The bestest character in Narcos (Netflix) is Judy Moncada, the wife of a drug kingpin. She’s got class, she’s got diamonds, she’s got a painting above the fireplace of Judy with a lion. When her husband is murdered by real-life drug dealer Pablo Escobar, she goes on a murderous rampage – but never, ever puts down her drink. She walks into a gang meeting in a cellar and a sweaty man in a vest says: “Someone get Judy a beer.”
Narcos, a historical crime drama about the US war on drugs, is not exactly family viewing. It is set in a place and time – Colombia in the Eighties and Nineties – when evil was so ubiquitous that no one seemed to notice it. Pablo is the main villain: a fat genius with a goofy grin. But the communists kill people, too, and so does the government. The line between trafficker, socialist and businessman is thin. Pablo sells cocaine to the Americans. He keeps the cops at bay by bribing them. He keeps the people onside by pretending to love them: they are his eyes and ears on the streets. All of humanity is compromised. You either fight dirty against Pablo or you enable him or you tolerate him, and if you have the misfortune to be one of a thousand presidents of Colombia, you could find yourself with blood on your hands. To go to war with Escobar is to trigger a civil war within the country. I’d heard of the guy and I knew he was bad, but I never realised he gunned cops down in the street or put bombs on planes.
Escobar is a good case for the death penalty. In 1991, he decided to go straight by going to jail – on the understanding that he could build the jail himself. La Catedral boasted a bar, Jacuzzi, waterfall and giant dolls’ house (it must have been four-star at least, which may help to explain why the Benedictines moved in after it was abandoned), and Escobar continued to do business out of it. So, what was the point of imprisoning him? He was just as dangerous inside as out; plus, when both sides lost patience with the arrangement, he ran away!
On the other hand, grinding through two seasons of Narcos gives you a better understanding of where liberal-minded South American clerics are coming from. Okay, so the Pope is from Argentina rather than Colombia, but that country also experienced a civil war and a government that carried out extra-judicial killings.
What you quickly realise in Narcos is that there is little relationship between execution and redemption, as those who defend the death penalty romantically imagine. Everyone tries to escape death: it either comes slowly with much pleading, or suddenly without pause for reflection. It’s not giving much away to say that Escobar eventually got his just deserts while trying to escape from the cops across a roof. One of the show’s most poignant moments comes when we see documentary footage of his mother insisting that he was a good person really, cut with images of the hundreds of people he killed.
This is one of the golden rules of mums: none of them has apparently ever given birth to a bad boy. Just a misunderstood boy who fell in with a bad crowd. Who gave birth to the men in the bad crowd, we shall never know.
Narcos packs a punch because it is real, which is why I was astonished – and disappointed – to discover Judy Moncada is not. She’s a fictional character, possibly a composite, put in, I guess, to aid the plot. I found this ethically troubling. Isn’t Escobar’s story horrific enough? Why did it need feminine spice?
Increasingly, I find myself watching things where I feel manipulated. Fans of The Handmaid’s Tale (Channel 4, Sundays, 9pm) have been disgusted by the turn of the show towards torture porn: we’d had a rape and a drowning within the space of two episodes, and neither developed character. The rape actually appeared forgotten. What’s troubling is that The Handmaid’s Tale has political salience and is often talked of as an example of what conservatives would do to women if they could – and yet nothing in this show approximates to conservative theology or public policy. Jesus is not mentioned in the dystopian theocracy; we are told christenings are banned; mercy, a central tenet of the three monotheisms, is absent. And where in any contemporary state is drowning adulterers practised or the rape of pregnant women?
Why couldn’t Narcos have stuck to the truth of Colombia in the period? Why couldn’t The Handmaid’s Tale have stuck to Margaret Atwood’s source novel, which was painstakingly based on theocracies old and new? I guess the producers don’t trust viewers to be intelligent enough to watch something all the way through without gore. The irony is that in trying to tell a story about sadism, they wind up being sadistic. This is the inverse of good literature, which in telling stories of sadism always conveys humane principles.
Tim Stanley is a journalist, historian and Catholic Herald contributing editor