A thought occurred to me a few moments after Wagner Moura’s seminal Pablo Escobar was finally murdered on a rooftop in the closing minutes of the Narcos Season 2 finale.
Certainly this drama could continue to exist without him, but for two years Moura provided consistently riveting television, with very few spots that could be deemed dull or uninteresting. The question wasn’t whether it could survive, but whether it should in a post-Pablo world.
If you’re a fan of Chris Brancato, Carlo Bernard, and Doug Miro’s spellbinding, violent, deep look into the drug conflict that still continues raging to this day, I’m here to tell you that’s not going to change. And, in a rather amazing turn of events, it might actually be better now than it was in either of its previous seasons.
Losing Moura is enormous, because not only does Escobar create a giant shadow (more giant with a large paunch and that scraggly beard in his final breaths), but Wagner’s performance was outrageously great. He was nominated for multiple awards, and deserved all of those honors. When Narcos was at its best, it was among the best depictions of drug trafficking and organized crime in television history. When it was at half-speed, it was still awfully good.
Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) departed the show in Season 2, so Javier Pena (Pedro Pascal) takes the reigns as both the series lead AND the expository narrator. I dug Holbrook’s voice, as well as the mechanism itself, but I can report to you that Pascal is far superior as both the top dog and the disembodied voice. I wish we got more of the narration, although I know many believed there was too much of it. It helps crystalize and boil complicated plot points and true histories into digestible slivers.
Pascal’s authoritative voice isn’t heard even half as much as Holbrook’s, but when it is, it’s often a lengthy monologue that explains something difficult, like money laundering. As well as Jason Bateman laid things out for the Ozark audience, Pascal’s dialogue trumps it in every way.
If you liked Narcos before, you’re going to love Narcos now. If you loved it before, strap yourself in for a wild, varied, and sometimes incredibly thrilling ride.
Pablo is no more, and in his place come the four pronged leadership of the deadly, nefarious Cali Cartel. Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez (Damian Alcazar, Francisco Denis), Pacho Herrera (Alberto Ammann), and Chepe Santacruz Londono (Pepe Rapazote) operate in a far different manner from Escobar, and that’s why a post-Pablo world can work as well as it does in Season 3 of Narcos.
It’s still basically the same show, but because of the “white collar” private nature of the Cali Godfathers, the series feels different and emits a different brand of aura. It’s a new experience, but one with familiars all around, not to mention the most loaded cast the show has ever seen. We know Narcos is generally a treatise on the failings of the drug war. We’re watching the myth of Sisyphus play out right in front of our eyes.
Eric Lange’s work as Bill Stechner, while not plentiful, is effective, just as it was last season as he played the most jaded of spooks. Early in Season 3, in a conversation with Pena, he reveals that both men were present when the drug war was lost. He’s not being sarcastic when he says it. We saw David Simon tell us the same thing on multiple occasions during The Wire. No matter where the show began, it would always end with a new player. People might shift a bit, but the game was still the game.
Cocaine wasn’t simply going to disappear from the map when Pablo Escobar died, just as it didn’t when any number of other kingpins and narcos passed away before him. The Cali Cartel did things covertly, rather than overtly and for public praise, but they were no less ruthless. As Season 3 of Narcos proves, sometimes the silent serial killer isn’t just the most frightening of all, for our purposes that person might also be the most entertaining as well.
We know that people will die on Narcos. We know the violence will often be swift and brutal. We know the DEA will have victories, but we recognize how short lived they will be. Steve Murphy’s character was relatively static throughout Narcos, except that his obsession with Escobar nearly ended his family and sent him into the bottom of whatever liquor bottle he could find. The role was somewhat stale, and wasn’t dynamic in any way once we got used to the act.
Constrasting Murphy was Pena, who existed with more nuance and rationale, and for the salacious side of things, slept with several beautiful women. Pena as the lead provides a better foundation upon which Narcos stands, but if the villains couldn’t deliver, it wouldn’t matter much.
The Cali Cartel doesn’t have the glitz of Pablo Escobar, nor did Vinnie Chase attempt to play either Rodriguez brother before his mental breakdown, but the story is fascinating. Pablo’s true tale was unreal, which made it great television. Here, far more viewers won’t know many of the intricacies, and although license is assuredly taken, Gilberto Rodriguez and Pacho Herrera in particular stand out as real superstars of the heinous act club.
Alberto Ammann’s Pacho, who we got to know in previous years as he worked to help dethrone Escobar, shines in a completely new way. Herrera was an openly gay trafficker and hitman, and he is despicable when it comes to his actual job. We see his sexuality explored, and we see him publicly reveal it early in Season 3. Ammann is capable of both the sensual and emotional side of Pacho as well as the vicious side. In just the second hour of the season, Pacho’s mean streak hits a disgust level we never saw from Escobar.
Gilberto is an all-star asshole, and Damian Alcazar plays all levels of the role, from the evil to the charming, but excels when the maniacal Rodriguez takes hold. Francisco Denis puts a subtle, but rock solid performance on the books as Miguel, and the lieutenants, bag men, and yes even the ACCOUNTANTS all serve key and integral roles to the larger story.
Another real standout is Michael Stahl-David, whose Chris Feistl is a smarter, better, less obnoxious Steve Murphy on his worst day. The Feistl character is exceptionally written, and comes from a desk to the field relatively quickly. His partner, Daniel Van Ness (Matt Whelan), is the straight shooter to his drug enforcement Brett Favre, and the two play off each other well.
Season 3 looks a bit different as well. Many of the run-down neighborhoods of Medellin and the cheap laboratories of the past are replaced with high rises, trips to New York, and a sheen over the visuals that give it a much higher definition feel.
Women don’t play nearly as strong a part in Season 3, with no one as strong as Tata Escobar (Paulina Gaitan) or even Valeria Velez (Stephanie Sigman) or Connie Murphy (Joanna Christie). Kerry Bishe steps in as a potential romantic interest for Pena, and as of tomorrow, she’ll be on two of the best seasons of TV this summer with Narcos and Halt and Catch Fire on the resume.
Brett Cullen returns as Arthur Crosby, Glenn Morshower joins the fight, and several other faces you’ll know from other properties emerge during the season. I’ll leave those for you to discover, as they’re all pleasant surprises.
Narcos is slicker and smarter this time around, it’s more intriguing as it arrives from all directions, and its foundation is in steadier hands with Pascal’s Pena at the helm. There are times where you’ll feel like you’re watching something else, or something inspired by the precision of The Wire. It’s all good. Narcos Season 3 will delight and excite fans of the first two years, and certainly should disappoint no one interested in the subject matter or the series as a whole.
I won’t say we don’t miss the talent of Wagner Moura, but I will say we got as much as we could have out of Pablo Escobar, and these new banditos are BAD DUDES.
A different feel, a new locale, enough familiar faces, and a strong lead performance from Pedro Pascal propel Narcos from the trunk of the taxi cabs to the penthouse suites. It’s still deadly, intense, and violent. It’s also still damn good.
In fact, this is the best it’s ever been. Season 4 has already been green lighted, and you’ll rejoice at that news once you see what’s headed your way tomorrow. I give the season as a whole an easy B+ at worst, and at it’s high points, including several sequences in the back third of the season that are just outrageously exciting, it’s an A.
This is a series that has gotten better and grown exponentially as it’s gone along. Brancato, Bernard, and Miro have nailed this formula, and Season 3 is the biggest example to illustrate just how much they’ve learned along the way. Narcos remains one of Netflix’s real gems, and Season 3 is the largest, most valuable stone of its own haul thus far.
The question as to whether Narcos WOULD survive without Pablo Escobar has been answered with a resounding answer.
I’m @JMartOutkick. There’s a reason magical realism began at Outkick.