TV Review: Narcos Finds its Footing without Escobar

The following review contains spoilers. The first two seasons of Netflix's Narcos were defined by the storyline of a single character: Pablo Escobar, as portrayed with magnetic charisma by Wagner Moura (who actually had to learn to speak Spanish for the part). Pedro Pascal (Game of Thrones) and Boyd Holbrook (Gone Girl) were the two U.S. DEA agents leading the effort to finally take down the drug kingpin, and by the end of the series's second season, they'd done just that. So with season three on the horizon, audiences were forgiven for wondering where this docu-drama series could go next, now that this major storyline had been concluded and, it would be rightfully argued, the series's best actor killed off. (Seriously. Golden Globe nomination wildly deserved.) For better or worse, the Colombian drug cartel did not crumble with Escobar's death, and Narcos picks up right where the traffickers-in-waiting did. Hardly a beat is missed as the series dives right into the next chapter of the war on drugs, following the Cali Cartel, Escobar's biggest rival, and the four men who ran it: brothers Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez, Pacho Herrera and Chepe Santacruz. The ten-episode series gets off to a slow start, as the first two episodes essentially lay the groundwork for a whole new show, introducing characters and reminding viewers where we left off. With four crime bosses to follow instead of one, the storyline teeters just this side of cumbersome, but credit goes to the writers who create clear distinctions between each of these bad guys. Gilberto (Damián Alcázar) is clearly at the top of the pyramid, while his brother Miguel (Francisco Denis) serves as "hand to the king," if you will. Pacho (Alberto Ammann) is equal parts charmer and enforcer, and Chepe (Pêpê Rapazote) oversees the operation in New York.  But by a few episodes in, with Pascal's Agent Peña as narrator (Holbrook's John Murphy has also been written out of the series), Narcos settles into the decadence, double-crossing and violence that defined the first two chapters of the series. In fact, Pascal picks up a lot of the slack left by Holbrook's and Moura's absence, coming into his own as a force for good in a seemingly endless spiral of crime. With secondary characters essential to the Cali Cartel's success, new stories unfold around a head of security (Matias Varela as Jorge Salcedo) who just wants to go legit with his family, Gilberto's American-educated lawyer son Nicolas (Sebastian Eslava) who just wants to get into the family business, and the cartel's top accountant, Guillermo Pallomari (Javier Cámara), who knows he's in far too deep to come off scot-free and plans to use that to his advantage. Pedro Pascal in season 3 of Netflix's Narcos Quantity doesn't entirely make up for quality in season three, as the quartet of Cali cartel godfathers are nowhere near as compelling as Moura's Escobar. Though in reality that cartel did aid in dismantling Escobar's Medellin cartel and subsequently claimed the top spot in Colombian drug trafficking, the series's adaptation of these real-life events doesn't quite live up to the standard set in seasons one and two. Nevertheless, it's a compelling watch. Showrunner Eric Newman (Hemlock Grove) and team have maintained the show's documentary vibe, looping in various archival footage from the real events that the show chronicles. From politics to police raids, Pascal narrates through news footage and headlines that set the stage for the drama of the show. This added layer of reality that lends weight to this season, just like it did the two before. Netflix's other sinister series House of Cards is a vicarious romp through fictional politics; no matter how outlandish it gets, relishing in the crazy is half the fun. Here, it's hard to relish too much in the twists and turns of the plot, as it's all based on actual events (though a disclaimer at the beginning of each episode does allow for some dramatization of the facts). Every run-in with the law, every innocent bystander caught in the crossfire, every despicable thing these drug lords do to maintain their positions is riveting...and revolting. Nevertheless, as the season winds down and we learn the fate of the Rodriguez brothers, Pacho and Chepe, the show has delivered on its gangster-centric premise. We've seen the good, the bad and the ugly of the underbelly of the Cali cartel, and been gripped by it every step of the way (if only slightly less intensely than in previous seasons). With the distance of time (the season covers the events of the early to mid-1990s) and a bit of dramatic flair, Narcos remains a solid binge and one of Netflix's best original productions.
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Lisa Trifone