Turn of the Tide (Rabo de Peixe): Portugal and Netflix

Portuguese shows on Netflix have been picking up steam. What does Turn of the Tide (Rabo de Peixe in the original) tell us about the Azores and Portuguese culture in general?

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For most Americans, the Azores conjure up images of hiking in lush hills, swimming in crisp, clear waters, whale watching, and ecotourism galore.  (Well, to the extent that most Americans even know that the Azores are a group of Portuguese islands in the Atlantic Ocean, or where continental Portugal is located for that matter.) However, beyond the postcard idyllic of the Azores archipelago lies a more complicated socioeconomic picture of an area of Portugal with the largest percentage of the population living solely from government benefits.  In fact, most of the Portuguese immigrants in the United States originally came from the Azores in search of greater opportunity.
This is the backdrop for the Netflix series Turn of the Tide (titled Rabo de Peixe in the original Portuguese) released in May of 2023, which quickly reached the top 10 most viewed international series on the platform. Set in a small village called Rabo de Peixe in the largest island of the Azores, São Miguel, the series follows an enterprising group of four friends with an unexpected cocaine windfall on their hands that they are trying to sell before the feds, and the Italian mafiosos who lay claim to the drugs, catch them first.  In English, rabo de peixe means fish tail, and the village is named after points in the area’s rock formations that resemble a fish tail.  Of course, the tail of the fish is also the bony part normally tossed out, at least by people of means who eat only the meaty filets from the belly, so the village, and the series, comes framed in an “economic leftovers” social tension that the storyline aims to challenge.
Turn of the Tide is loosely based around an actual event that occurred in June of 2001.  A boat packed with cocaine on route from Venezuela to Spain crashed off the coast of São Miguel near Rabo de Peixe.  The drug smugglers aboard managed to salvage their merchandise by storing it in a grotto near the shore, but the cables they used to tie the cocaine packages became loose and hundreds of kilos of extremely pure coke washed ashore where it was picked up by local residents. 
Although the police managed to recover some of the drugs, an unknown but presumably large quantity remained unaccounted for, at least some of which entered the drug market.  In Rabo de Peixe, cocaine became abundant and cheap for a population unaccustomed to massive amounts of uncut powder floating around.  Folkloric reports emerged of people finding alternative uses for the excess cocaine, such as batter to fry fish or demarcating lines in soccer fields, a subject cheekily addressed in some of the early episodes of the Netflix series.  However, the influx of coke into Rabo de Peixe left real and devastating effects in its wake: a sharp increase in overdose deaths in the immediate aftermath, and the eventual distinction of the broader geographic area being identified as one of the counties in Europe with the highest rates of drug addiction today.
Within that context, the aesthetic of Turn of the Tide suggests a kind of Portuguese Trainspotting, a high octane, Quentin Tarantino-esque gallop through all the unexpected places one can potentially snort lines of coke, beyond just your average nightclub bathroom.  A dollop of police procedural gore in the form of dead bodies, detached limbs, and dimwitted cops provides some comedic fodder to round it out.
The show projects an irreverent, “cool” image of the Azores, and Portugal by extension, something different from the comparatively staid Port wine and fado stereotypes the country is famous for abroad.  In more than fifteen years of travelling and living in Portugal, I have not heard the word foda-se (f*ck) uttered as many times as I heard it in the first five minutes of episode one, which continues unabated through the whole series, as various Portuguese commentators have already observed.  I suppose it was meant to be edgy and transgressive in the same way the characters snorting blow from the gold crosses hanging around their necks is also meant to be. 
In that sense, I think Rabo de Peixe the series is successful, at least in terms of the objectives it seems to have set out for itself.  The protagonists are, indeed, not your average Portuguese.  Instead, they serve more as international archetypes – the nice guy, the goofball, etc. – that move the story along.  But for this same reason, I found the series to be curiously thin in terms of what Portuguese culture is actually like, something mostly gestured at with ironic winks and nods instead of lived.  This made it feel like Turn of the Tide could have taken place just as easily in east LA or the Bronx were it not for the panoramic views of São Miguel.    
The main character, Eduardo, is the nice guy turned ringleader.  A high school dropout struggling to take care of his sick father, Eduardo gives us the closest glimpse into the struggles of the Azorean working class.  He wants to emigrate to “America” but can’t secure a visa.  His car breaks down.  The desk attendant at the public hospital informs him with what I can only describe as a quintessentially Portuguese level of disdain that the date of his father’s surgery indicated on her computer screen says one thing, though the paper Eduardo has says another, and she moves on to the next patient without resolving the problem or explaining the error.  This made me laugh-wince in recognition.
Meanwhile, the female lead, Sílvia, comes to us straight out of Hollywood, not Portugal. Compared to other Western European countries, Portuguese society is relatively conservative socially, a tendency even more pronounced in the Azores, where religious devotion is commonplace.  Yet we are expected to believe that Sílvia, whose mother in the show presents as an over-the-top caricature of Catholic piety, nonetheless feels so liberated from societal strictures that she would be on the receiving end of – this is a family website, so let me be euphemistic here – intimate relations of the oral variety in a video rental store with only a beaded curtain to block the view.  Of course, we’ve already been instructed to know she’s “liberated” because she wears little more than a bikini top and a miniskirt for most of the series in a part of the world that doesn’t usually get much warmer in summer than the upper 70s (low 20s Celsius).  It’s an island, but not in the Caribbean.   
By contrast, the fully dressed female investigator heading the detective work on the cocaine shipment is rendered uptight and humorless.  She even jogs.  What a drag.
Sílvia begins the series as Eduardo’s unrequited romantic interest, and his friend Rafael’s girlfriend.  Rafael plays the goofball, bumbling through life as a soccer hopeful who never made it big.  His most interesting contribution to the plot comes when he cuts the cocaine with a laxative to increase the quantity they can sell.  Obviously, this is bad for business.  Also obvious: Rafael is the most expendable character in the show.
The main villain in the story, Arruda, is Sílvia’s substance-abusing, crime lord father.  He also comes to us direct from central casting, complete with loud, patterned shirts, a blonde pompadour, and, of course, gold-capped teeth.  I would have to spend the rest of my life trying to find someone in Portugal who looks remotely like this, but Arruda is one of the most deliciously watchable characters on the show.
The fourth friend of the group is sweet, sensitive Carlinhos, who happens to be my favorite but may be even less probable than Sílvia.  I would dearly love to believe that an openly gay man could pal around with his straight friends in the late 1990s / early 2000s in a tiny Portuguese fishing village, and even play the organ for the local church, with only a smattering of homophobia to break his stride.  Meanwhile, bullying and intolerance of LGBTQ youth continues to be a serious problem in Portugal.  But hey: hope, and Netflix diversity imperatives, springs eternal.
These characters speak Portuguese, but they’re more like facsimiles of actual Portuguese people, which brings us to what I think is really the point of the show.  This is not a documentary about contemporary Portugal. It’s a generic story of triumph over adversity, such as it is.  (No spoilers here, folks, but this can’t end well.)  Portuguese director Augusto Fraga, himself an açoreano though not from Rabo de Peixe, has said he wanted the series to be for “everyone,” with the public in mind from the beginning so that the greatest number of people could relate to the story.  I can’t speak for anyone else, but I can confirm that there wasn’t so much specific “Portuguese-ness” about the show that it interfered with my ability to relate to the story.  What interfered with my ability to relate to the story is that I am a well-off foreigner who has never been presented with fantastical quantities of illicit drugs.
Still, Fraga’s more universalistic aims for the show go a long way in explaining one of the most controversial aspects of the series’ production: the use of actors from the mainland to depict inhabitants of the islands. The Portuguese spoken in the Azores, particularly in the island of São Miguel where Rabo de Peixe is located, sounds notably different from the rest of the country and can be difficult to understand, even for native Portuguese speakers.  It’s not uncommon to turn on one of the national news channels in Portugal and see an interview with a micaelense (someone from São Miguel) that has subtitles.  So, there were plenty of Portuguese who were disappointed to discover that the cast of Turn of the Tide speaks with a Lisbon accent.  But while Augusto Fraga’s professional ambitions may be global, at a minimum he needed to win hearts and minds at home.  To do that, apparently, entailed casting a stable of well-known Portuguese actors in the principal roles, all speaking Portuguese with an accent that well-to-do people in Lisbon can easily understand is broadly accessible.
Fraga has described the series as being about “an ordinary kid to whom something extraordinary happens” and it felt like the origin story the show centers on does a lot of heavy lifting in the plot.  Without it, Turn of the Tide would probably be just another “cops and robbers” show.  Your understanding about the sources of inequality in Portugal won’t be broadened as much as it would be after watching a series like The Wire.  Granted, that doesn’t seem to be Fraga’s intention either.  Initially, the announcement that Netflix was producing the show worried local residents in Rabo de Peixe that the village would never escape its association with drugs, but the way the series dealt with sensitive topics appears to have won them over.  Maybe that’s all Fraga was trying to do: not offend anyone. 
Rabo de peixe may reflect Los Angeles more than Portugal, but one core aspect of Portuguese culture the series does return to faithfully centers on fish and fishing.  As mentioned, the town of Rabo de Peixe is a fishing village, and the three male friends start off as fisherman, making the reference obvious at first glance. (Traditionally, men do the fishing and women prepare the fish in Portugal.) But the cutting and gutting of fish stands in as a visual metaphor for a variety of salt-of-the-earth themes relevant throughout the country: food and sustenance, of course, but also the vagaries of power and who has it, death and the fragility of life, how the ocean giveth and taketh away in an instant.  That rings true to me almost everywhere in Portugal.  I have always been amazed at the sheer carnality in the handling of whole fish here, how it’s not sanitized and denuded of its primal origins, but an unavoidable fact of life.  Except for the wealthy, who task their empregadas, or housekeepers, to deal with the fish, but you won’t see too many of them in Turn of the Tide.
If I were a rabo-peixense, I imagine that I might appreciate the series for challenging the “soft bigotry of low expectations” that has come to define places like Rabo de Peixe.  It must be satisfying to see the incompetent, self-congratulating bófia, the police, get outwitted, or feel pride in the strong sense of community that characterizes Rabo de Peixe, where everyone really does know your name.  Or seeing one of your own winning a lottery ticket of sorts.  In the end, that fantasy unites us all.
(Update: If you want a real look at contemporary working class, religious, and queer life in Rabo de Peixe, check out director Cláudia Varejão’s Wolf and Dog (Lobo e Cão in Portuguese).  It’s a substantially more honest representation not just of actual rabo-peixenses – Varejão cast real-life residents of the village for her film – but also of actual human beings, not Netflix-ified caricatures of them.  You won’t get the frenetic pace of Turn of the Tide because Wolf and Dog is not an ode to cocaine dealing.  It’s an ode to adolescence, with the two main characters finding their youthful way through a sometimes-ugly world with as much beauty as they can muster.  Hat tip to my friend Ivo for the recommendation.)
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