Narcos may not enjoy the amount of publicity that series like House of Cards or 13 Reasons Why have received, but it’s nevertheless one of the most fascinating, most gripping shows on Netflix, if not on television overall.
The first season introduced us to DEA agents Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) and Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal) and gave us insight into the rise of one of the world’s most notorious drug kingpins, Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura). Season 2 explored Escobar’s downfall as the war on drugs reached fever pitch. Apart from solid performances all round, a brilliantly crafted sense of time and place, taut scripts and strong technical craftsmanship, it was Wagner’s performance as Escobar that made the first two seasons that extra bit special. With Wagner’s Escobar meeting his end at the end of season 2, the question remained: Could Narcos continue to impress without him? As it turns out: yes, hell yes.
With Murphy no longer in the picture, the spotlight now turns to Peña, who’s back in Columbia to tackle the next wave of drug lords making a killing from the selling and exporting of cocaine. Business has been booming for the Cali Cartel since Escobar’s demise. Gilberto Orejuela (Damián Alcázar), the leader among the cartel’s four godfathers, is determined to legitimise their business, to do away with the drugs and crime, and to live out the rest of their lives in peace. He’s organised a deal with the Columbian government to do just that, but with six months still to go, rivals eyeing their impending exit, uncertainty within the godfather circle, and law enforcement inching their way ever closer, well… nothing will go according to plan – for anyone involved.
Although the third season stars off a little slow, it doesn’t take too long for everything to hit the fan and for Narcos to really hit its stride. While the first two seasons rightly focused on Escobar, often placing Murphy and Peña as secondary players, season 3 presses the reset button and amplifies the spotlight to balance out a number of different characters, all with their own agendas and ideas on how to get ahead. The first seasons had an extended character list as well, no doubt about it, but here there are a larger number on equal standing, giving equal importance in an evolving narrative in which one person’s actions always have ramifications elsewhere.
Wagner’s screen presence demanded glued eyes; thankfully, the cast of characters here make up for his absence. Among others, engrossing personas include openly gay cartel member Pacho Herrera (Alberto Ammann), who delivers quite the horrific murder early on and remains a conflicted individual; the easily ticked off Chepe Santacruz Londono (an intense, magnetic Pêpê Rapazote), doing his best to manage the business in New York; and Jorge Salcedo (Matias Varela), a cartel security employee who’s been thinking of stepping away for some time.
As has often been the case with Narcos, while the criminal side of the plot certainly has no shortage of fascinating characters, the law enforcement angle does leave you wanting a little more. Pascal is, as usual, fantastic. His frustration with government bureaucracy and his desire to take down the bad guys is tangible, but Peña’s characterisation feels somewhat lessened with so much going on, as though we were offered some layers in the first two seasons and that should be enough. Michael Stahl-David and Matt Whelan are solid as two new DEA agents thrown right into the deep end, although, while their characters find themselves in truly riveting developments, a little more is needed to pull us into their plights as individuals.
Still, this aforementioned character imbalance isn’t that much of a detriment when everything else is of such high quality. From the eye-opening locations, to the crisp editing and camera work, to some truly nail-biting set pieces (a night club shoot out, a foot chase through crowded streets, a man hunt in a mansion), the production impresses on so many levels. Perhaps most impressive is the writing. Season 3 juggles a number of moving pieces beautifully, keeping the audience in the dark when it counts, pulling out shocks and brutality in well timed, effective moments and injecting a grounded level of humanity that we need to connect to a world so far removed from many of us.
Narcos‘ third season continues past Escobar’s demise with gusto and a sweat-inducing level of intensity that will have you munching away at those nails. After riveting, addictive television? Look no further.
THE REEL SCORE: 9/10