The first episode of Netflix’s new globetrotting, shot-on-location show Narcos is all about setup. It’s an episode that’s slow, complicated, and filled with exposition, taking its time to establish the setting and introduce a bevy of characters rather than jumping into the main narrative. It’s not the most exciting episode of television, but there’s plenty of promise early on.
Narcos is clearly drawing influence from Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, using everything from voice-over to tracking shots to tell the beginnings of the story of how cocaine came to be big business in Colombia and Miami. The episode jumps around a lot, moving from Colombia in 1989 to Chile in 1973 and Miami in 1979, giving us an understanding of how our two main players, DEA agent Steve Murphy and drug lord Pablo Escobar, got to where they are.
The episode opens in 1989, where the voice of Steve Murphy informs us that he and his partner, an “asshole” named Javier, are in Colombia working to debilitate drug trafficking. Using satellite imagery and good old-fashioned phone calls (no internet back then, as Murphy tells us), they’re on the tail of a man named Poison, one of Escobar’s top men.
The DEA doesn’t have a whole lot of jurisdiction though, so Murphy, who’s moved to Colombia with his wife and small child, calls the local law enforcement (the ones that aren’t in Escobar’s pocket, at least) and tips them off to Poison’s meeting going down at a karaoke bar.
With a few of the local hitmen gathered at the bar, law enforcement raids the place and takes out Poison. It’s a short but stunning sequence, one that’s equal parts Goodfellas and Spring Breakers as the tracking shot spins around the bar before moving outside the bar as Poison gets shot. It’s a great visual touch, and shows that Netflix is once again hoping to add a little cinematic flair to its TV shows, much like they did with Sense8.
After the opening credits, Murphy guides us through the ’70s, showing how Nixon’s governmental policy and support for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet helped set the stage for the dealing of cocaine in the ’80s. More importantly though, we’re introduced to Cockroach, a major player in the trafficking business and the man who gets Escobar on board with the whole operation.
We meet him as one of his labs in the Chilean desert is raided by the military, on the orders of Pinochet. Pinochet is cracking down, but not in a cease and desist kind of way. Rather, he’s having everyone killed via firing squad. Cockroach is lucky though, as he manages to survive, the firing squad missing him and Cockroach having enough sense to play dead until he can escape.
With Chile cracking down, Cockroach needs to get his product out of the country. Specifically, he needs smugglers to get cocaine across the border and into Colombia. That’s where Escobar comes in. When he sees the process and the drug, he sees dollar signs. Cockroach may want to move into Colombia, but Escobar has a bigger vision. As he says, “if [cocaine] sells for $10 a gram here, imagine how much it will sell for in Miami.” Thus, a kingpin is born.
NEXT: South Beach, bringing the heat
Back in Miami in 1979, Murphy is a young cop busting hippies on pot charges. He’s getting ribbed by his partners, who apparently trick him into approaching girls at bowling alley bars just for fun. This particular girl ends up marrying Murphy though, so the joke’s clearly on them this time.
Once again jumping ahead, Murphy shows how, in the early ’80s, coke was taking off in America. Murphy and his buddies are ceasing kilos upon kilos at the ports, but it hardly makes a dent in the operation. Plus, Escobar and his crew have a lot of power and influence, meaning that keeping their smugglers down isn’t so easy.
It’s all part of Escobar’s growing operation. He hires a man called The Lion to smuggle coke into Miami, with Escobar’s mother sewing a jacket that will allow him to get across the border with 5 kilos stashed inside. Escobar keeps finding new ways to expand his operation, from putting coke in the spare tires of transport trucks to stripping out private planes so that the Lion can transport more all in one trip.
Escobar and the Lion are also using women to get pellets of coke across the border, paying them thousands of dollars to swallow 50-70 pellets each. Narcos does a good job of setting up the human toll of drug trafficking here, as one pregnant girl ends up dying in the hospital in Miami, which just so happens to be where Murphy’s wife works as a nurse.
Drugs are killing Miami, and the country at large, which allows for President Reagan to begin his War on Drugs. Murphy wants to do more though. He wants to be on the front lines. That’s especially true when he and his partner go to take down Cockroach, only to have one of Escobar’s hitmen take him out first, killing another DEA agent in the process.
Cockroach was insubordinate, stealing profits from Escobar with the help of Colonel Carrera, the head of the local militia. That leads Escobar to strike a deal with Carrera. Escobar will pay him $1 million for the right to move his cocaine safely across borders in exchange for the name of the man who’s been stealing from him. Carrera gives up Cockroach in a second, giving Escobar full control of the drug trade.
Back to the hit, though. Murphy catches the hitman and his bail is set at $2 million, but that’s nothing Escobar and his operation can’t handle. It’s just the price of doing business. With a DEA agent dead and his killer back into the drug trafficking business, Murphy makes it his duty to really crack down on Escobar and the Colombians.
His wife, who also witnesses the effects of the drug trade, agrees to pack up with him and move to Colombia, where the two can do the most good and hopefully stop this operation by taking out the source: Escobar and his men.
It’s not going to be that easy though. Murphy, back in 1989, where the episode started, is taking pictures at the karaoke bar where Poison was killed. He’s spotted there by one of Escobar’s men, who reports back to his boss. This is war, and Escobar knows it. He offers up $500,000 to anyone who brings him Murphy’s head. The drug war has been going on for years, but the war between Escobar and Murphy is just getting started.