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‘Griselda’ Review: Sofía Vergara Breaks Into Drama in Netflix’s Killer Queenpin Story

Miami in the 1970s and 80s was a much more chaotic place than today, and that is in part because of a woman named Griselda Blanco. Known as La Madrina (or The Godmother), Blanco rose to become the city’s biggest cocaine dealer, leaving a path of death and destruction in her wake. Given the amount of films and shows made about some of history’s most notorious narcos, like Pablo Escobar and El Chapo, it was only a matter of time before someone made a quality story for the screen about the most infamous female drug trafficker known to date.

Starring Emmy-nominated, Colombian-American actor Sofía Vergara, “Griselda” brings to light a fresh take on the typical narco tale that at times can feel almost empowering — that is, until you discover just how grisly the queenpin could be. Right from the opening scene, director Andrés Baiz (who both worked on the “Narcos” series for Netflix) shows you exactly who Griselda is: Beautiful. Well-dressed. Tough as nails. Her hands bloody, we see her tending to a nasty gash on her abdomen. Patching herself up with whatever she can scrape together in a small household bathroom, she remains collected. It’s a perfect visual for the sort of woman she is. Or at least, the woman she is at the start.

Much like Baiz and “Griselda” co-creator and executive producer Eric Newman managed to make Escobar near-likable by showing his commitment to the people of Medellín in “Narcos,” it’s nearly impossible not to root for Griselda at first. She’s a former sex worker escaping an abusive husband, looking for a way to make money in a particularly sexist industry. She’s also raising three sons in a country where she’s practically on her own. We feel for our chaotic heroine each and every time someone sells her out or turns her away. Even when she tells a lie or three, it’s because it’s what she has to do to provide for her family. Plus, all the men around her are absolutely awful (as drug traffickers tend to be), so it’s not hard to be on her side.

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Alberto Guerra and Sofia Vergara in “Griselda.” (Netflix)

Speaking of the men around her, the show has a bit of a rotating cast of characters that includes a bevy of Latin American talent from Alberto Guerra (“El Señor de los Cielos”) and “Metastasis” star Diego Trujillo, to Fredy Yate (“The Queen of Flow”) and Christian Tappan of “La Reina del Sur.” You’ll also see some “Narcos” and “Narcos: Mexico” alums, including José Zúñiga (Rebollo in “Narcos: Mexico”) and Alberto Ammann (who played Pacho Herrera in both shows), though they are not reprising their old roles.

The series makes it clear that Griselda has worked in the drug trafficking business for some time, having set up shop in Queens with her now-former husband. It’s even insinuated that she was the brains of the operation. As the story unfolds, Griselda begins to try and make allies in Miami, including reluctant old friend Carmen (Vanessa Ferlito of “NCIS: New Orleans”). Soon after, it becomes apparent that she really is as clever and resourceful as some say. She enlists a slew of sex workers she knew in Colombia to help with her drug operation, including Carla (played by the wildly popular Colombian singer Karol G). Despite a few setbacks and making fast enemies of the local traffickers, it’s obvious that La Madrina will run the operation before long

But no narco story would be complete without cops, so that’s where Detective June Hawkins (Juliana Aidén Martinez) comes in. Not unlike Griselda, June is also a mother working in a predominantly male field. You see the way she faces ridicule and disrespect daily (in one scene, her male colleagues turn down the thermostat so June’s nipples become visible through her blouse, while having a laugh at her expense). Despite the constant harassment and hazing, though, it’s clear that June is a much better detective than most. She quickly pieces together that it’s a lady narco who is slowly taking over Miami’s drug rings.

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Karol G and Christian Tappan in “Griselda.” (Elizabeth Morris/Netflix)

Halfway through the six-episode series, things begin to feel rushed. The Cocaine Cowgirl’s rise to the top is a beat too fast, and her side step into ruthlessness begins. It’s gratifying to see her holding cour in the neon-colored VIP section of the Mutiny — a popular Miami nightclub that was a hotspot for cartel activity — but feels tainted by the blood she had to have spilled to get there.

Not long after, a familiar downfall trajectory begins to unfold. Whether it’s having entirely too much money (Blanco is purported to have been worth around $2 billion) or too much cocaine, Griselda’s ambitions start to get in her own way. As paranoia takes hold of her decision making, she becomes needlessly sloppy and aggressive, taking out more and more people unnecessarily. A birthday party scene takes some especially dark turns, signaling that the queenpin is likely on her way out.

Despite some creative license to make the story more enjoyable, watching Griselda’s complex journey unfold over the Netflix limited series is about as satisfying as it gets. From a killer soundtrack (everything from Boney M. to the Miami Sound Machine) killer wardrobe (shoutout to those next-level jumpsuits), killer makeup job (no, that is not her actual nose) and killer cast (if anyone ever doubted Vergara’s dramatic chops, this will shut them up), this latest show is sure to have streaming audiences talking long after its release.

“Griselda” premieres Thursday, Jan. 25, on Netflix.

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