Zero Zero Zero: Series Review

"Powder.  That's all you see when you look at cocaine.  But look a little closer, and you'll see an endless network: buyers, sellers, brokers and users, invisibly tangled in our daily lives.  Whether we like it or not."

Don Minu (Adriano Chiaramida), a Mafia kingpin living off the grid in Calabria, Italy, orders five metric tons of cocaine for $31 million US dollars, which is a very favorable price.  He needs the profit from retailing that cocaine to maintain control of his criminal organization.

In Tampico, Mexico, drug kingpins Jacinto and Enrique Leyra (Flavio Medina and Víctor Huggo Martin, respectively) receive an order for five metric tons of cocaine, which they pack in a shipping container, disguised as cans of chili peppers.

Zero Zero Zero is the story of that transaction.


Don Minu and the Leyras never meet, or even communicate directly with one another.  They are connected by Edward Lynwood (Gabriel Byrne), the American owner of a shipping company.  In addition to his day job providing transportation for legitimate cargoes, Edward is a cocaine broker, and the shipments he brokers travel in his fleet of container ships.

However, there's no such thing as a simple transaction in the cocaine trade.  At the suppliers' end, the Leyras are being hunted by an elite Mexican Army drug interdiction unit--but that unit's sergeant (Harold Torres) has other, darker ambitions than catching bad guys.  On the demand side of the deal, Don Minu's beloved grandson Don Stefano (Giuseppe De Domenico) has hatched a plot to depose grandpa by either preventing the shipment from arriving or stealing it for himself.  Edward's daughter Emma (Andrea Riseborough) and son Chris (Dane DeHaan) have the job of getting the merchandise from Tampico to Calabria, but the machinations of the buyers and sellers and their various adversaries are making this a lot more complicated than simply steaming the ship from one port to another. 

On some level, each of these characters knows that he or she is doing something morally wrong,  (In the opening narration, Edward Lynwood claims he's really doing good by brokering drug deals because it keeps the world economy afloat, but you can tell he doesn't believe it either.)   They keep their consciences suppressed in the interests of business and survival, but their "good" sides, such as they are, come to the surface now and then.  To take just one example, a ruthless narco sets up a longtime friend to be murdered in order to deflect the attention of the authorities, and then bends over backwards to care for the friend's widow and orphan.

Zero Zero Zero has the difficult task of telling a story about deeply evil people without either romanticizing them or making them unrealistically one-dimensional.  It does not portray them sympathetically, exactly, but it does show them to be complex human beings. The writing and acting are nuanced and empathetic, and the result is mesmerizing.  You actually care what happens to these people, even though (with the possible exception of the Lynwood children, the least-worst of the bunch) you wouldn't want to be in the same room with any of them unless you're heavily armed and they're in handcuffs and leg irons.

Included in the shipment:

Zero Zero Zero is based on the 2013 novel of that name by Italian journalist Robert Saviano.  His first book, Gomorrah, an exposé of the Camorra crime syndicate, has also been made into a TV series (as well as a stage play and a feature film). After Gomorrah was published in 2006, Sr. Saviano received death threats from the Camorras and has been under the protection of the Italian national police ever since.

The title is Italian slang for pure cocaine.

One of the things I really liked about the series is that all of the dialogue is in the characters' native languages: the Italians speak Italian, the Mexicans speak Spanish, and so on.

In several episode, scenes play out in anachronic order, in a manner that would do Christopher Nolan or Akira Kurosawa proud.

The payment terms are typical for drug deals in crime dramas--half up front, the rest on delivery--but this is the twenty-first century, where drug money is transmitted electronically using digital tokens for authentication. Much safer than the usual suitcase full of money.

One of the Mexican characters regularly attends a charismatic church, which is an interesting detail.

Conclusion

Violent and dark, and definitely not for everyone, Zero Zero Zero is nevertheless deeply engaging and probably much more realistic than the normal crime drama.

Four out of four shipping containers.

Baby M does his best to stay away from organized crime.

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