Narration in Netflix’s Narcos

Descenso, S01E01 NARCOS
Free choice: criticism in description and in analysis.”

The next highly anticipated Netflix Original Series is a ten-episode biopic of the infamous Colombian drug lord, Pablo Escobar. Clearly targeted at a  Sarface  (1983)-type-gangster-movie loving audience (the tagline “First they got the coke. Then they got the money. Now the Colombian cartels want the power” an obvious homage), Narcos  (2015) is expected to be no less than obscenely rich with sex and violence. Despite the predictable themes, what viewers probably hadn’t predicted was the unexpected history lesson they were going to receive.

Possibly in an attempt to authenticate the sequence of events, creators Paul Eckstein and Chris Brancato chose to implement narration during the pre-credits introduction and continue it throughout the series. The voiceover of main protagonist DEA agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) discusses the historical politics of the early 1970’s-1980’s, some contextual knowledge to the past lives of the Colombian drug cartel heads, as well as explains what is happening during basically every essential scene. For a vast number of fans it certainly passed the test, calling it “sexy” and “addictive“, while another claimed that “Holbrook walks the walk, but he can’t talk the talk”, referring to his narration as “incessant” and “too Instructive”.

Although it can sometimes seem like story-telling-by-numbers, perhaps the narration was just used to break up the character dialogue, which is almost entirely en español, with the voice of an English speaking white man for American audiences…?  On the other hand, the use of narration as a plot-point can make the audience question its purpose – Is this character reliable or aren’t they? Am I privy to this information, or am I being played? Before the opening credits even roll, the overriding voice tells the audience whose side they are on and whose voice they are supposed to believe; the one talking to them. The question the audience is dared to ask is, why?

In the first five minutes of the Narcos pilot, the narration is useful and engaging and not at all like “having the Wikipedia entry on Escobar read to you by a bored American guy” (Vox, 2015). Quite the opposite; you can easily imagine him talking to you in a bar with a stiff drink in one hand and the stub of a cigarette in the other. The opening shot is an incredible bird’s-eye-view of a night-time cityscape;
“Nowadays, the U.S government can listen to anything you say. They know where you are, they know you talkin’ to, and trust me, they know who you’re fucking.”
The use of the word ‘nowadays’, a term usually used by baby boomers to contrast a past time,  confirms that he’s at least old enough to have entered his adulthood pre-Zuckerberg. His tone is relaxed, the hint of a smirk under his words which – despite the extremely paranoid connotation of this kind of talk – suggests he knows what he is talking about. The language is colloquial, already the kind of themes that we’re in for have been established – government conspiracy, sex, violence.  We trust this guy because, well, he told us too, but also because he’s been useful so far, and we don’t have a reason not to. Yet.

He elaborates on ‘the big brother‘ theory for a few seconds longer before confirming for us that it is Colombia we’re looking at – in 1989. He talks about how hard it was ‘back then’ to track down people because there was no such thing as mobile phones or GPS, only ‘sat phones’, which were only owned by the exceptionally wealthy . (He explains this over shots of money piles and satellite phones, you know, in-case we didn’t get it);
“Lucky for us, narcos were richer than them all.”
Us – So, not only is he our authoritative voice, he’s actually a voice of authority. Although the audience is already encouraged to believe him, we continue to believe him now because his voice is sustained with a position of power. This is also reinforced with the use of letting the narrator introduce the names we’re already familiar with. As (most of) the characters are based on actual people related with the story of Pablo Escoabr, the additional information we’re receiving as we meet them has the illusion of being more believable because we already know that their parts of the story are true.

After we discover that our bird’s-eye view was actually a government-surveillance-pilot’s-eye view, we get to meet our mystery Charlie;
“I’m Steve Murphy, drug enforcement agent, and as you can see, I’m deeply embedded in Colombia.”
As he says this, the scene cuts to him nursing his crying infant with his young attractive wife just as ‘the job’ phones late at night. (A little cliché, but still effective).  In three minutes, our relationship with Steve has basically been set. He’s a young white American man with a nuclear-family-in-the-making who sacrificed his life in America to go and fight to protect it in Colombia. Basically, we (America) are in his debt from here-on-in. Anything he does now is forgiveable because it is everyone else’s best interest that he succeeds. This free pass that the audience subconsciously accepts is immediately challenged when Steve authorises his police task force to shoot up a crowded local bar.
“I wouldn’t blame you if you held me responsible for this blood bath, yeah I push the buttons… But don’t call me a bad guy just yet.”
 You, Steve? Never…

What we’ve just seen – police shooting civillians under his instruction – should disqualify Steve as our guiding moral compass of Narcos.  In just this teaser introduction to the series, we have taken on a point-of-view, established a relationship, and then immediately have to defend it; Are you on his side, or aren’t you? We are asked to trust our verbal guide through this series, and then that trust is brutally thrown into question. In this bilingual true story of the biggest drug syndicate in history, this use of narration would really only be used for one of two reasons:

a) to ensure you understand what’s happening because they can’t trust everyone to read the subtitles,
or b) to set you up for plot twists of Game of Thrones proportions.

In the business of Pablo Escobar, we can only assume that the violent moral dilemmas will be a recurring theme between our narrator and the audience.






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