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'Griselda' Tries To Balance Mother And Monster

Sofía Vergara as Griselda in the first episode of the Netflix series.
Sofía Vergara as Griselda in the first episode of the Netflix series.

Sofía Vergara as Griselda in the first episode of the Netflix series.

Motherhood is hard. Balancing work and child care, and the emotional and mental load of a household — the traditionally “feminine” work that often falls to women — can feel impossible.

As the leader of a drug cartel, those stressors are even greater because the stakes are much, much higher when your only options are to kill or be killed. At least, that’s what Netflix’s new limited series, “Griselda,” espouses.

Gender is a dominating theme in the six-episode series, which stars Sofía Vergara in a fictionalized dramatization of Griselda Blanco, the Colombian drug lord who created one of the most powerful drug cartels in history during the 1970s and ’80s in Miami. Motherhood underpins the series and attempts to add emotional complexity to Vergara’s character.

“Griselda” uses sexism and motherhood to make Griselda a more likable anti-hero for the viewer and a symbol for her devotees — the vulnerable prostitutes and immigrants she “protects” as “Godmother” by offering money and employment, and a twisted version of hope. However, as the series unfolds, it becomes clear that the viewer rooting for the female narco to show the other drug lords that she is more than a “girlfriend,” “housewife,” or “headache,” has fallen down the same depraved rabbit hole as Griselda’s acolytes.

The first episode opens with a quote from Pablo Escobar ― “The only man I was ever afraid of was a woman named Griselda Blanco” ― before cutting to a scene of Griselda stumbling into her dark house, tossing her purse on the entryway table and limping quickly up the stairs. From her heavy breathing and shaking, and blood-covered hands, it becomes clear that she experienced something traumatic.

After bandaging her bleeding stomach, she calls a woman named Carmen (Vanessa Ferlito) and tells her that something happened with her husband, Alberto (Alberto Ammann), and she needs a favor. She is leaving Colombia with her three kids tomorrow and needs to stay in Carmen’s small guest bedroom until she figures out what to do next.

Griselda’s “favor” is really a demand because she doesn’t give Carmen a chance to refuse. Already, within the first three minutes of the show, it appears that Griselda is taking what she deems necessary to protect her kids. As a viewer without context, without knowing what happened with Alberto and why she’s running, I found myself rooting for escape.

But, even without background knowledge of the horrendous violence that real-life Griselda ordered and oversaw during Miami’s drug wars, it quickly becomes apparent that the framing of Griselda as a single mom entering a life of crime to protect her children is a false characterization. She was already involved in the drug trade in New York with Alberto.

When Carmen offers Griselda the chance to start over, to work at her travel agency, Griselda is unwilling to do that. To paraphrase Carmen’s character, she will “leave the man, not the life.”

Griselda is not Nancy Botwin from “Weeds,” or Beth Boland, Ruby Hill or Annie Marks from “Good Girls.” Crime is not a “last resort” or a foreign world. It’s the only life she knows. She is already addicted to the dangerous lifestyle that ensnares those female leads.

From left: Griselda's sons Jose Velazquez as Uber, Orlando Pineda as Dixon, and Martin Fajardo as Ozzy in a scene of Griselda.
From left: Griselda's sons Jose Velazquez as Uber, Orlando Pineda as Dixon, and Martin Fajardo as Ozzy in a scene of Griselda.

From left: Griselda's sons Jose Velazquez as Uber, Orlando Pineda as Dixon, and Martin Fajardo as Ozzy in a scene of Griselda.

She doesn’t want to answer phones at a travel agency; she wants to find someone to buy the uncut kilo of cocaine she smuggled into the country in her son’s suitcase. 

“As a woman, I was fascinated, like, how did she become even more ruthless, more horrific than any man,” Vergara said in an interview with CBS Sunday Morning.

That is the true story of Griselda. 

The real Griselda allegedly ordered the murders of hundreds of people, and while the show doesn’t shy away from the gruesome power struggles, drive-bys and paranoid killings of her reign, the body count is far lower than real-life estimates. (Blanco’s family is suing Vergara and Netflix for using their likenesses without proper authorization.)

For most of the Netflix series, these killings also appear to come at a moral cost. They are necessary for Vergara to gain the respect and power needed to protect her family — both her biological children and her employees. 

And that protection comes at a cost. This is highlighted through the juxtaposition of parenting and violence. Griselda’s third son usually appears on the screen, carrying a teddy bear or watching TV, after she has ordered someone’s death. 

It’s in balancing this line between mother and monster that Vergara’s acting shines, but the character development itself is questionable. I never quite believe that Griselda is anything other than a terrible mother or that her acts are anything but a selfish pursuit for money and power. 

Instead, I wish more time had been spent on the dichotomy between Griselda and June (Juliana Aidén Martinez), one of the detectives investigating her case. Together they are different sides of the same coin — undervalued mothers combatting sexism at work — one is just fighting against crime, and the other is propagating it. 

But the show isn’t willing to cede enough of Griselda’s power to become a true cat-and-mouse tale even if expanding that storyline could have added a needed level of depth and emotional resonance. It also would have removed the burden for Vergara to carry the entire show, which she does successfully but to the series’ detriment. 

While Vergara’s performance steals the show, I wish the series had leaned in even more to its fictionalized dramatization. It depends on her femininity and motherhood to add depth, but it doesn’t let those elements do enough. This leaves parts of the series feeling as contrived as the strange “Godmother” hand motion that Vergara repeatedly makes with one of her many, many cigarettes.

Ultimately, being a mom and having kids to feed becomes a tired justification, and, by the end of the six episodes, I was as exhausted with Griselda as were her own children.

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