done. He hallucinates that his dead cousin, Gustavo (Juan Pablo Raba), is sitting next to him. We get a small glimpse into the loss Pablo has had to suffer with every day. The pair share a brief exchange:

'I think that everything started to fall apart the day you left..’, ‘So you do miss me you son of a bitch?’ ‘Every fucking day of my life, brother.’

The loss of his best friend has clearly eaten away at him and is a heavy contributor to his downward spiral. In his final days we can't help but put ourselves in Pablo’s shoes and feel sorry for him. He has nothing and no one -  and the only thing that is in his future is certain death. We can't forgive the amount of people he's killed but at this point we can only take Pablo’s side.

Agent Murphy probably sums up Narcos' portrayal of Escobar best: ‘For years I’d been building this son of a bitch up in my head, what a monster he would be. But here's the thing: when you lay eyes of him the devil he is a real let down. Just another man.

Pablo is a human - immensely flawed, but not a total monster. Most people usually have redeeming qualities and the show does well to show us this. He's a ruthless killer but also a loyal friend and totally dedicated to his family. He never views himself as evil and many still don't.

The ending credits of season two have Pablo’s real life mother speaking to reporters telling them how his son wasn't as bad as people made out and had built up poor areas of Medellin. Videos of the aftermath of Pablo’s various attacks play alongside her speech, highlighting their hypocrisy. These two moments right at the end of the season really show us a character who could be both an angel and a devil.

Narcos deals with a lot of important themes with the impact of the war of drugs under Reagan, Bush and Clinton, with the dubious means of which it was waged, being at the forefront. But it is the portrayal of Pablo that is the show's greatest strength. They had great restraint in writing Escobar’s character. It would be incredibly easy to make Agents Murphy and Pena the heroes of this story and paint Escobar as a one-note evil drug lord. However Pablo is arguably as much of a protagonist and from his perspective we are shown why a smuggler from Medellin went so far to achieve material wealth.

Wagner Moura has given an absolutely stunning performance; he is Pablo. There isn't a moment in Narcos where you feel it is an actor playing a historical figure. Whether he is choking up while talking to his children on the phone or flying into a fit of uncontrollable rage when his family are attacked, Moura has ensured this great characterisation of Pablo Escobar will be remembered for decades to come.

The creators of the show have done an immense job. I feel they could do something really special with another of history's more controversial figures. A Narcos style series focusing on the rise and death of Osama Bin Laden would be a perfect fit.

Narcos is available to watch on Netflix now. 

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