I watched Amo, Brillante Mendoza’s series about the government’s contentious war on drugs, hoping to be challenged, even disturbed.
Instead, I came to the realization that Amo is comfort food dressed as an edgy crime drama. For all the lengths Mendoza goes to instill a sense of dread and tension (the show has dismemberments, claustrophobic set pieces – and lots of shootings, of course), the show ultimately upholds the ataractic narrative that only the drug dealers are at risk, and that the police is a self-cleansing institution.
Criminals face death, or worse, a prison cell with Baron Geisler in it.
It’s basically an anti-drug PSA that drags on for 13 episodes.
Unsurprisingly, Amo is being labeled as propaganda.
Human rights advocates, including the mother of a 19-year-old who was killed after he was accused of peddling drugs, are pressuring Netflix to take the down show. (Amo, which was funded by TV5, is the first Filipino series to be shown on the popular streaming platform.)
In an interview with Agence France-Presse, Mendoza claims the show isn’t propaganda. He also says: "The reason why I did this is so people can see the other side of the coin – from the point of view of the ‘victims’ as well as the ‘victimizers.’"
That second statement is more interesting to me than the quandary over whether Amo is propaganda or not. (For what it’s worth, I believe it is propaganda – but more on that later.)
The critical question we should be asking here is whose story is he telling?
Bullet holes and plot holes
Amo gives an on-the-ground perspective on the war on drugs.
At the center of the story is Joseph, a highschooler drawn into the drug trade. The series is also about his brother-in-law Bino, a drug dealer, and uncle Camilo, a corrupt cop.
While most propaganda pieces create caricatures, here Mendoza goes the extreme opposite. The main characters are flat, uninteresting, and driven by the faintest sliver of motivations.
The show jumps from one subplot to another, often abandoning the previous one without providing a satisfying resolution.
When Joseph and Bino lose a chunk of their merchandise to a police raid, there’s a brief moment of tension when their supplier pulls them aside… and then simply tells them to lay low. I can’t imagine Tuco Salamanca from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul letting his dealers off the hook that easily.
Mendoza tries to strike a balance by showing corruption among the police ranks, but even that is whitewashed and sanitized to suit his agenda.
Here, Jee is re-envisioned as Takeo, a Japanese drug smuggler. Basing these episodes on the death of an innocent person and making the character guilty is one of the most sickening things about this show.
I would have kicked my TV in if it weren’t for an unintentionally hilarious gaffe in one of those scenes.
When a corrupt police chief calls Takeo’s wife and demands ransom, he does so using what appears to be an inverted cellphone. These cops aren’t just bad; they’re bad at being bad.
Tokhang case study
The show’s sloppy, lopsided narrative gives off the impression that Mendoza is less keen on telling a coherent story, and more interested in providing a tokhang case study.
In the series, police officers politely invite suspects to questioning. The suspects know their rights, but rarely stand up for it. They report to the police station where they are processed and made to do Zumba.
Amo is more preoccupied with showing the effects of drug use (and the urgency of the war against it) than it is with tackling the social and economic factors that lead to its abuse. It fails to show the humanity amidst the bloodshed.
And that leads me to the realization that I was asking the wrong question earlier in this article.
Amo isn’t about people. It never was.
When a work of art neglects humanity and instead represents an ideology, it becomes propaganda. By treating its characters as mere vehicles to forward its pro-war against drugs agenda, Amo becomes propaganda – and bad one, at that.
In an ideal dystopia, we would get better propaganda than this. – Rappler.com
Iñigo de Paula is a writer who lives and works in Quezon City. When he isn't talking about himself in the third person, he writes about pop culture and its peripheries.