Pablo Escobar may be gone, but Narcos continues to thrive on the draw of its criminal masterminds as Pedro Pascal's DEA agent Javier Peña tracks down the notorious Cali Cartel.
Narcos built itself as the story of Pablo Escobar, with Wagner Moura’s brilliantly captivating performance as the Columbian drug lord proving the main draw to the Netflix show’s first two seasons. It wasn’t all perfect however, with Boyd Holbrook’s agent Steve Murphy sometimes coming across as dull and as Moura’s performance as Escobar – great as it was – too often overshadowing the show to the extent that scenes without him came across as boring and uninspired. So writing Murphy out to focus on Peña (accurately, it turns out, as Murphy left the DEA shortly after Escobar’s death) and focusing on the Cali Cartel (who became the de facto kingpins in the cocaine industry following Escobar) gave the show a chance to push a reset-button of sorts. The question is: could Narcos fix its problems of inconsistent pacing and somewhat dull protagonists whilst maintaining the high bar it set for those characters on the wrong side of the law? As it turns out – mostly.
In a way, it’s lucky for the show that agent Murphy left the DEA when he did, as it allowed creators Chris Brancato, Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro to give Pedro Pascal’s Peña the lead. Throughout Narcos‘ first two seasons, Peña was always the more interesting agent of the two – what with his sly backroom dealings with the CIA and competing cartels – and elevating him to lead gives his moral complexity extra space to breathe. Fortunately, that very moral complexity that makes Peña such a compelling character is well and truly tested by the Cali Cartel’s twisted attempts to hang on to power. Further dealings with the CIA and with the communist rebel group Farc enthrall as much as similar meetings did in previous seasons, whilst Peña’s shady undermining of the official DEA line and the Columbian government provide interesting conflict between those trying to take the Cali Cartel down.
Continuing the story past Escobar and into the following narcotics cartels could have been a disaster for Narcos, as the following infamous drug baron’s personal rise and fall was by far and away the most interesting aspect of the show’s first two seasons, with Moura’s gravitas central to its appeal. So it’s convenient that the rise of the Cali Cartel does away with the need for a single, charismatic antagonist, and with it the pressure for the actor in those shoes to perform – this time round, the focus is on the fascinating power plays between the four heads of Columbia’s subsequent cocaine kings. It’s fascinating to see the switch from one central antagonist to four competing ones, but for the most part, it works well, with Damian Alcazar, Francisco Denis, Alberto Ammann and Pepe Rapazote giving fine performances as Gilberto Rodriguez, Miguel Rodriguez, Pacho Herrera and Chepe Santacruz respectively.
The plot also provides a refreshing contrast to the “all-or-nothing” manhunt for Escobar of the previous two seasons. Initially it looks like the story is set up to fail as we are told that Gilberto Rodriguez – the alpha of the four heads of Cali – has negotiated a surrender to the Columbian government, in exchange for the cartel making as much illegitimate money as it can within the next six months. What on earth are Peña and the rest of the DEA to do for the next nine hours of TV? However, it soon becomes clear that not everyone is on board with this surrender, and once Peña decides that six months is too much time and goes after the cartel early, the paranoia and competing egos within Cali boil to the surface, providing the main draw to Narcos‘ third season. The four heads of the cartel bounce of each other (and those who work for them) fantastically as complacency slowly gives way to suspicion, whilst Peña’s undermining of the DEA makes for some fantastic standoffs between him and the system he works for.
The brilliant action set-pieces that Narcos has become famous for return (with the heart-pounding, nail-biting hunt for Miguel Rodriguez in his high-rise apartment hideout a particular standout), although Season 3 probably takes the show to darker places than it’s ever been before. Notably, we are introduced to Jorge Salcedo (Matias Varela), the Cali head of security-turned-informant, whose desperate actions to save himself and his family are sometimes very difficult to watch. It’s just a shame then that, although we see how cruel the cartel can be towards its rivals and those it suspects of being moles, we see little of their impact upon the populations of Columbia and America as a whole, as we did with Escobar in Seasons 1 and 2. Admittedly, this is mainly down to how secretive Cali really were in comparison to Escobar, but it would have been nice to see how awful their particular narcotic trade was (and even take some creative liberties in this regard), to give us more of a reason to root for Peña in attempting to take them down before their surrender.
So no, Narcos Season 3 isn’t perfect – Miguel Rodriguez’s villainous son David (Arturo Castro) is too evil to really be taken seriously, and it’s harder to connect with (and ultimately want the downfall of) each of the heads of the Cali Cartel as it was with Pablo Escobar – but it certainly demonstrates that the show can enthrall with an all-new set of antagonists. Action sequences are tight, Peña provides a more-than-ample lead, and it’s fascinating to watch the inner workings of the Cali Cartel slowly unravel as the DEA take it down. A fourth season has already been commissioned, with rumours suggesting a switch in focus towards Mexico’s notorious Juarez or Guadalajara Cartels; if Narcos can iron out its minor character issues, and continue to provide engaging action set-pieces to match, I’m very excited to see where it goes.
All 3 seasons of Narcos are available now on Netflix.