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Once Upon a Time in the Kingdom of Crack

A drug epidemic gets its fairy tale

Once upon a time in Los Angeles, where the palm trees shoot up like beanstalks and the fairy dust is PCP, cocaine arrived in a bundle from the sky—parachuted in from a Nicaraguan contra plane. At least this is the creation myth we’re presented in Snowfall, FX’s new drama about the origin of America’s crack epidemic. The show plays more like a parable than a drama. It is not overtly whimsical, as in ABC’s fairytale-inspired Once Upon a Time, but its focus on individuals and not systems, along with its generic characters, makes it feel like a fantasy and not an immersive, detail-driven work in the vein of The Wire.

Here we have all the classical archetypes refashioned to fit the times: there is a pauper trying to make it out of his South Central hood, a CIA agent undercover as a clerk at an aeronautics firm, a Queenpin looking to secure her place in the city’s coke kingdom, a warrior entreated to mercenary work, and a merchant plying his wares in a new territory. The title itself conjures fairy tale scene-setting; the name Snowfall brings to mind a heavy frost falling gently outside a windowpane, a magical prelude narrated by a sonorous storytelling voice that weighs down the eyelids.

Which is to say that the crack epidemic’s shrouded history is a problem the show confronts with TV alchemy.

Snowfall’s pace has more pick-me-up than that, but its plot machinations are slow compared to other drug dramas. This makes sense, of course, when you see that John Singleton is involved as a series creator. Singleton came to prominence for with his intimate dramas about life in marginalized black communities (Boyz N the Hood, Poetic Justice, Rosewood), and because this is a series and not a shoot-em-up film, the deliberate pacing is natural, even welcome. And this deliberateness—despite its preference in individuals over systems—allows Snowfall to unfold its broad story. It is not, in other words, without a sense of scope commensurate with its subject.

The pilot’s July 5th premiere date offered Snowfall as a coda to a patriotic holiday, a reckoning with a history most Americans know little about—a fact put into relief by burgeoning concern about the opioid crisis, which is presented as largely white. Which is to say that the crack epidemic’s tangled and shrouded history is a problem the show must confront, and it does by way of TV alchemy that converts the roughshod, redacted historical details of crack’s American debut into a coherent plot—much in the way powder cocaine is itself transmogrified into crack. Yet unlike Kill the Messenger (2014), a feature film about the real-life story of journalist Gary Webb, who first broke the story of crack’s connection with the Contra scandal, Snowfall’s foundation seems to be largely fictional, with historical details used as guideposts.

The story begins on June 14, 1983, with Franklin Saint (Damson Idris), a nineteen-year-old South Central resident and graduate of a prestigious high school. Although smart and well adjusted, Franklin had nonetheless felt like a pariah among his white classmates, so he decides to skip college in favor of working at a convenience store and selling weed on the side for his Uncle Jerome (Amin Joseph). Franklin is pretty grounded; when he sees neighborhood kids stealing from an ice cream truck, for example, he reprimands them. When questioned about his actions by a friend, he replies, ”They gotta learn how America works.” Franklin himself comes to learn how the country operates: he is introduced to an Israeli cocaine connect through one of his wealthy Valley friends, and soon he’s dealing a kilogram of cocaine to a ruthless nightclub owner, who attacks his Aunt Louie (Angela Lewis) and puts a gun to his head.

Meanwhile, Zapp’s chunky electric doo-wop plays out of boomboxes and car stereos; we’d know, even if the title card didn’t tell us, that we’re in the historical moment just before G-Funk, before real-life Franklins would turn quagmires into rap music. In the second episode, Franklin’s coke dealer Avi (Alon Moni Aboutboul) asks him who’d he’d gotten to buy all of his drugs in twenty-four hours. Unwilling to give up his source, he replies, “My fairy godmother.” Franklin’s dialogue, in this way, joins allusions to fairy tale with American fable-making. He asks one character, “Ain’t that how it work? I do good, I get more opportunity?”

On the other side of town, a CIA agent drops dead of an overdose while partying with women and mounds of coke. The man’s associate, Alejandro (Juan Javier Cardenas), unable or unwilling to call paramedics because of the kilos of cocaine stashed near his dead friend’s body, contacts Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson), an undercover agent at a dreary office job. Initially wary of working with Alejandro, Teddy eventually buckles to his argument: the U.S. government has stopped funding the war in Nicaragua, and now American soldiers need to sell cocaine in order to buy weapons and supplies. Convinced, Teddy heads to clean up the crime scene. The subsequent sequence, in which the agent squeegees clean several splotches of blood around the room, is a tidy metaphor for the obscurantist complicity of the U.S. government in the crack epidemic.

Snowfall isn’t alone among recent works that use the conventions of fantasy and allegory to depict the North and Central American drug wars. Mexican novelist Yuri Herrera’s Kingdom Cons, which was first published in America in June, is a deceptively spare story about “the Artist,” a street singer who is hired to work for “the King,” a wealthy, powerful man who controls business in an unnamed country at an unspecified time—though its setting is loosely contemporary. Although Herrera doesn’t explicitly state the nature of the King’s business (a decision that allows him to avoid cliché), it’s strongly implied that he is a drug baron. The slim volume unfolds the Artist’s search for himself as he navigates the dangers of being the King’s inner circle. When the story ends, you’re left with the impression that, yes, as the book’s title hints, the Kingdom is a big scam job—but the perpetrator is ambiguously presented. Is it merely the King and his operation? Or, more abstractly, craven fantasies of wealth? Or is it the government?

Kingdom Cons, along with Herrera’s other translated novels, The Transmigration of Bodies and Signs Preceding the End of the World, are often classified as narcoliteratura, a literary tradition that allegorizes the drug wars with high-end storytelling. Herrera’s work also compounds the tropes and whimsical elements associated with magical realism, the subgenre favored by Latin American literary titans like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende. Yet compared with the work produced during the Latin American writing boom of the 1960s, Herrera’s novels offer a more familiar read for U.S. readers, who routinely hear from our president racist fantasies about “bad hombres” and the dangers of life across the border—as if there is only one border to speak of.

Like Herrera’s Artist, Vince Staples is a musician. For his part, Staples’ verses generally present as surrealist reportage, a commentary on the complexities of life as a young black man in America. His first album, Summertime ’06, is a bildung about his upbringing in Long Beach, California, one that matter-of-factly acquaints the listener with the impossible balance sheet of life in the wake of the crack epidemic—college is a scam, crime will get you killed, and fantasies of wealth get you through the day.

Staples’ most recent album, Big Fish Theory, came out in June. What exactly the theory of Big Fish Theory is, I’m not quite sure, but its conspiratorial flair is enticing. On “Big Fish” the chorus chants, “I was up late night ballin’ / countin’ up hundreds by the thousands.” Staples and Snowfall’s Franklin Saint have this common: the ecstasy of being young black men who have access to money seemingly overnight. And in Big Fish Theory, as in Snowfall, violence is an unwelcome bedfellow with pleasure, a fact-of-life ready to wreck sex or intoxication without warning.

Nowhere is this dichotomy more apparent than in the one-two-punch of “745” and “Ramona Park is Yankee Stadium.” “745,” has that slow-moving low-rider slap. Its synths move at half speed, and it’s easy to luxuriate in its radiance and flirty optimism. These are the pre-G-funk beats the audience hears on Snowfall, added to the familiar warped bounce that’s popular nowadays. “I’m in that 745 / Hope I can come scoop you up round 7:45 / Slide round with my drop top up or down, you down to ride?” With its quicksand bass and Staples’ signature laidback delivery, it’s almost as if he is freeze-framing a particular moment: a sunbathed scene, a moment or a mood. But the elastic beats of “745” give way to something quicker and more taut. “745” transitions into a spooky interlude called “Ramona Park is Yankee Stadium,” a fifty-second thriller that ends with Staples’ lullaby-rap cut off by a gunshot. “New York, New York bright lights and dark skies, if I die today / Would you even know I existed, would you see my face?”

“Is it real?” a voice repeatedly asks on Staples’ “Prima Donna,” from an EP of the same name released just before Big Fish Theory. Much of the rest of the song is given over to tightly narrated and slyly boilerplate verses about the powers and pleasures of a successful rap artist—Staples is, in effect, asking the listener to enjoy the fantasy while questioning it. In this respect, the post-epidemic verses of Vince Staples and the narcoliteratura of Yuri Herrera both offer fairy tales pressurized into existence by a harsh reality; and yet, in the same moment, they both question—by way of their forms—the sanctity of official narratives.

Out of redacted files and diverted Freedom of Information Act requests comes a murkier tale about crack.

This makes both novel and album necessary accompaniments to Snowfall, which arrives after thirty years of storytelling that has attempted, sometimes in vain, to make sense of the elaborate fantasy the U.S. government presents about crack’s origins. Out of redacted paperwork and diverted Freedom of Information Act requests comes a murkier tale. “The game’s rigged,” Franklin says in Snowfall. Though you believe him, his words lack the weight of, say, The Wire’s oft-repeated refrain: “It’s all in the game.” Because The Wire’s world-building comes with a beat journalist’s specificity—and intricate plotting that demonstrates institutional complicity at every level—the viewer understands individual powerlessness in the face of an enormous, culpable system.

In Snowfall, the connections don’t add up with the same significance, but maybe they’re not meant or able to. The national lacuna of information about crack’s half-life in black and brown communities imbues the show’s nebulous characterizations and vague subplots. Instead of systems, it offers broken fairy tales. And, like the work of Herrera and Staples, it argues that when it comes to inherited narratives about our drug epidemics, we’re still living in a world of make-believe.