The Sword of Simón Bolivar is the second episode of the first season of Narcos.
Communist radical group M-19 makes a move against the narcos, while Murphy gets an education in Colombian law enforcement from his new partner Peña.
It’s clear, even through just two episodes, that Narcos is going to have trouble fleshing out the story of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, American DEA agent Steve Murphy, and the complex politics of the War on Drugs. Narcos is ambitious in its scope, doing what it can to tell a story that spans decades and has implications beyond that, but it’s also hindered by such a vision. It’s why moments of promising character development, like tonight’s formation of the Medellín cartel, are often presented as mere exposition via Murphy’s voice-over.
Still, after a scattered premiere, Narcos finds more steady ground in its second episode by mostly limiting its time jumps and fleshing out how Murphy and Escobar came to be intertwined. The episode begins with Murphy and his wife Connie trying to get through customs in Colombia. It’s 1981, eight years before Murphy tracks down Poison, has him killed, and is thus on Escobar’s hit list. Right now, he’s just a DEA agent looking to get started in Colombia.
The Murphys, and their cat, are detained though, under the guise that the cat doesn’t have all the proper forms. That’s really just an excuse to get Murphy detained and get some information on him before they let this US citizen into the country. With the Murphys are detained for the majority of the episode, Narcos dives into the ever-expanding empire of Pablo Escobar.
Escobar, after getting rid of Cockroach, is now running super labs where they produce 10,000 kilos of cocaine a week, enough for $5 billion of revenue in a year. That’s great business, but it’s making it difficult for Escobar to hide his funds. He can’t very well launder it through his small taxicab company, so what does he do? He buries it and sews it into his mother’s furniture, and has his accountant, who goes by the name Blackbeard, keep track of where it’s all going.
As great as business is, there’s a looming threat, a group of guerrilla communists called the M-19 who Murphy says “read too much Karl Marx for their own good.” Led by a history teacher labeled Ivan The Terrible, they plan to kidnap the sister of the Ochoa brothers, one of the more important players in the trafficking business. When M-19 steals the sword of Simón Bolívar, sending a message to the government, and coming back into play with the narcos later, they think they’ve finally found a way to notoriety.
The truth is though, the kidnapping is just fuel for Escobar’s fire. He calls a meeting of all the local kingpins and families, saying that now is the time to form a coalition. Escobar proposes that he retains control of all day-to-day activities, while the rest of the cartel provides funding and receives not only profits, but security from further kidnappings. With everyone in agreement, Escobar names the group: Death to Kidnappers.
While Escobar is certainly busy expanding his operation, he’s also working his way into the political sphere. When he’s interviewed by a local reporter, he speaks of creating a Medellín free of slums, where his money can be used for hospitals and schools. It’s here that Narcos really struggles with its scope. The scene is meant to lend the audience some understanding of Escobar’s vision, and to further cement him as a true anti-hero, as a bad man who also does good things. But, the story must span decades, so such insights are rushed, and we’re once again ushered away by Murphy’s voice-over to a string of sex scenes.
While Escobar ends up sleeping with the reporter in question while also telling her to never disrespect his wife Tata, Murphy’s new DEA partner Javier Pena—played with ample charisma by Pedro Pascal, better know as Oberyn Martell on Game of Thrones—is having sex with Helena, a hooker who also happens to be his informant. She tells Pena that there’s going to be a party in Medellín, that all the high-class hookers are being sent there. Pena sees this as a sign that all the top guys in Colombia’s drug trafficking empire are meeting up, so he sends her in to get information.
After the meeting where the Death to Kidnappers cartel is established, Helena is back in Gacha’s room, post-sex, giving him a massage to relax him. Murphy’s voice-over tells us that Helena is so eager to get a visa that it ultimately causes her downfall, but that’s an easy way to shrug off lazy writing, as Helena’s inquiry about the meeting is ridiculously obvious to Gacha.
It’s clear she’s an informant, so Gacha has his men capture her. They torture and rape her while Pena, Murphy, and a handful of local militia wait at a rendezvous point for her to return. The rest of the storyline is just the latest in a long line of troubling narratives that use rape in order to build up a male character.
When Pena realizes that Helena isn’t coming back, that her cover is likely blown, he takes two of the local militia and heads out to find her. He leaves Murphy behind because he’s about to torture and kill some people to get that information, and he doesn’t know if he can trust his new partner.
A few bodies later, Pena finds Helena in an apartment, bloodied and beaten and being raped by one of Escobar’s men. He quickly kills the men and wraps Helena in his jacket, promising her that he’ll get her out of there. That might be true of the apartment, but a visit to the U.S. Ambassadors office earlier in the episode suggests that getting her out of the country isn’t going to be so easy.
Meanwhile, Escobar, wielding new power, wreaks havoc on the M-19 camps and takes pictures of their bodies hanging from trees. He’s sending a message, and M-19 leader Ivan The Terrible hears it loud and clear.
He releases Marta Ochoa unharmed and hands himself over to Escobar, asking him to finish the job, but to do it with Bolívar’s sword. Escobar is craftier than that though and understands that Ivan could be useful to him alive. He spares his life and tells him that from now on they’ll be working together.
Back at the airport, the Murphys finally get through customs, but not without Steve’s passport being photocopied and sent to the entire cartel. After making themselves at home for a while, with Connie looking to help out at a local hospital and Steve adjusting to his new job, the two return home to find their apartment broken into and their cat strung up from the ceiling. More messages being sent from the cartel.
Murphy and Pena are ready to send their own message though. After Murphy confronts Pena about ditching him back the the rendezvous, he tells him that no matter what it entails, he’s all in on the War on Drugs and taking down whoever is involved. Back at the office, he maps out the whole cartel. “Meet the Medellín cartel,” he says before Pena crosses off three of the men. Surely they won’t be the last to get a red X through their photo.