Netflix long ago established itself as the go-to source for movie streaming. But the site is growing into a media powerhouse in its own right with sensational original programming that routinely rates highly among both critics and viewers. Titles that are now ubiquitous, like Orange is the New Black and House of Cards, defined the slow-burn formula that makes Netflix drama so bingeable. Their latest tackles the business behind an addiction that took the United States by storm in the 1980s: cocaine.
In Narcos, a ten part series that hit Netflix in late August, Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura) rises to the top of the Colombian drug war, controlling the Medellin Cartel and funneling cocaine in the United States. Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) and Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal), two DEA agents hoping to bring down the kingpin and the empire he’s built, struggle to confront the complex web of smugglers, dealers, and corrupt government officials fueling the spiraling drug war.
Although the plot itself takes some time to unfold, the show is a testosterone fueled ride through some of the most well-established organized crime tropes in pop culture. The sheer unfathomable nature of Escobar’s lifestyle and fortune — the billions of dollars, the sprawling estate, the level of control he had — feels mythic. This dramatized retelling of his career, spliced in with actual news footage from the 1980s, is a story of sex, violence, and drugs. Everything needed for a dramatic series to keep viewers entertained as the story itself picks up speed.
But among the tropes, one feels particularly overplayed: Women. In Narcos, like in most works within the organized crime and gangster genre, women are peripheral at best. The world exists in two poles – the crime bosses who rule and the authorities out to take them down. Along the spectrum between the two, a spectrum portrayed much more completely in this show than in other similar works, is where the women live. They bounce back and forth between the roles of prostitute and informant, wife and accomplice, mistress and professional. They are able influence the men at the center of the story, but never quite get that center themselves.
In many ways, this feels true to life. Cartels and organized crime are male-dominated worlds, with women more often the victims of violence and exploitation than the perpetrators of it. But that’s not always the case; in Mexico, female leaders like Claudia Ochoa Felix have carved out a space for themselves in the bloody drug wars. In the 1980s, cocaine had Griselda Blanco, a major player alongside her husband and in her own right in the rise of coke in Miami. It says a lot that Narcos makes no mention of Blanco. This isn’t just the story of the drug trade; it’s the story of the men who built and fought it.
Escobar himself has all the charm of a very bad man who is very good at what he does. Moura plays him with subtlety, dropping information about the families of the authorities who could arrest him or casually telling security forces to choose “silver or lead” when they stop him on the road. His reach is long, and his methods so brutal that it doesn’t take more than a few words for him to threaten anyone standing in his way. Escobar is a legend, albeit one soaked in blood, and Moura brings him to life.
His relationship with his wife, Tata, shows another side of the brutal drug kingpin. From the very beginning and despite his continued affair with journalist Valeria Velez, there’s never any doubt that Escobar adores his wife. And yet, she’s given very little development. Instead, she’s the same-old wife married to organized crime. When the DEA is closing in on their sprawling mansion and Escobar tells Tata that they have to leave immediately, she protests because she’s been cooking all day, but quickly reassures him that she’ll do anything for him. In another scene, we get a glimpse of Tata’s limited role in the operation when she tells Escobar that he has to do whatever it takes. Beyond this, she seems to be a sheltered and protected, or willfully naive, woman happy to live in luxury with the man who loves her.
The story of women in these types of stories is always one of extreme juxtaposition. While Tata and Valeria, who is given the closest access to power due to her understanding of politics and role in the press, enjoy comfort, other women are subjected to the violence that defines the drug war. In the second episode, we meet Helena, a prostitute with whom Agent Peña has a mixed relationship of business and pleasure. A few scenes after meeting her, she is repeatedly subjected to horrific sexual assault after one of Escobar’s associates suspects she’s up to something. When Peña saves her and Murphy finds out he was left behind on purpose, a few lines are shared between the two about Helena before Murphy demands to be included fully in operations. Helena never makes another appearance; she’s just a tool through which the show can demonstrate Peña’s heart and Holbrook’s career trajectory.
There are two brief exceptions to the rule, however. Connie, Agent Murphy’s wife, and Elisa, a communist with guerilla group M-19, are given the chance to confront the violence of the cartel. Elisa becomes an informant, risking her life to connect Escobar to an attack on the Palace of Justice carried out by M-19. Connie takes a lead role in ensuring her safety, including a dangerous drive out of the city. But even so, a large part of the tension surrounding Elisa is her ability to torpedo the careers of both Peña and Murphy given her communist past.
Shot in Colombia, Narcos is gorgeous and lush. The juxtaposition of the green, sweeping landscape and the brutality of the Medellin Cartel is striking, even as the frequent sexuality and luxury of the cartel leaders’ lives keeps the show in Scarface territory. But it doesn’t shy away from showing the larger context of Escobar’s reign, and the high cost it had for Colombia. That’s in part what makes it so disappointing that the show doesn’t offer women the same complex identities the men are given. In a show that blends fact and fiction seamlessly, the opportunity to explore the gendered nature of the cartels is immense and wouldn’t require a great deal of historical rewriting.
WORDS BY: Bridey Heing
Bridey is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.