If there’s one thing Netflix loves, it’s a dramatized version of a true story. The streaming network’s latest limited series, Griselda, produced by the same team that helmed Narcos, is one of its better real-life tales. Sofía Vergara, who is obscured by slightly distracting prosthetics, plays Griselda Blanco, a notorious drug lord known as the Godmother. The six episodes, all directed by Andrés Baiz, reveal her rise to power in the 1970s and 1980s in Miami, where she built one of the most powerful cocaine cartels of all time. Is it all true? Sort of.
When we meet Griselda she’s bleeding and desperate, at the mercy of the men who run the cocaine trade in Medellín, Colombia. But it’s immediately clear that our anti-hero is not someone who will stay down for long. The series opens with a quote from Pablo Escobar, another notorious drug lord: “The only man I was ever afraid of was a woman named Griselda Blanco.” Griselda, depicted as a former prostitute although it’s uncertain if she ever actually was, flees Colombia for Miami with her three sons. She arrives with a brick of coke, hidden in her youngest son’s suitcase, aiming to unload it and use the money to find a place to live.
Vergara portrays Griselda with empathy, although she’s careful not to victimize her in the early episodes. A lot of men with a lot of guns threaten Griselda as she begins to work her way up the drug ladder in Miami, and Vergara ensures that the character holds her own with a vulnerable ferocity that is compelling to watch. Sure, she’s running cocaine from Colombia to the U.S., but you want to root for her anyway—even as her methods become more brutal and more ruthless. Vergara’s glamour is hard to tamp down, though, and despite the best efforts of the makeup team she looks almost nothing like real-life images of Blanco. Still, it’s an admirable, confident performance aimed directly at Emmys voters.
The rest of the cast is largely unknown to English-speaking audiences (much of the series is in Spanish), but hold their own alongside Vergara’s undeniable charisma. One of the best is Juliana Aidén Martinez, who plays a Miami police intelligence analyst named June Hawkins—another real-life character. Hawkins caught on to Blanco’s dealings in the 1970s and was intent on stopping her. Cleverly, the writers make June a mirror for Griselda. Both are single moms struggling to make ends meet, but take dramatically separate paths. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, particularly as co-creators Eric Newman, Doug Miro, Ingrid Escajeda and Carlo Bernard have said the intent of Griselda is to humanize someone who might not seem so relatable.
Newman recently told the BBC that “every person has an explanation, not an excuse, but an explanation,” which was the motivation for Griselda. It’s a good one, even if the series doesn’t always adhere to history. Details and events have been changed and added, a common practice in drama, and many of the scenes will send you running to Google. Not all of this happened, although that doesn’t really matter. The series captures the vibe of era, with skillful production and costume design that evoke a gritty version of Miami and lend a sense of authenticity to the storytelling. Griselda may be heavily dramatized, but it conjures an imagined reality that feels true enough and completely entertaining.