As Steve Murphy is fond of saying: Let me break it down for you.
DEA Agent Steve Murphy is the American audience proxy in Netflix’s “Narcos”: A gringo in Colombia taking in and explaining all that is exotic, including its burgeoning drug trade. As a member of the show’s devoted Brazilian audience, however, Murphy is nearly useless to me. When we binge the show, which released its second season Sept. 2, we are bringing a very different understanding of the landscape, history and cultural meaning surrounding drug lord Pablo Escobar and the war on drugs in 1980s Colombia.
That history is everywhere. I know enough about the drug trade and the social and political power of dealers and cartels that in watching the show, I have more than once mistaken its setting for Rio de Janeiro, where I live, instead of Medellín. But that’s not surprising if you are familiar with the previous work of the Wagner Moura/José Padilha actor-director duo … Particularly the two “Elite Squad” movies, Padilha’s exploration of the way the war on drugs is conducted in Rio.
In “Elite Squad” and its sequel, Moura plays a version of a police officer more familiar to Brazilians: Capitão Nascimento, the captain of Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais (BOPE), the extremely violent special ops unit of the state police responsible for enforcing the law in Rio’s favelas. It’s impossible to overstate the cultural significance of “Elite Squad” in Brazil: Over 11 million people watched the first film before it even hit theaters, via illegal download, and the sequel became the all-time largest box office ticket seller and highest-grossing film in the country. Nascimento’s mannerisms and one-liners have become staples of Brazilian pop culture since the first film’s release in 2007 and the character has been, scarily enough, idolized by many.
In short, Nascimento is our Agent Steve Murphy, and watching Moura play Escobar can feel as queasy as seeing Mariska Hargitay play a sex offender — a sudden reversal of an iconic role.
As hard as it is to identify with Murphy, it’s perhaps harder to root for Escobar, even as he is played in the great tradition of antiheroes: A criminal, but one who loves his family; a murderer, but one who’s loved by many; corrupt, but seen as salvation by those who can’t rely on the system. Living in Latin America, it’s impossible to watch him solely as a complex and compelling character, to give weight to his “redeeming” qualities, and leave it at that — it would mean ignoring the very real consequences of narcotrafico in the recent decades of our history, the still ongoing echoes and effects of the government’s war on drugs.
It’s easier to see myself in Escobar’s wife Tata, or in DEA Agent Javier Peña: Characters on either side of the war, neither clueless interfering gringos nor scheming drug lords. Characters living the consequences and pitfalls of narcotrafico according to their beliefs and limitations, as we all do and must.
Of course, for all my comparisons and presumed understanding, Brazil isn’t Colombia. I’ve never been to Medellín, even if it looks like home. I don’t even really speak Spanish. But then, neither does Wagner Moura, at least not that well — his accent is what we call portuñol, the Portuguese-Spanish gibberish of trans-Latin-American conversations, and it’s been the focus of much of the more nit-picking coverage of the show in Brazil.
It feels almost defiant, honestly — when American TV shows insist on using non-Brazilian latino names for Brazilian characters at every turn, implying the interchangeability of latinos, having Brazilian Wagner Moura play Colombian Pablo Escobar without a hitch is just the other side of the coin.
The same goes for the Emmy-nominated theme song “Tuyo,” written by equally Brazilian Rodrigo Amarante, made nationally famous by his extremely successful rock band Los Hermanos — a Spanish-language name for a group that only sang in Portuguese, and whose most famous members are now all expatriates. According to the songwriter, his inspiration was the music of Argentinian tango singer Carlos Gardel, another ingredient in the Latin American reference soup that is the production of “Narcos.”
Perhaps that’s key to the show’s Latin American audience after all: If we’re interchangeable, to the target audience, at least here we can see Latin Americans running the show. Literally and metaphorically, before the camera and behind it. There will always be a market for monsters, no matter where you’re from. Buenos Aires is the capital of Argentina, not Brazil; “Narcos” is set in Medellín, not in Rio; Moura, Padilha and Amarante all speak Portuguese, not usually Spanish … I’m not Colombian, and in Latin America there’s a difference.
But for the show’s targeted North American audience, we’re all closer to each other than we could ever be to Steve Murphy. It’s the show’s respect for, and interest in, those caught in the middle that provides the real mirror, and makes the show so popular here: It’s the lives we recognize.
“Narcos” Season 2 is now available on Netflix US.