A huge number of us have been thrilled by cocaine. I don’t mean by consuming the drug—which is, of course, illegal (and also expensive, estimated at a median price of $364 per gram in New Zealand by the Global Drug Survey 2019)—but thanks to the various joys it has brought us on screen.
Some movies focus on the drug trade itself, the buying and selling of a product that exists mostly as something to generate wealth and scenes of violence between rival dealers or up against law enforcement. More relevant to the real-life consequences of the global hunger for cocaine are depictions of the harms at street level—communities devastated by addiction, or even worse, those in the Americas whose lives have been ravaged by cartel violence and the destabilisation caused by cocaine becoming a primary export.
Our appetite for the drug in the West has been fueled not just by its physical effects, but how it’s glamorised onscreen. A massive number of rollercoaster rise and fall tales first depict it as a hell of a lot of fun before playing a part (alongside coke-inflated hubris) in a character’s downfall. Who wouldn’t want to plunge their face into Tony Montana’s huge pile of blow in Scarface? Join the coke-y hijinks of The Wolf of Wall Street? Have whatever you’d call Ray Liotta’s over-the-top reaction to snorting a line in GoodFellas? It all looks pretty damn fun until Hollywood morals dictate it doesn’t, but it’s an inherently simplistic depiction, bordering on stupid.
New series ZeroZeroZero steers away from simplistic signifiers of cocaine’s glamour, but certainly isn’t short on thrills, action and aspiration, nor an examination of its various impacts. Ambitiously, the series explores three critical facets of the drug trade, all linked together by one massive coke shipment. The cartel exporters in Mexico who wage a violent war with police and one another; the brokers who move drugs around the planet with apparent ease (usually); the Mafia buyers in Italy who will use it for enrichment and power—all three stories intersect across eight gripping episodes.
Adapted by Gomorrah’s Stefano Sollima (from a book by Gomorrah author Roberto Saviano), the action in ZeroZeroZero spans the globe, with its characters involved in increasingly deadly scrapes as their schemes start to violently spiral out of control, all soundtracked by ever-brilliant post-rockers—and recent UK chart-toppers, congrats!—Mogwai (whose typically great score can be heard here).
From street-level gang members to the highest levels of the drug trade, no one involved will be left untouched by the consequences.
In the mountains of Italy, the show introduces us to the isolated bunker of an organised crime boss who is losing his grip on power. To assert his authority and unite his rivals, Don Minu La Piana organises an enormous five tonne cocaine shipment to set sail from Mexico, a huge quantity that is intended to enrich all and set aside squabbling for the greater good.
“How much is five tonnes of cocaine worth?”, you are no doubt thinking. The answer, if it were all sold in Italy—though it’s likely to move throughout Europe—is a street value of approximately $571,702,780 in New Zealand dollars. Don’t ask me how I know this (OK, I used the internet and a calculator).
That amount of cash might be a solution to Don Minu’s immediate problems, but it’s also enough to have unintended consequences—in this case, his grandson Stefano seeing the potential in seizing the opportunity for himself, taking grandad out of the picture and becoming big boss. Being the Mafia (or, technically speaking, the ‘Ndrangheta) you probably won’t be surprised to hear this will end in some executions, which may or may not involve people being fed alive to pigs.
But before it arrives in Italy to be split up, stepped on, and sold to be snorted up powder-hungry noses, a deal must first be struck with the Mexican cartel supplying the drug. A family-owned shipping firm will be both negotiator and transporter, with two siblings (Possessor’s Andrea Riseborough, Chronicle’s Dane DeHaan) and their father (Hereditary’s Gabriel Byrne) working to fulfill this shipment. It’s a deal that will get the Lynwood family out of a massive financial hole, but in turn exposes them to a huge $31 million dollar risk if it doesn’t pan out.
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Just seeing the planning and negotiation process is interesting enough, but this wouldn’t be a drug thriller if something weren’t to go wrong. In fact, things go wrong over and over again, with the family finding themselves in all manner of scrapes as the coke shipment makes its torturous way towards its destination. These happen in all manner of places, including aboard a massive cargo ship traversing international waters; in Senegal’s capital Dakar; ISIS-controlled areas of the Sahara Desert; and Casablanca, Morocco—joining Mexico, Italy and the US in a display of the show’s huge geographical scope.
And, of course, before any of this, the coke has to get out of a country ravaged by violent battles: cartel vs. cartel; cops vs. cartel; cops vs. dirty cops; and so on, and so on.
Like many Mexican Army soldiers enlisted in the fight against cartels, Manuel Contreras has become corrupted by the opportunities for enrichment and power. ZeroZeroZero traces his path as he becomes more and more closely aligned with the narcos who are selling to the Lynwoods. Mayhem and betrayal escalate amid a grotesquely violent Mexico rocked by everyday murder, torture and mutilation, not to mention the vile massacre of civilians that we see posted to social media.
If this all sounds a bit complicated, that’s part of the enjoyment of ZeroZeroZero. It’s not always clear how the three stories are interlinked, or even where they sit in the show’s timeline, with each episode taking place in various times and places—which, like most of the creative choices made, is all for the viewer’s benefit.
In another example of its confidence, the series also relishes throwing us into the thick of events before dipping back in time to explain what we’re watching, and it’s a tactic that keeps us on the edge of our seat. Elsewhere, the series is buoyed by performances that deliver on its excellent casting, while energetically staged action sequences get the pulse racing as much as scenes that play more on nail-biting jeopardy.
Expect to be hooked by each of the storylines, even while you wonder how it’s all going to intersect. But stay off the drugs.