Black Mirror: Metalhead

starstarstarstarhalf
“Run Bella Run”

Black Mirror has consistently been the standard for thought-provoking, usually (although not always) dystopian science-fiction since it first aired in 2011. The latest season, the fourth, premiered on Netflix just before Christmas, and the fifth episode falls squarely into our wheelhouse. Filmed entirely in black-and-white, it’s set in a post-apocalyptic landscape following some unspecified catastrophe. A group of three people prepare to raid a warehouse in search of supplies – and, in particular, one item. However, their search alerts a security robot, which looks somewhat like a greyhound made of black metal, and makes quick work of two intruders, leaving only Bella (Peake) left to pursue. The robot’s combination of stamina, speed and absolute lethality will require all her human ingenuity, if she’s to escape.

The influences here are numerous. You could start from Terminator crossed with Night of the Living Dead, though there was a 1953 SF story by Arthur Porges called ‘The Ruum’ which was also built around someone pursued through a rural landscape by an unstoppable robotic pursuer. As such, this is always going to be a limited scenario, especially when there’s only person on the other side. It was probably wise for the makers to keep this at a crisp 41 minutes; the other entries in the season run as long as 76 minutes. However, I still had a feeling they left food on the table, storywise: this was especially true at the ending, where the strength of character Bella had shown to that point, apparently deserts her entirely. It seemed to me she still should have had fuel left in her tank, and this made for a disappointing conclusion.

Until then, however, it was a very well-constructed thrill-ride, with Bella using her smarts to deal with everything her dogged (hohoho!) adversary can throw at her. The balance ebbs and flows between the two, as human and robot tussle across the battlefield, both using what they can find along the way to help themselves. [Sideline: why is it, whenever anyone picks up a knife in a kitchen to use as a weapon, it is always the Psycho knife?] Especially in the latter stages, when the setting moves from the countryside to inside a house, it almost seems to nudge over into slasher film territory, with Bella as the “final girl” – albeit one rather more mature than the usual, teen-aged inhabitants of that trope.

Like the best dystopias, there’s more than an element of plausibility here, with the robot’s shape and movements inspired by the (somewhat creepy) products already being put out by Boston Dynamics. It’s also more straightforward than many Black Mirror episodes: creator Charlie Booker specializes in the final “gotcha”, a twist that radically re-defines what has gone before. Here, this is limited to a last shot in which the viewer discovers the purpose of the raid on the warehouse, and it’s more poignant than upending. It may not be one of the most memorable Mirror stories, which stick in the mind long after it has finished. Yet it’s an efficient and lean effort, capable of standing alongside any other episode.

Dir: David Slade
Star: Maxine Peake

Ingobernable: season one

starstarstar
“Dirty politics, Mexican style.”

This is not quite a telenovela, for this has only 13 episodes and aired directly on Netflix, without appearing on any television channel. It’s also a little more punchy and gritty than most, and rather than going down the well-trodden path of what I guess we should call the narconovela, is rooted instead in political conspiracies.

Mexican President Diego Nava Martínez (Hayser, the male lead in Camelia la Texana) plummets from a hotel balcony to his death. The prime suspect is his estranged wife Emilia Urquiza (del Castillo, the original Reina del Sur), though she was actually unconscious at the time. Rather than sticking around, Emilia decides to leg it, and is helped by some old friends in the Mexico City slums. It turns out the President was preparing to announce an end both to the war on drugs, and the resulting secret detention camps, run by the military. This appears to have triggered an assassination by a murky coalition involving the army, the CIA and a secret group known as “X-8”. Can Emilia prove this is more than tin-foil hat malarkey, and clear her own name?

Weirdly, the show was filmed without its star ever setting foot in Mexico. She is still on thin ice there, as a result of her relationship with jailed drug lord, El Chapo, and a subsequent – trumped-up, according to del Castillo – money-laundering investigation. Despite this, it does a good job of depicting life at both the very top and bottom of Mexican society, and pointing out the stark difference. As Castillo said, “The real criminals are the ones who wear white shirts and a tie.” Though this is likely heavy on the working-class hero trope, with the noble peasants banding together to stick it to the man.

Still, there’s enough to appreciate here, with Emilia being harried from one place to another, while trying to get to the truth. It helps that, before marrying the president, she was involved in security operations, which gives her an insight into their tactics – and more importantly, how to avoid them. If this is never quite leveraged as much as it could be, it does at least help explain her action heroine abilities! Emilia isn’t the only woman who knows her way around a gun either; given the reputation of Mexico as a very macho culture, these are quite surprising characters.

They include Anna Vargas-West (Ibarra), who pulls triple-duty as Chief of Staff of the President’s Office and the dead president’s lover… while also being a somewhat reluctant CIA agent, under the command of Pete Vázquez (Guzmán). And then there’s Patricia Lieberman (Marina de Tavira), the tenacious special prosecutor appointed to look into the President’s death. But the most striking cultural difference is when Emilia and her team are trying to get evidence about the detention centers, and decide that merely catching the Defense Secretary at an S&M brothel wouldn’t be sufficient to discredit him. Suspect that would be more than plenty in Anglo-American politics!

Annoyingly, the 15-episode series ends in a cliff-hanger, without any true resolution: something I should likely have guessed, once it was revealed that the Defense Secretary had nothing to do with the President’s death. Fortunately, the show has been renewed for a second season, or I have been severely peeved. Overall, I was reasonably impressed by the first, and if you’re looking for something with aspects of both Jason Bourne and House of Cards, this should fit the bill.

Dir: José Luis García Agraz
Star: Kate del Castillo, Alberto Guerra, Erendira Ibarra, Luis Roberto Guzmán

Wynonna Earp: season one

starstarstar
“Wynonna the Demon Slayer”

After a long absence, Wynonna Earp (Scrofano) returns to her home town of Purgatory, near the Rockies. There, we discover the truth about the death of her father and disappearance of her sister, events which precipitated Wynonna’s departure. Turns out the great-great-granddaughter of the legendary Wyatt Earp has a supernatural duty to fulfill, using her ancestor’s equally legendary 16-inch barrel “Peacemaker” revolver. Wyatt kept demons known as “revenants” in check, and the mission has been passed down the family line since, with Wynonna the current incumbent. Fortunately, mystical borders keep the revenants within the “Ghost River Triangle,” and she has the help of Deputy Marshal Xavier Dolls (Anderson), an agent in the “Black Badge” division of the US Marshals Service; Doc Holliday (Rozon), the now-immortal former friend of Wyatt; and Wynonna’s kid sister, Waverly (Provost-Chalkley).

Yeah, as the tag-line above suggest, there’s more than an echo of Buffy here, from Wynonna being the unwilling “chosen one”, through Purgatory being a hot-bed of supernatural activity (or “Hell Mouth”?), and the associated “Scooby Gang” who help out the heroine. Doc is a parallel for Angel, being a somewhat ambivalent immortal who has an on-again, off-again relationship with Wynonna. Dolls is Giles, the sensible adult of the group. And Waverly is a lumpy combination of Giles (research skills), Dawn (bratty little sister) and Willow (gratuitous lesbian tendencies). I’m not sure how many of these similarities come from Beau Smith’s comic which is the source here. It first appeared in 1996, when Buffy was still a failed movie, and not yet the successful TV series it would become. But the showrunner admits, when pitching Wynonna, she would describe it as “Buffy meets Justified.

So, if you’re looking for originality, you are far better off elsewhere, certainly. That said, the horror-Western is some way from being an over-familiar genre, and the obvious influences certainly do not mean it is without merit or appeal. There has been a real shortage of action heroine shows on American television – which leaves me happy to see, even one as derivative as this. I particularly liked Scofrano, who brings a cynical world-weariness to her mid-twenties character.The show also does a good job of disseminating information, striking a nice balance between revealing its secrets, and keeping the audience guessing. The middle episodes do degenerate a bit into ‘Occult Monster of the Week’ territory, yet the writers redeem themselves with a strong final arc that sets the stage nicely, and not too obviously, for the second season.

Wynonna [a spelling which looks plain weird, with at least one N too many] takes to her destiny with gleeful abandon, dispatching revenants with enthusiasm. It’s refreshing to see a heroine who doesn’t agonize endlessly about dispatching the enemy – even if in this case, it’s probably because they are already dead. Overall, I think the show will likely go as far as Scrofano can take it. If it takes advantage of the chance to improve, and does so to the same extent Buffy did (the cast there didn’t grow into their characters until perhaps the third series), it’ll certainly be worth another look.

Creator: Emily Andras
Star: Melanie Scrofano, Shamier Anderson, Tim Rozon, Dominique Provost-Chalkley

Queen of the South, season two

starstarstarstarhalf
“Queen vs. Queen”

The first series was the story of Teresa Mendoza’s fall and rise. From a comfortable life in Mexico, she dropped all the way across the border, to a drug mule at the very bottom of the organization belonging to Camila Vargas (Falcon), before beginning her climb up that cartel’s ladder. The series ended with her becoming Camila’s trusted lieutenant, as her cartel fought for its independence from estranged husband, Don Epifanio. In the second season, the landscape shifts, radically. Indeed, by the end, virtually everything you knew – or thought you knew – has been shaken up.  In particular, the relationship between Camila and Teresa falls apart, as Teresa looks to assert her independence. Initially, Camila is very much on the back foot, having been cut off from both her supplies and her distribution network, and has to rebuild both.

This task requires quite some effort on the part of both her and Teresa, and brings them into contact with some strange characters. On the distribution side, is an eccentric smuggler who calls himself “King George.” He does have a tough streak, but is a quirky character who feels more like a leftover hippie, more amusing than a real threat. That can not be said of Bolivian drug-lord El Santo (played by Steven Bauer, whom my wife says to remind you is Cuban!). He’s part shaman, part Jim Jones, leading his devoted cult of followers through a psycho-chemical process that leaves them… changed. And before he agrees to deal with Camila, he insists Teresa goes through that process. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. The episodes set in Bolivia were definitely eye-opening (an interesting contrast to the Bolivian Fighting Cholitas!), and Santo’s police associate, La Capitana, was almost as bad-ass as Teresa.

But they contributed to what I found was the main problem this season: a lack of focus. The plot seemed to be getting pulled in too many directions: a strength of the first season was it felt unequivocally like Teresa’s story. That didn’t feel the case here. While some of those elements were solid enough – Camila remains a fascinating character, worthy of her own show – I could probably have done, say, without the adventures of her and Epifanio’s bratty teenage daughter. It took until the final episode for that to become relevant; until then, it was more a chore than a pleasure. Similarly, the love triangle between Teresa, colleague-at-arms James (Gadiot) and her former, not-so-dead boyfriend, Guero, was all too obvious.

However, it’s still relentlessly gritty, and the way the relationships between the characters changed over time was very well-plotted. It’s done gradually, so that you don’t realize how former allies have become mortal enemies, until the betrayal occurs. Here, the pivotal moment was Teresa discovering papers proving Camila had set her up, dead in the firing line of a DEA investigation. This finally proved to Teresa what we had suspected all along: that Camila was simply using her, as and when necessary or beneficial, and was undeserving of the loyalty which Teresa had shown here.

The final episode confirmed the battle lines have been redrawn, and sets the stage for series three (the show’s renewal was already announced, last month). To quote the program’s showrunner, Natalie Chaidez, this season “was about Teresa learning what it takes to run a drug cartel from Camila Vargas… Camila taught her some good things, and she taught her some bad things. Now, Teresa has reached the end of the season ready, armed with all of the lessons Camila has taught her.” Mission accomplished, and with the pair now on opposing sides – and with Camila having very good reason to hate Teresa – I’m already anticipating the next series.

Star: Alice Braga, Veronica Falcon, Peter Gadiot, Joaquim de Almeida

GLOW

starstarstarstar
“Fully deserves a GLOWing review.”

I have only vague memories of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, which never quite made the same cultural impact on the far side of the Atlantic as in their native country. I seem to recall seeing a couple of episodes, deciding it was a bit crap, and then slapping in a Megumi Kudo barbed-wire death match tape instead. But my interest was rekindled by the wonderful documentary, GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, and it appears I may not have been the only one. [Incidentally, we re-watched the doc after finishing the series; it’s still very much recommended, and likely even better as a parallel version to this] The creators of the show were inspired by the same film to create their take, a heavily fictionalized telling of the show’s origin, from auditions to their first TV taping.

It focuses on Ruth (Brie), a largely failed actress, who goes to the audition out of desperation. There, she meets the motley crew of other women, whom director Sam Sylvia (Maron) – a veteran of B-movies such as Blood Disco – has to try to lick into shape. The main dramatic tension is between Ruth and Debbie (Gilpin), a soap-opera actress, with whose husband Ruth had an affair. Their spat inspires Sam to recruit Debbie, who would provide much needed star-power – but convincing her to get on board is an issue in itself. And there’s then the issue of her severely strained relationship with Ruth. While this may give their in-ring conflict credibility, it comes at a cost.

This is a great deal of fun, striking a very impressive balance between the drama, comedy and – to my surprise – the wrestling elements. For the show does a particularly good job of explaining both the appeal of the sports entertainment in question, and the work that goes in to making it look good. Here, it probably helps that real wrestlers were involved: Chavo Guerrero was the main consultant, and his uncle, Mando Guerrero, helped train the original GLOW ladies in the eighties. Fans will also spot John Morrison/Johnny Mundo, Brodus Clay, Carlito and Joey Ryan in various roles. It’s not at all a parody of the sport; to a significant degree, the original GLOW felt like that. But it also does extremely well at linking the wrestlers and the characters they play, and showing how the latter evolve and develop out of the former.

So Ruth becomes “Zora the Destroyer”, a Soviet antagonist to Debbie’s All-American “Liberty Belle”, whose frosty face-offs mirror the women’s real-life grievances. It’s these, along with the other characters, who are the show’s greatest strength: even relatively minor supporting ones are deftly sketched, and feel like real people, rather than caricatures. Special credit to Maron, who takes a character that could be a real bastard (far and away the most significant man) and gives him depth and humanity. Yes, he can be that bastard – but he knows what he’s doing, and genuinely cares about making the show the best it can be, even if he has to tread on a few toes to get there. Having been on the fringes of both B-cinema and independent wrestling, we’re aware of how true to life that is, and based on the doc, it doesn’t appear too different from Matt Cimber, the show’s actual director.

The two lead actresses did virtually all their action – there was occasional use of stand-ins, but mostly for reasons of fatigue. Brie said, “Wrestling matches are meant to be done once a day for maybe 20 minutes. But then we would shoot them for 10 to 12 hours so our stunt doubles became our tag team that we could tag in when we needed a rest.” Otherwise, it’s almost all the actual women, and that adds a level of authenticity to proceedings that helps. If no-one’s going to mistake the pair for Manami Toyota and Akira Hokuto, they’re perfectly credible, given the original show’s undeniable limitations in the area of actual wrestling. 

If you’re a child of the 80’s – and those were my teenage years – you’ll be in heaven, as this is a true period piece, from the music, through fashion, to things as basic as telephones. With wires. Attached to the wall. [It was a dark, dark time…] There is an occasional tendency to drift into feminist showboating, and some of the off-GLOW drama feels more like it comes from one of Debbie’s soaps. Otherwise, this is near-perfect, and certainly the best truly original series which Netflix have produced to date.

Created by:: Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch
Star: Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin, Marc Maron, Sydelle Noel

Hunted

starstarstar
“A four-episode story stretched over eight episodes.”

Sam Hunter (George) is an agent for a private intelligence agency, Byzantium. While on a mission in Morocco, she is shot and nearly killed, so opts to go off-grid for a year. She returns to her job, and is assigned the highly risky task of infiltrating a criminal family, who are one of the bidders on a lucrative Pakistani dam project. However, that may not be the biggest threat to Sam’s life, as she knows whoever was behind the attempt in Morocco may well try again, now she has come back out of the shadows. There’s also the question of her own past, involving a dead mother and some severely repressed memories.

Originally pitched as a vehicle for Gillian Anderson – creator Spotnitz was a head writer on The X-Files – the main problem here is likely a structure which demands a second season the show never received. This seems to have come as a surprise to the creators, since they had put together a writing team and planned out storylines. Then, the show was abruptly not renewed, in response to sagging British ratings (the series lost 30% of its viewers over the eight-week run). Even after the BBC pulled the plug, there were hopes Cinemax would continue the show, as it had sustained its audience much better in the US. Those failed to come to fruition either, and the story of Sam Hunter is left frustratingly incomplete.

It’s a shame, because the start and end of the first series had a great deal of promise. Hunter is quickly positioned as someone who is equally competent in both brains and brawn, with the action scenes here being impressively hard-hitting. George carries herself well, with a terse approach to combat that stresses efficiency over flamboyance. The main plot thread here, concerning corruption at the intersection between big business and high level government, is also well considered and not implausible. Kudos also to Patrick Malahide, as crime boss Jack Turner, who projects the right degree of barely-restrained malice, and also Spotnitz, for giving him a better motive than TV villains usually receive.

The problem is the middle episodes, where the show meanders off in half-baked directions likely intended for exploration in the second series that never happened. There are major segments concerning an even more shadowy conspiracy, named “Hourglass,” as well as a creepy-looking dude who takes over the identity of a scientist, and who has a fondness for jabbing syringes into people’s eyeballs. None of this ever comes anywhere close to being resolved, any more than the safe-deposit box key Sam is handed in the final episode. True, it’s not the creators’ fault the show was canceled. However, until the ink is dry on the contract for renewal, it’s probably a good idea to act as if every series will be your last. Otherwise, you run the risk of ending up with something like this, an infuriating mix of well-crafted elements, thrown away on a bunch of loose ends.

Creator: Frank Spotnitz
Star: Melissa George, Adam Rayner, Stephen Dillane, Stephen Campbell Moore

Senora Acero

starstarstar
“The mother of unintended consequences.”

It’s supposed to be the happiest day of her life for Sara Aguilar (Soto). She’s marrying respected police commander Vicente Acero, legitimizing a relationship that has already given them a son, Salvador. But masked hitmen attack the party, killing her father – by the end of the day, Sara has also become a widow, the cartel having taken revenge on Vicente, for the three million dollars he apparently stole. To Sara’s horror, it turns out her husband-to-be was no less corrupt than anyone else. When Salvador then falls desperately ill, and in need of highly expensive health-care, there’s only one way Sara is going to be able to fund his treatment.

It’s a decision which brings her into conflict with a whole slew of people. Her main enemy in the first series is Indio Amaro (Zárate), a local gangster responsible for killing Vicente. He has vowed to make Sara’s life a living hell – not least because following that murder, she chopped off two of his fingers in a frenzied attack. There’s also Enriqueta Sabido, the owner of a local beauty salon where Sara gets a job after being thrown on her own resources; she also does (bad) plastic surgery in the back. And even her own sister, Berta, is jealous of Sara for marrying Vicente, and who blames her – with some justification, it has to be said – for everything bad that happens subsequently.

She does have allies, though I wouldn’t be selling any of them life insurance, if you get my drift. They include honest cop Elio Tarso; Colombian dreamboat Manuel Caicedo; and even an affable cartel boss, Miguel Quintanilla, who possesses a quite fascinating collection of suits. [The white ones make a terrible background for subtitles, producers please note.] However, it’s mostly Sara’s motherly inclinations that lead to problems, whether financing a transplant for Salvador by any means necessary, or demanding her cartel employer close down the tunnels through which drug-carrying kids are employed to cross the border, because… Well, Sara doesn’t like it, that’s why.

But it is actually fairly rough on occasions: for instance, the removal of Indio’s fingers is well-staged, and revisited frequently [this show loves its flashbacks, more than any other I’ve seen to date – sometimes even revisiting scenes from earlier the same episode]. There’s another scene where Indio is torturing someone for information. He has them stand on a bed of spikes, then breaks their ankles to ensure they can no longer support their own weight. While mild in terms of cartel acts – some of the stories I’ve read would make your hair curl – the show is relatively brutal by the standards of the telenovela, and contains more bloodshed than most.

The obvious influence is another Telemundo production, La Reina Del Sur, with which it shares a number of crew, in particular writer Roberto Stopello – its heroine is even name-checked explicitly here, in one episode toward the end. Both share protagonists who are dumped into trouble after the demise of their other halves, and find the only way out is to get their hands dirty and become part of the criminal underworld. Despite this, the leading ladies share a strong sense of morality, with lines they won’t cross, and despise the exploitation of others – in Reina, it’s trafficking in women, while here it’s the use of children that provokes the central character’s ire.

Notwithstanding the double-meaning of her married name in the show’s title – Senora Acero can be translated as “Woman of Steel” – I find there’s a certain hypocrisy to Sara, compared to Teresa Mendoza. She’s strident about only wanting to be involved in money laundering rather than the drug trade, which seems a perilously thin moral distinction to me. Where the heck does she think the money she’s taking across the border comes from? It’s an almost privileged attitude, which seems to permeate her character from the start. For me, this left her less appealing, in comparison to her telenovela sisters, and this central weakness may be the show’s biggest flaw.

It’s a bit of a shame, as the supporting cast are fun to watch, on both sides of the coin. The villains are led by Acasio “Don Teca” Martínez (Reséndez), a cartel boss who has longed after Sara from afar, since he was a geek in the local barrio. Now, he has a shrine to her at the back of his office, and wields his power in a creepy stalking campaign, designed to drive her into his arms at any cost. Meanwhile, on Sara’s side is Aracely Paniagua (Litzy), a good-hearted former hooker and drug addict, who just can’t seem to escape her past, which keeps dragging her back in. She offers a more traditional telenovela heroine, almost harking back to Victorian melodrama.

The music in the show is interesting… Norteña band Los Tucanes de Tijuana produced and performed a song for it, titled “La Señora de Acero”, which the series incorporates, as having being commissioned by one of Sara’s drug-cartel bosses in her honour. It’s the usual oompah laden nonsense (I don’t like country & western either!), and far more fun is the bombastic score that accompanies the tensest moments. I’ve not been able to pin down the creator – it may be Rodrigo Maurovich, credited for “musicalization”, or it may be stock composer Xiaotian Shi. But it’s so wildly over-dramatic, swelling ominously to a crescendo, even when no-one is doing anything more than staring at a door, I can’t help but love it.

Back before the show had even begun to air, in mid-2014, there was an option apparently granted to USA Network to produce an English-language version of Senora Acero. Nothing appears to have come of this, and it was only a couple of months later that the station ordered a pilot for Queen of the South instead. Having seen both Mexican series now, as well as the USA Network remake of Reina, the choice was probably a smart one. The darker storyline of Reina likely renders it more easily adaptable. I’d be hard-pushed to imagine this, really a story of maternal instincts gone wrong, being able to make an effective transition to the gritty series which USA apparently wanted.

Despite this diss by the American market, unlike Reina, the show wasn’t one and done. Senora Acero almost doubled its US audience over the four-month run, its finale winning its time-slot in a number of key demographics, regardless of language. And, so, a year, later season two began, with another 75 episodes, and a third season, with a monstrous 93 episodes, started last summer. [The most recent installments appear not to involve Blanca Soto, for reasons which would require major spoilage to discuss…] All three are currently on Netflix, and I’ll confess some of the pics used here are from them – but at somewhere north of 50 hours of viewing per series, I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for in-depth reviews of the later seasons!

Star: Blanca Soto, Jorge Zárate, Litzy, José Luis Reséndez

Crazyhead

starstarstarstarhalf
“Buffy does Britain.”

Amy (Theobold) is insane. Or so the rest of society thinks, due to her being able to see things nobody else can. She’s trying to keep her head down, working quietly at a bowling alley. But after being attacked, she is rescued by Raquel (Wokoma), another young woman who can see exactly the same things. Amy learns from her new friend that demons are real, and live among us: Raquel has appointed herself a demon-hunter, and convinces the reluctant Amy to join her. This causes no end of issues, not the least of which is Amy’s room-mate becoming one of the possessed, and the most of which is likely the apocalyptic plan of Callum (Curran). He intends to use Raquel to open the gates of hell on Halloween, allowing thousands more demons to flood into our world and take over humans.

It is, very clearly, inspired by Buffy in many aspects, from its blonde heroine, through the “Scooby Gang” of friends in assistance, such as long-suffering bowling-alley colleague, Jake (Reeves), who carries a torch for Amy and likes canoeing. On the villainous side, Callum also seems to owe a particularly large debt to the Mayor of Sunnydale (though in our house, Curran will always be Van Gogh from Doctor Who!). However, it’s almost fourteen years since Buffy Summers rode off into the sunset, so I guess the statute of limitations has run out there. Another potential inspiration could be a distaff version of Supernatural, but there’s still plenty here that’s fresh and fun, and it has a particularly British approach

For instance, it’s laden with sarcastic banter, as well as (for those who might be offended) plenty of harsh language and general crudity – an exorcism, for instance, requires a very special shower for the target… If somewhat lacking in originality, the dynamic between the two leads helps make up for this; it’s likely the show’s strongest suit, and overcomes most of the scripting flaws. Amy and Raquel are each outsiders in their own ways, who can mesh together into an effective whole. One possesses better social skills, and can hold down a job, so is able to interface with other people if necessary; while the other has superior knowledge about what’s going on, in part thanks to her “special” background. Though both are quite happy to resort to a more physical approach when necessary – and, given who they’re facing, that would be quite often.

It’s all over remarkably quickly, especially if you are more used to American series, typically lasting 20+ editions a season. This only takes six 45-minute episodes to go from introducing the characters to the eve of the apocalypse. It is perhaps a good thing, as the story written by creator Howard Overman is somewhat thin, and could potentially feel stretched if told at any greater length. Instead, you will likely be left wanting more, and that’s never a bad position for the audience to be in, at the end of a show’s first season.

Dir: Al Mackay and Declan O’Dwyer
Star: Cara Theobold, Susan Wokoma, Lewis Reeves, Tony Curran

La Viuda Negra vs. Griselda Blanco: Telenovela vs. real-life

The young Griselda Blanco: real (left) and telenovela versions.

starstarstar
“Art VAGUELY imitating life.”

It’s probably safe to say La Viuda Negra is “inspired” by the story of Griselda Blanco, rather than anything more. But there are aspects of the telenovela which are surprisingly accurate, especially in the early stages, before things begin diverging for dramatic purposes. [Note: of necessity, what follows will include major spoilers for the TV series] For example, Griselda did move to the city of Medellin with her mother at an early age, not long after the end of World War 2, and it does appear she was involved in criminal activities there, before even becoming a teenager in the mid-fifties. 

A focus of the early episodes sees Blanco joining a gang, which then kidnaps the scion of a rich local family. In the telenovela, this kick-starts her career, because the victim dies, and his father vows vengeance on Griselda, forcing her to go on the run as a young adult. The reality is perhaps even more astonishing, with her former lover, Charles Cosby, reporting that the kidnap and murder took place when Blanco was only eleven years old. After the boy’s parents refused to pay up, the frustrated gang gave her a revolver and challenged her to shoot him in the head. Challenge accepted…

It was around this time she also met her first husband, Carlos Trujillo. In real life, he was involved in forging immigration documents; she had three children with him, all of whom would become involved in the drug trade, and suffer violent ends. The same happened to Trujillo, whom Griselda had killed, shortly after they divorced at the end of the sixties. In La Viuda Negra, her first husband, Puntilla, is part of the kidnapping gang, who goes on the run with Griselda, and is killed by him in Episode 6, after betraying her. [This is kind of a theme through the TV series; if Ms. Blanco has serious trust issues as a result, it’s understandable!]

It’s with her second husband that her career as a drug queen really started to take off, both in reality and fiction – though the latter has Robayo operating over the border in Ecuador, where Griselda (Serradilla) takes refuge. They establish a pipeline to move their product from South America to the United States, using attractive women as mules. The TV version has her having high-heeled shoes built, with hidden compartments to hide the drugs. That seemed a very inefficient approach to me: really, how much could one person carry? The reality made more sense: Blanco actually developed and used specially-made corsets and other lingerie, capable of holding up to seven pounds of cocaine per person. Even in those days, that was worth about a million dollars.

In the TV series, there’s a diversion after they’re established in New York, as Italian Mafia kingpin, Enzo Vittoria, falls in love with Griselda, and abducts her for reasons of affection, despite her having previously shot and wounded him. Never one to leave a job unfinished, she shoots him again, on their enforced wedding day (Episode 19), and this time completes the job. [Should that count as another murdered husband? They technically weren’t married…] However, she gradually grows estranged from Robayo, not least over the upbringing of their son, Michael Corleone Blanco – yes, he was named that in real life too! – and kills him in Episode 26, just before being arrested by long-running DEA adversary, Norm Jones (Gamboa), after having relocated to Miami.

The truth is somewhat different. Vittoria appears pure invention, although DEA agent Bob Palumbo did spend more than a decade on the trail of Blanco. There was indeed a falling out between her and second husband, Alberto Bravo, ending in her killing him. However, this took place back in Colombia. She and her top killers, Humberto Quirana and Jorge ‘Rivi’ Ayala, went to meet Bravo in a parking lot; the resulting gun-battle left Bravo and six bodyguards dead, and Blanco wounded. Later in the seventies, she returned to Florida, rising to the top in a brutal reign of terror, culminating in an infamous double homicide at Dadeland Mall. Her network brought in as much as $80 million a month, but Palombo eventually got his woman in 1985.

So, jail on both sides. But this is where the stories really start to diverge. In reality, she served 13 years in New York for cocaine smuggling, then was shipped to Florida where worse trouble awaited. For hitman ‘Rivi’ had turned stool-pigeon, and with his testimony linking her to literally dozens of murders, the death penalty loomed large. However, his testimony was largely discredited after a bizarre scandal in which he was shown to have paid secretaries at the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office for phone sex. In the end, prosecutors had to settle for lesser charges; Blanco got 20 years, and was released after only seven, returning to Colombia at the end of her sentence in 2004. The day she left, ‘Rivi’ was stabbed eight times in Dade County jail.

The TV series compacts the nineteen years Blanco really spent behind bars, in two separate sentences, into one period in New York alone. These 18 episodes add additional, entirely spurious aspects such as Griselda being forced to engage in cage fights (!) with other inmates, or her being attacked by guards, and getting revenge by setting them on fire. There are a couple of aspects one might call ‘somewhat true’. There was a plan hatched to kidnap the son of John F. Kennedy and exchange him for Blanco, though it never came as close to success as depicted in the telenovela. And while it is true that a man struck up a relationship by writing to her while she was inside, Charles Cosby was not the undercover DEA agent, portrayed as “Tyler” in the TV version.

Certainly, there’s major dramatic license in Blanco’s departure from prison. Rather than just reaching the end of her sentence, there’s a dramatic escape from literally being in the electric chair [which is odd, since no-one has been executed in New York state since 1963, and no woman since Martha Jule Beck in 1951]. Using a drug which gives the impression of death, allows her gang to break her out by ambulance (Episode 44). From there she returns to Colombia, and only at this point, does Blanco cross paths with the most notorious drug-lord of them all, Pablo Escovar. However, it appears they knew each other far longer. Some sources say they were childhood friends, others that he was Griselda’s “great apprentice,” and there are even salacious whispers they were lovers.

So any connection to fact in the show has now evaporated entirely. By this point, the real Griselda Blanco was in her sixties, and suffering badly from the effects of her life of excess – according to reports, “Court records show Blanco was a drug addict who consumed vast quantities of ‘bazooka,’ a potent form of smokeable, unrefined cocaine… would force men and women to have sex at gunpoint, and had frequent bisexual orgies.” After her release, she apparently lived quietly in Medellin. But it wasn’t enough to save her from a violent end. In September 2012, she was killed outside a butcher’s shop – ironically, in a motorcycle drive-by, the style of assassination she had pioneered and which became one of her trademarks.

This is as good a place as any, to mention the remarkably straight-edge depiction of Blanco in the telenovela. Unlike the sex- and drug-fiend described above, teleGriselda never gets high on her own supply, and is strictly monogamous – when anyone can get past her trust issues, that is. That’s something which I also noticed about La Reina Del Sur and the Mexican TV version was radically different from the American one, where the heroine was not averse to powdering her nose now and again. It’s an odd version of morality, considering how there’s apparently no problem with her being directly and indirectly responsible for the deaths of dozens of people. “Yeah, but they were all bad,” to borrow a line from True Lies.

In the television version, however, she returns to business back on home turf. But there’s a problem, in the shape of Otalvaro. He’s another Colombian drug-runner, who holds a grudge against Blanco because she ordered the execution of his niece in her New York days – albeit for business rather than personal reasons. He teams up with Susana, another character apparently created for the show. She’s a Florida real-estate agent, who becomes part of Griselda’s crew, and is also a lesbian who has a long-time secret affection for her. When her hopes are crushed, she turns bitter, joining forces with Otalvaro, and tangentially, Escobar. Otalvaro’s daughter, Karla, meanwhile, goes the other way, falling for Michael Blanco after Otalvaro kidnaps him; she helps him escape and becomes part of Griselda’s crew.

In truth, these later episodes are less interesting, largely because the focus is so diluted – it gets away from Griselda, rather than focusing on her, as it should since she’s the most interesting character. I haven’t even mentioned Silvio, who betrays Griselda and tries to steal a submarine (!) packed with cocaine. He then gets miffed after she orders the death of his girlfriend, and begins his own, independent plot to take revenge on the family. Also still rattling around Medellin in the later stages is Jones, the series’s version of Bob Palumbo. He isn’t just chasing after her, he also ends up falling in love and prepared to do anything for her. Throw in his son and a renegade colleague, Garcia, prepared to go to any lengths to capture Griselda, and you’ll understand why it feels the writers are going for volume over quality in their storyline elements by the end.

But it’s at the end the story diverts furthest from reality. Instead of having Griselda gunned down in the street by an unknown adversary, she and her longest lasting and most faithful ally, Richi (Román), are trapped in a cold-storage room. Rather than surrender, or be captured by their enemies, legal or otherwise, they agree to a mutual suicide pact. The screen goes black, we hear the sound of gunfire, and the series ends. But mere mortality is no match for the demands of audience ratings. And so, two years later, the show began its second season, with a further 63 episodes detailing the further adventures of Griselda Blanco. The fictional version of the character appears to be even harder to kill than her real-life inspiration.

We’ll get round to watching that series in a bit, but after this 81-part marathon, I’m inclined to take a bit of a break! It wasn’t a bad show, and never became a chore: Serradilla is solid in the central role, and I also enjoyed Gamboa’s performance. But as noted, it did appear to lose focus as it went on, and did appear to be over-stretching its material. However, it will provide a useful template, against which other adaptations can be measured. For there are at least two competing Hollywood projects in various stages of production: one starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and the other, Jennifer Lopez. As and when those arrive on our screen, we can see how they compare to the extended version, offered by this telenovela.

Star: Ana Serradilla, Juan Pablo Gamboa, Julián Román, Ramiro Meneses