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.