Narcos: “The Men of Always”/”The Palace in Flames”

(Episode 1.03 and 1.04)

TV Reviews Narcos
Narcos: “The Men of Always”/”The Palace in Flames”

The exposition could have grown as thick as gun smoke in “The Men of Always,” Narcos’ third episode. Thankfully all that abundant billowing plot didn’t become too hazy or disorienting, due to the use of archival new footage and the deft narration of DEA agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook). While those voiceovers were frequently clunky in the premiere, they have become an essential tool to move this series’ plot forward, and the fact that the screenwriters have given Holbrook better lines (and fewer clichés) certainly helps. With a “just the facts, m’am,” demeanor, Hollbrook describes one of his characters’ fellow DEA agents, who was brutally murdered with a drill to the head by traffickers while working an investigation in Columbia. That voiceover is expertly synched with the news footage of the slain expat’s body, and gives the audience a sharp and horrific reminder that the gruesome events depicted in this prestige drama actually occurred. As Hollbrook goes on to detail how the DEA retaliated fiercely, the audience quickly realizes why his character’s cat was killed by the drug runners in the final moments of the preceding episode, “The Sword of Simón Bolivar.” We now know that Columbia’s kingpins fear the DEA enough to avoid killing another agent, which makes Hollbrook’s character safe, for now. Too bad the same can’t be said for his cat, whose death became a clear message from the dealers.

As Murphy and his new partner Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal) move to investigate the feline’s death and— much more importantly— which specific dealer was bold enough to send the DEA this gruesome message, the episode transitions to a scene that is far stranger, but nonetheless grisly. Murphy and Peña’s looming nemesis, cartel king Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura), has tied up and blindfolded the reporter who helped enthral the public in his Robin Hood style myth. What ensues isn’t so much torture as sadomasochism, as Escobar threatens, then sexually stimulates the bound journalist with his pistol, because her reporting has drawn too much attention. The scene evokes a similar moment of pistol/phallus innuendo from The Man With the Golden Gun— the cheesiest of James Bond movies, in which a Bond girl caresses the the titular golden weapon— and it’s a testament to Moura’s mesmerizing acting that the scene’s menacing ambiance doesn’t devolve into such silliness.

The plot then swerves back to a scene (with far better writing) between Murphy and his wife, Connie, who refuses to obey her husband’s demands that she cower and stay safe after their cat’s death. In fact, she insists on continuing to volunteer at the nearby clinic, and it’s refreshing to see a lead female character in a prestige drama come across as assertive without sounding shrewish (an issue that even recent classics like Breaking Bad have struggled with). This leads to a subtly effective plot twist— one of Connie Murphy’s fellow nurses is Elisa (played with great intensity by Ana de la Reguera), one of the M-19 communist radicals who attempted, and failed, to topple Escobar in the previous episode.

Again, we circle back to Escobar, who proves to be as good a public speaker as he is a crime lord, as he attempts to entice a new clientele— the electorate. With help from the pistol mesmerized reporter, Escobar makes his first foray into the political arena, feigning innocence and nobility (while maintaining his multi-billion dollar drug dealing operation out of the limelight). He brings his Robin Hood myth to new heights with promises to “fight for the poor, educate those who want to learn, and help those with dreams find no limit to what they can achieve,” as he endorses a candidate named Jairo Ortega. But Escobar’s heartening speech wasn’t a mere sign of support for Ortega— instead, the drug lord has bought the politician off, and plans to clinch his Congressional seat after he is elected and, conveniently, resigns.

There’s a brief interlude in Escobar’s political ascent, focusing back on Murphy and Peña’s investigation, which finally proves fruitful as they uncover a crucial piece of evidence. Meanwhile, Escobar’s plan appears to be working perfectly, and he arrives at Congress to take his newly acquired seat. He encounters his first hitch upon entry, when a staffer tells the underdressed kingpin that a tie is necessary for entry. Escobar gratefully borrows the young man’s tie and steps inside, and the scene is intercut with a wide angled shot of him stoned while standing in a Colombian jungle grove, his eyes wide as he fantasizes about reaching that political pinnacle and finally breaking in to his country’s tightly knit elite. But alas, that satisfaction proves to be presumptuous. During the Congressional meeting Rodrigo Lara, the righteous minister of justice,who has partnered with Murphy and Peña, presents the detectives’ evidence to his fellow officials: a blown up copy of Escobar’s mugshot from a prior arrest, which completely undermines his claims at legitimacy in both the press and the Congressional hall.

Again, Moura plays the scene perfectly, inhabiting furious poignancy as he unknots his tie and agrees to leave, before vowing to not go quietly. The intensity of Moura’s expression matches that of the next action packed scene— in which one of Escobar’s henchmen speeds by Lara’s car on a motorcycle and slays one of Colombia’s few honest politicians.

The next episode, aptly titled “The Palace in Flames,” quickly picks up after Lara’s death. Murphy feels guilty about pushing the justice minister to confront Escobar. This escalates the cat and mouse game between the DEA agent and the underlord, and leads to the one consequence that Escobar fears—the threat of being extradited to an American jail for his ongoing trafficking, as opposed to Columbian incarceration, where he would have access to drugs and call girls.

Escobar counters by writing to various judges and threatening them if they uphold the extradition law. One judge, who echoes Lara’s bravery and defies the kingpin, meets his end in an all too familiar, Godfather-esque car bombing. This is followed by another on-the-nose scene during which Escobar attempts to train his private flock of Himalayan doves to stay in a tree (yes, you read that right: the drug lord’s unruly riches have allowed him to collect an arc’s worth of animals). All the while, Escobar is chided by his henchman Gustavo for trying to control nature, leaving the audience to chide the screenwriters for employing such a heavy-handed metaphor. It’s funny how this series mostly features tripwire tight writing and dialogue that crackles with intense authenticity, only to veer into occasionally clunky sideshows (the aforementioned phallic gun scene, and now this dove sequence). Hopefully the writers can show more restraint going forward, and stick with their considerable strengths, which lie in the gripping historical drama, and not in such pretentious tacked on tangents.

Murphy and Peña, meanwhile, secure the means and the warrant to finally close in on one of Escobar’s mansions. The drug lord and his cronies are tipped off beforehand, and succeed in burning incriminating documents and escaping. But amongst that ash is a file with the address of Escobar’s accountant, who quickly rats out his boss after the DEA agents track him down. His confession leads Murphy and Peña to a crooked CIA agent who has assisted Escobar in his drug running. He also betrays the kingpin, providing the cops with photographic proof of Escobar delivering cocaine to Nicaragua, a neighboring communist nation. That affiliation makes the drug lord a target in America’s then extensive war against the hammer and sickle. This finally gives Murphy and Peña the resources they need to descend on Escobar’s coke cookhouses, costing the kingpin millions in damages.

Not to be outdone, Escobar ups the ante by further embracing his communist allies, specifically the M-19 radicals in Colombia. He hires them to attack the Palace of Justice in order to not only draw attention away from his coke operations, but also destroy the palace’s mounting evidence against him. Elisa overhears her fellow militants hatching the plan with Escobar, and promptly warns Connie, who she has by now befriended. Connie in turn warns her husband, but to no avail—the M-19 has already swarmed the Palace of Justice with the same intensity that Murphy and his team brought to Escobar’s mansion in the prior scene. Once again, archival news footage is used to show the real life grisliness of Colombia’s ‘80’s drug war, this time at the hands of the M-19. Those militants succeed in destroying the justice offices and the evidence against Escobar. But instead of thanking them, or paying them as promised, Escobar ties up that last loose end, killing the communist militants, and taking his ruthlessness to thrilling new heights in a weak episode’s satisfying closing twist.

Stray Observations:

Overall, “The Men of Always,” was much stronger than its follow up, “The Palace in Flames.” Before this fourth episode, Narcos had done a far better job of balancing plot with exposition. But there’s enough happening in this latest chapter to cover several episodes, and that overstuffing makes the hour border on occasional incoherence. The writers’ attempts to cover historical nuances are admirable, but hopefully they’ll do so in a smoother fashion going forward (they’re certainly able to, proving so in the first three episodes).

-“This cat is DEA. Mark my words, he will get justice.”

-Escobar may be a folk hero for the Colombian people at this point, but there appears to be growing descent in his ranks. Gustavo, in particular, seems displeased with the boss’ political ambitions. This could prove to be a far bigger obstacle for Escobar than anything Murphy or Peña could come up with.

Narcos’ opening theme evokes that of The Wire—what with the new series’ grooving music playing as the camera pans over a tape recording of a wiretapped call. And that’s not the only thing both series have in common. That earlier HBO drama—now considered one of TV’s all time best—also occasionally faltered under the weight of its complex plot, especially early on. Here’s hoping Narcos can work out some similar kinks from its fourth episode and attain similar greatness. It certainly has the potential to.

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