How Narcos Breaks Away From the White Savior Trope

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If you caught the ads for Narcos in the run-up to its recent release, there’s a chance you met Netflix’s latest dramatic original with a hint of skepticism. If not for its derivative-looking make-up (creators Chris Brancato, Carlo Barnard, and Doug Miro owe Scorsese’s Goodfellas big-time), then for the way in which the series appeared to approach its topic. For a show reportedly about cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar and the Colombian drug wars of the 80s and 90s, promotional materials hinted at a suspiciously US-centric kind of story. The official trailer, narrated by Boyd Holbrook’s drawling DEA agent and focusing on coke-hoovering Miami rather than embattled Colombia, suggested as much.

Episode One appears to confirm where the show’s sympathy lies: though it takes us through a potted history of the illegal drug trade in Latin America whenever Holbrook’s character Steve Murphy isn’t on-screen policing his native Miami, everything is smothered by that honeyed voiceover. By the end of the first episode, Murphy is on a plane south of the border to tackle the war head-on. However, it’s not because of the deteriorating state of Colombia, but, rather, due to the 600 kilos of coke coming into Miami every. The 3,245 murders in the city between ’79 and ‘84 are the figures the narrator gives as the cost of the fight.

It’s all true, of course (this being the usual argument given to defend the white savior story). But for a war in which thousands of Colombians were killed, crusading journalists and presidential hopefuls among them, it seems somewhat perverse for Narcos to choose—over the stories of the millions of Latin Americans affected—the account of a distinctly white-savior-esque blonde haired, blue-eyed US agent. And he is, apparently, spurred on by two key factors: the damage he witnesses being done to his homeland, and the death of his American partner at the hands of an Escobar sicario.

Murphy compares his relocation at the end of the premiere to his father signing up after Pearl Harbor. To him, Colombian gangsters on “our soil” is equivalent to the Japanese entering American waters in WWII, enough for him to put his own life on the line as his soldier dad did before him. The stage is set for a classic white savior tale: idealistic white westerner, through a sense of duty, a desire to restore the white western status quo, and a compassion for helpless non-whites (the tale Murphy is told by his nurse wife, of a pregnant Colombian drug mule killed by cocaine bags bursting in her stomach, ticks that box), heads into exotic foreign territory to tackle the problem once and for all.

But after that first hour, something strange happens. The oppressively frequent voiceover begins to pop up less regularly; the show settles in South America almost exclusively; and, after Murphy touches down in Bogota, the series is slowly wrestled away from our hero by the increasing number of Spanish-speaking supporting players. Murphy’s new partner, Javier Pena (the excellent Pedro Pascal, reappearing from Game of Thrones with skull intact), takes up as much screen-time and is as influential to the story as his white counterpart. Beleaguered Colombian president Cesar Gaviria (Raul Mendez) and anti-Escobar task force commander Col. Horatio Carrillo (Maurice Compte) become just as crucial.

After its opening statement, Narcos rivetingly sets out to detail the roles that various groups and individuals played in the Escobar operation. It deals with informants, street cops, and soldiers, American agents from the DEA and the CIA, American and Colombian chiefs in Bogota, all the way up to the US president himself, Colombian politicians, and the country’s media. Then there’s the opposing team, and the whole other layered cake that is Escobar’s organization. As more and more characters come into the frame, Steve Murphy gradually becomes part of an ensemble, and Narcos becomes a Colombian story told from mainly Colombian perspectives.

Narcos subverts white savior expectations wonderfully this way: As the white western hero discovers the true scale of what he faces, his story must necessarily broaden to include the dozens of others who had a hand in bringing down Escobar. Murphy heads to Colombia without even knowing the lingo, yet it’s not the locals who need his Miami Police ways, but he who must learn to speak like them and adopt new practices in order to do the best possible job. As Murphy becomes harder in the face of a battle that’s uglier than he expected it to be, his white savior-ness fades, and his patriotism phases out. Narcos recognizes that the US did play a part in the Escobar story, but it also gets that that’s not the whole truth, that the real complexity of this terrible conflict wouldn’t allow for one lone cowboy wearing the Stars and Stripes to save the day.

Narcos is still guilty of assuming it needs a typically handsome, white male protagonist to ease viewers into a story populated by mostly non-white characters. But unlike some of the worst screen offenders—think Blood Diamond, or The Last SamuraiNarcos also plays around with expectations of this white savior trope. Colombia doesn’t greet Murphy as a messianic figure—it treats this gringo as an outsider, the local police initially sidelining him for fear he won’t be as effective as they are. It’s not they who need to get used to American methods in order to survive and prosper, but the other way around. And after a little while, Murphy’s speaking Spanish and clashing with US officials.

There are aspects of Narcos that could use a polish before production begins on the already-commissioned Season Two. For one, it’d be a good idea not to cover as much ground next time, so the show can breathe a little better. But there’s a lot that this fleet-footed piece of historical entertainment already gets right. And one of Narcos’s greatest achievements so far is how it complicates the typical white-man-rides-into-town narrative. It’s rare we get to see said hero dropping the act upon finding he needs the locals, perhaps more than they need him. Narcos features a rug-pull not just for its ‘lead’ character, but for an audience that’s become far too comfortable with white saviors and “diversity” in the form of marginalized characters of color.

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