Why Are We So Addicted to Netflix’s Drug Cartel Dramas?

Cartel dramas are all the rage these days, but what does that say about the viewers watching them?

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Wagner Moura portrays Pablo Escobar in "Narcos" on Netflix. / Daniel Daza/Netflix

Pablo Escobar, the famed Colombian drug lord whose modern-day popularity is almost richer in death than his bountiful personal fortune was in life, is the anti-hero of our current cultural adoration. Tales of his humanity often battle with documented feats of violence and savagery, though the former mistakenly balances the viciousness of his blood-filled reign in Colombia. Escobar was a muted monster whose temper manifested into terror. Yet, the moments of tenderness that orbit his larger than life villainy tend to supply heart to his troubled public remembrance.

In season two of Netflix’s Narcos, the blood-fueled cartel drama that recently entered its fourth season, Escobar (played by Wagner Moura) finds himself beyond his crescendo and begins to take a downward turn. However, given the estimated $420 million dollars he’d made per week trafficking cocaine, the portly Colombian remained insanely wealthy. As legend has it, during a stay at one of his many hideouts—this one in particular on the Medellin mountainside—Escobar burned $2 million dollars in cash to keep his infant daughter warm during the harsh cold. Stories similar to this one—coupled with the emotional and racially pulling scene of Escobar’s slain body sprawled over a rooftop while white American DEA agents stand overtop his lifeless body smiling and posing for pictures as the final moments of Narcos Season 2—do their best to humanize Medellin’s cocaine baron.

The psyche of the viewer is immediately torn, juxtaposing the gripping decisions of a man who loves his family and his country against those of that same man who rips his family and country to shreds. No longer is Escobar simply a villain who has witnessed thousands die during his murderous reign as cartel kingpin, he’s almost a good man whose broken bad with good still inside of him. It’s compelling. It’s drama. It’s both meant to divide and entangle. It is, in essence, meant to keep us watching.

This is true not only of Escobar and the other drug cartel portrayals in Narcos but for popular films like Sicario and Clint Eastwood’s critically adored cartel picture, The Mule. Netflix, to greater effect, has banked on producing more cartel-focused dramas as well as streaming those of proven success from opposing networks. There’s the in-house, Jason Bateman-led Ozark, the USA Network's Queen of the South and the upcoming Netflix-produced film Triple Frontier featuring Hollywood leading men Ben Affleck and Oscar Isaac. Netflix's doubling down on cartel dramas, though, mostly speaks to the viewers' unhealthy obsession with the subject matter as opposed to their clear desire to capitalize on it.

For the better part of the last half-century, it has been America’s “insatiable demand for illegal drugs” that has prolonged and subsequently fortified Mexican drug trade. Hillary Clinton spoke those punching words years ago. They still sting with truth today. It’s clear that our love for drug-induced entertainment comes from our inherent adoration of drugs, both legal and otherwise. We, too, in opposition, find entertainment in the things for which we don’t indulge. So for everyone who has ever smoked a joint or something far more extreme, there’s another person who never has and likely never will. There’s a sharpness to the commonality we find in our collective duality.

Americans are also deeply entrenched within the hero’s narrative. Or, more pointedly, the anti-hero’s complicated journey. From fictional characters within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which have been the most bankable over the past decade, to others that surround drug trafficking, we aspire to what these flawed figures have become, not necessarily focused on what they had to do to become it. The journey, a measuring instrument for which admiration should be rendered, is far less discussed when compared to the end destination that orbits success, money, fame, etc. This allows larger than life figures like Escobar to seem heroic when, in actuality, we’re just fascinated with how stirring and cinematic his villainy plays on screen.

We’re more engulfed in drug culture than ever before. This spans both our entertainment intake and personal consumption of drug of choice.

- Darren Griffin

Underscored in this narrative is the recent legalization of marijuana in many American states. Moreover, the global cheapening of designer drugs. Everything is accessible now in a way that it never was before. Dispensaries flood city blocks in Los Angeles, litter corners throughout Denver and will soon spark new debates and cryptocurrency-related purchases in Canada. We’re more engulfed in drug culture than ever before. This spans both our entertainment intake and personal consumption of drug of choice. That said, why wouldn’t we watch film and television accounts of how drugs are produced, distributed, ingested, and commercially exploited?

Drug culture has been embedded in our national DNA since the days of Escobar and bandits of his caliber. Given their stories are now being told in alignment with our cultural fascination with true crime, these cartel dramas aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. There will be more like Triple Frontier and Sicario. Big names, bigger budgets and compelling stories that keep us dialed in. That appears to be where the common denominator is found. Cartel culture only grew larger and larger over time. Now, as we document it, so does both our investment in the programming and consumption. We’ve yet to witness the peak of this industry.

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