Netflix's Griselda is uncomfortable viewing – but not for the reason you might expect
Sofía Vergara stars as the "Godmother of Cocaine" in the six-part limited series.
***Contains major spoilers for Griselda.***
"The only man I was ever afraid of was a woman named Griselda Blanco."
Before any action unfolds in Netflix series Griselda, which stars Modern Family's Sofía Vergara as the eponymous Colombian drug baron (it really is quite the departure for her, and a committed performance to boot), those words, supposedly spoken by Pablo Escobar himself, appear on screen.
"Ruthless", "cold-blooded" and "monster" are all words that have been used to describe a woman who came from humble, challenging beginnings to form one of the most powerful drug cartels in history, with a net worth of billions – in spite of being female, and around five feet tall.
Her temper was one of her defining, most-documented characteristics, with the murder rate in Miami skyrocketing under the weight of her rule – she's believed to have been involved in at least 40 murders, and at most 200.
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And Griselda the series doesn't sugarcoat that.
When she believes there's an informant in her ranks, which is merely the result of good work from the Miami PD, she orders a mass in-house clean up, which gives her right-hand man Rivi the green light to snuff out anyone she suspects - regardless of the evidence, of lack thereof.
Serenaded by the jaunty sound of Ruth Brown's Sweet Baby of Mine, what follows is a killing spree, with men being suffocated and a body dismembered in a bathtub.
It's exceptionally grim business, but needs must to keep everything ship shape.
- What happened to Griselda's June Hawkins?
- Who killed Griselda Blanco?
- What happened to Griselda Blanco's sons?
Griselda often had others carry out the vast majority of her dirty work, as we see in that instance, but there is one scene which indicates that it's not just about retaining a distance to protect herself from being implicated, and because it would be unbecoming of a cartel boss to carry out their own grunt work.
It's also suggested that she doesn't take any pleasure in the act of killing, which is a stark contrast to how she has been mythologised.
In episode 4, she herself shoots a man multiple times in the head for the role he's alleged to have played in the murder of one of the Cuban immigrants who works for her.
But unlike many of her enforcers, who are so often cool, calm and collected when pulling the trigger, some even appearing to revel in the brutal demise of others, following that incident, Griselda is visibly perturbed.
When her husband Dario takes her hand after noticing that her breathing is laboured, Griselda clasps it tight, almost as if she will fall apart entirely if she lets go.
Rumour has it she made her first kill at the tender age of 11, another youngster who was allegedly kidnapped for ransom. But in this depiction of Griselda, a natural born killer she is not.
The murder of Johnny Castro, the two-year-old son of her fixer Jesus "Chuco" Castro, seeks to illustrate that further.
"Thank God," she says, breathing a sigh of relief when Rivi informs her that he failed to kill Cucho. Her employee had insulted her son Dixon after refusing to cover for him following his involvement in a shooting, in turn insulting the "Black Widow" herself, and for that he had to pay, a command she delivers in the drama while high on drugs.
But shortly after, she learns of little Johnny's death and words escape her as she's overcome with sorrow and guilt.
Griselda falters as she's confronted with the true cost of what it means be the "Godmother of Cocaine", and in the next episode, she responds by getting high once again with Marta, part of the infamous Ochoa family, as a means of escape and detachment. But she's unable to switch off.
"I f**ked up really bad, I killed that boy," she says. "I can't stop thinking about it."
For all of the violence she's wrought, Vergara's Griselda seeks to show that while she was, indeed, monstrous, she was not a monster, a term that implies she's entirely devoid of human qualities and emotion, such as desolation and regret – something her youngest and only remaining son Michael Corleone Blanco acknowledged in an interview with MailOnline.
"Over and over, they make my mother out to be a child killer," he said. "She had four little boys, she was a godmother to 200 kids. It's just a myth."
It's not about making Griselda a sympathetic character, although it's important to note that she was forged in the fires of crime and poverty, her life beset with difficulty from the off, and it's not about redeeming her.
But the foursome who created this drama – Doug Miro, Eric Newman, Carlo Bernard and Ingrid Escajeda – have used this as an exercise to excavate the many layers that make up a person as a means to humanise her.
In moments like that, when her reaction mirrors that of our own, an overwhelming feeling of horror and despair, the distance between Griselda and us, the audience, is removed ever so slightly, which is an uncomfortable feeling.
Prior to that, as she plotted her route to power, there were multiple moments in which she appeared ill at ease and unsteady, often deep in thought as she burned through cigarette after cigarette.
Yes, she was often playing chess in her head, drumming up ploys to outmanoeuvre her adversaries, who were always circling. But we're also shown a woman who is not without anxieties and fear, particularly in regards to the welfare of her boys, who she moved into a gated estate during a particularly tumultuous period.
As June notes following her arrest, she's hardly mother of the year, and many will rubbish Griselda's claim that everything was done in the name of her family. There's certainly more than enough evidence to indicate that she had been overtaken by the lust for power.
But regardless, those are all recognisable traits that seek to add colour and context to who Griselda was. When she receives the news of her sons' deaths, she is, despite the extreme circumstances, like any other mother in mourning.
Of course, this is a "fictionalised dramatisation", and while extensive research was carried out and real-life figures consulted, including intelligence analyst June Hawkins and detective Al Singleton, Netflix's Griselda offers a particular perspective, and one that likely differs from how she or others, including her last remaining son, would choose to depict her explosive and extraordinary life.
It cannot speak to the truth of Griselda's internal monologue or reveal what really happened in certain private spaces, but the creators of this series undoubtedly set out to show the woman behind the myth – and she might not be entirely what you quite expected, for better or for worse.