Narcos, which is airing its first season on Netflix now, is a chaotic look at the narcotraffickers in Colombia, as the Colombian and American governments struggle to fight the influx of drugs and violence. It also takes a critical view of America’s role in Colombia, and forces us to examine the paradoxical idea of punishing the Colombian manufacturers of a product destined for America that is so successful because American consumers want it. Narcos reveals a world where things aren’t black and white, and where morality isn’t set in stone. Pablo Escobar is viewed as both a monster and a hero–enslaving his country to violence and indiscriminate bombings when his back is against the wall, while also building housing for the poor and helping the disenfranchised. The show leaves us questioning everyone’s motives, and highlights the complexity of the war on drugs.
Samir Mehta, a staff writer on Narcos’ first season, sits down with me at my favorite LA coffee shop, Andante, to discuss the show, what it was like working on it, and the balancing act of giving us a 360 degree view of narcotrafficking in Colombia.
How did you get hired on Narcos?
I knew the showrunner, Chris Brancato, and had worked with him before. Kind of the classic story of working your way up—writer’s assistant to staff writer.
What was the writers’ room like?
The writers’ room was one of the more diverse rooms, thankfully, that I’ve heard of and personally experienced. It was half people of color or women, which you don’t get a lot. We had a bilingual playwright from Chicago, a writer who once lived in D.C. and knew the inside baseball of the political sphere, so we had a lot of different voices. Every day was a great experience with them because everyone was so smart and made me up my own game as a writer.
What themes did you play with in the room?
For me it was that free will issue of did Pablo Escobar have a chance to be anyone besides Pablo Escobar? The class war was a big part of it—a lot of his motivation seemed to be about being kept out of the wealthy elite’s club. Addiction of all sorts was something we talked about—not just to the addiction to cocaine but Steve Murphy being a little bit of an adrenaline junkie and Pablo is addicted to power and respect—being loved by everyone. And we discussed the “Rule of Man” versus “Rule of Law.”
Was there a debate on whether to subtitle so much of the show versus having the characters speak in accented English?
We talked a little bit about the various ways you accomplish this and basically asked ourselves, “Would it be bullshit if Pablo ever spoke English?” And it would. Essentially, what we came down to is: if two characters would speak Spanish in a scene together, then they do. There’s no cheating that. As it turned out, that was most characters in most scenes, so whoops — it became a predominantly Spanish show. Pablo also ended up dominating most episodes. There was brief talk of not “showing the monster” as quickly, to thread him in slowly, the Avon Barksdale treatment — and Pablo was actually known to pepper English into his vocabulary here and there, so we thought we could do a couple English scenes with him—but in the end he doesn’t speak a word of it and I think you benefit more from it. Though Colombians who can tell the difference seem to hate Wagner Moura’s accent!
What did you think of Pablo Escobar after doing all this research?
My personal theory is he was sort of made. He was born in the 40s during a period called La Violencia, which was the bloodiest and most violent period in Colombian history. So what chance did a kid have to grow up and be anything other than what he became? Inevitably, when you learn so much about anyone, what they do become is less shocking. I understand how Pablo Escobar became Pablo Escobar. The fact that he was kind of scorned when he tried to get into Congress, and what you have is this petulant child not being allowed to get into the club—that’s something we can all empathize with. So all of the makings of the monster are empathetic, which makes him such a fascinating character because you of course hate the evil things that he did but you completely get how he got there. And I understand why to this day people in Colombia still love him—
–yeah, some people. Because of the homes he created and how he would help the poor. It’s just perspective, or looking the other way on the bad things to keep your narrative intact. There’s a way they can ignore the bad stuff he did and just lionize him for all of the great things he did because he changed their lives in a permanent way, and for generations after them. There’s really nothing you can say about that — in isolation — because he really did do that.
I watched the show and found myself weirdly rooting for Pablo, the way I did for Walter White in Breaking Bad. But like Breaking Bad, I had that dichotomous feeling that I was rooting for a bad guy who was turning into a very bad guy.
With Breaking Bad you do start with a truly empathetic man, a good man. And you stack the deck so much with a kid who’s disabled, a pregnant wife, and Walter’s own cancer, whereas with Pablo you never quite do that. Also, I think with Avianca, blowing the plane out of the sky, you don’t really come back from that the way Walt sometimes could redeem himself. It’s this strange thing where you don’t really root for Pablo, yet you’re so interested in his story that you root for there to be more story. It’s this twisted sense of sympathy that you get because he’s fun to watch, but he’s fun to watch being horrible.
We never see Pablo doing cocaine.
He didn’t really do cocaine. He was a big stoner. Cocaine was a product for America. It’s also very culturally appropriate for the 80s. Cocaine was a get shit done drug which was very much the spirit of the US economy then—party all night, never sleep, and the people who do rest are not being as productive as they could be. It just fit the mentality of the US in the 80s and that’s why it was a massive export. It really wasn’t a product that hit the cultural sweet spot for Colombians. Yes, what Pablo did in the name of protecting his business was incredibly criminal but his point, which I somewhat agree with, is “If you don’t want this drug to be in your country then you should tell your constituents to stop snorting it and then it’s done. You can put me out of business tomorrow if you stop paying me.” So, in many ways, he was like I’m just creating and selling something that people want. So that’s really how the whole war on drugs is kind of a pointless effort.
So America’s complicit in the problem?
Their attitude was to go after the source, but why go after supply which is a bloody, violent method when you can peacefully quell demand and that would end the drug war?
But you can’t stop the demand.
You could. There’s always going to be the human need for escape, and drug use is one method to accomplish that, but you can manage the root issue. But beyond that, let’s look at the real problem with cocaine coming in. If we are worried about people overdosing and getting addicted, we can put the money into rehabs and addiction. You can put it into mental health. There’s a lot of ways you can allocate this money in a peaceful way, and that’s a big question about US policy: what was really bothersome to them about this product coming in and making other people billions of dollars?
Are you in favor of legalizing cocaine?
Cocaine is not quite pot where it’s a little more obvious to be in favor of legalization, but yeah I think a motivated adult is going to get what he or she wants. It’s interesting—cocaine itself is a good metaphor for the whole thing because as a leaf it’s really pure and nice and good for you if you just leave it alone. But if you need to bastardize it and pour kerosene on it and turn it into this powder it becomes very, very lethal. And it’s that same thing—if we take a gentle approach to foreign policy it could be fine but when we get reactionary and aggressive, everything explodes.
How many of the writers have done cocaine?
I’ve never actually done it. I considered it — for research, of course. But no, without directly calling anyone out, I think generally we discovered in the room that some of the younger writers actually were the ones who never had. Because as generations go there was just a time when it was more en vogue, and I missed that time. It’s strange. I always wonder if it was around me more, if it was common the way pot is, if that’s something I would do. Who’s to say? I’ve never really been compelled to. So maybe I haven’t gotten around to it and I don’t really see the need to.
What do you think of Steve Murphy, who is based on a real DEA agent, and the character on the show who has been criticized for being too milquetoast?
Steve Murphy did move down there. He did adopt two Colombian daughters. He was in the room with us a couple of times. He was great. We did have to invent some things. The true role of the DEA was to observe and advise. The idea of U.S. suborned, straight up death squads is more dramatic than the alternative and it’s suggested in some journalism that’s out there but the actual Steve will never say if he did that. So we took some dramatic license there.
Steve Murphy’s a good guy who went down there to do his job, and he did it well, but at the same time I think the show calls into question if this something that anyone needed to do in the first place. Which wouldn’t be his fault. A solider is a representative of the war, but he’s not the reason for it. But through Steve’s character, we can examine the naïve American idea of coming down to fix the foreigners’ problem which we tried time and again to be critical of. So if Steve seems a little too “good ol’ boy coming down to do the white, blond, alpha male thing,” that’s the point. We’re drawing attention to it to be critical of it. So if people are getting that impression I think it’s the intention on some level.
Why don’t you guys show much of the actual drug dealing?
It was never the drug smuggling show. It was a story of two governments trying to interact with one another. So the more interesting story to us was… all the bloodshed was really about extradition because without extradition the narcos could operate freely in Colombia. You go to jail, you’re out the next day. These people tried to pay off the national debt and they might have been able to—
They could have just had a narcocracy, as they called it, and maybe had been fine. They could have just done that, been a rich country, selling a profitable export. As long as no one was putting pressure on them to stop they could have had a flourishing economy.
Without the violence.
Without the violence. So it really became the story of how foreign policy put the pressure on them—put the squeeze on them and blood starts to flow. The political back and forth was far more fascinating to us. That’s the real reason all this happened. It wasn’t as simple as getting drugs across the border. Also with the use of voice over you get to fly through all of that in two episodes and we don’t really have to think about the coke again. We always know it’s about the coke but you don’t have to do the coke story every week because we can run through 10 years of smuggling history in two minutes.
How do you stretch out so many seasons on Pablo Escobar as we know by the end of season one that he has only about a year and half left to live?
Theoretically you can do unlimited amounts of seasons because it’s NARCOS—it’s not just Pablo Escobar. In season one you meet the Cali Cartel and they kind of rose to power after Pablo died. In fact, there is speculation that maybe the DEA was working with the Cali Cartel because they were the lesser of two evils at the time and they thought, “Let’s get rid of [the] Medellin [Cartel] as you guys are cleaner, you do your business secretly, [and] you’re not hanging your bodies up, so we’d rather you be the cartel in charge—at least it’s a little less violent.” Season Two is the manhunt, which at this point we’re not playing Pablo’s game anymore —no more diplomacy and political nuance, we just shoot to kill. And then three would, I think, be the rise of the Cali Cartel. And we can basically do two seasons per cartel coming up all the way to contemporary times. The cocaine trade is the through line and that can just keep going.
Escobar is such a fascinating character, and the actor, Wagner Moura, is amazing to watch. He has so much going on in his face without saying a word. I’m jealous of him as an actor. I can’t imagine the show losing him.
He’s fantastic. But well, that’s the thing—if you get Javier Bardem to do season three… then everyone’s watching.
INTERVIEW BY: Seth Menachem
Despite fighting a lifelong recurrence of eczema on his left pointer finger, Seth hasn’t let it stop him from acting in various commercials and television shows while continuously writing web sketches and TV pilots his agent refers to as “sometimes funny.” He’s sold a couple of shows, written quite a few articles, and when he remembers he both feeds and clothes his children. You can see more of his work on www.sethmenachem.com. Seth is currently getting his Masters degree in Clinical Psychology at Antioch University in Los Angeles. Follow him on Instagram @sethmenachem