The king is dead as Narcos’ third season opens, with Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura) having been cut down by rooftop gunfire at the conclusion of last year’s run. It was a preordained turn of events, and yet one that called into question whether Netflix’s based-on-real-events series was itself at the end of its line, given that Escobar’s demise not only wrapped up its central storyline, but also completed the tenure of its most charismatic star. Moura’s Colombian drug kingpin was the magnetic axis around which the action revolved, his larger-than-life villainy—brazen, cunning, cutthroat, and amoral—stabilizing its from-many-angles depiction of the 1980s-1990s war on the narcotics trade. His hostile and evasive maneuvers energized the show’s cat-and-mouse narrative, and the actor’s ice-cold menace provided it with a sense of scary unpredictability, even when the outcome was, for anyone familiar with recent history, never in doubt. Without him, what reason was there to go on?
For creators Chris Brancato, Carlo Bernard, and Doug Miro, the answer is the quartet that filled the vacuum left by Escobar and his Medellín cartel on the Colombian cocaine scene: Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela (Damián Alcázar), his brother Miguel (Francisco Denis), and their partners Pacho Herrera (Alberto Ammann) and Chepe Santacruz Londono (Pepe Rapazote). That close-knit foursome ran the Cali Cartel, the organization that was elevated to No. 1 drug empire status in the wake of Escobar’s departure. And for Narcos’ latest 10-episode stretch, they function as Escobar did before them: as the most-wanted targets of law enforcement, as well as the compelling centers of the ongoing drama.
That replacement was inevitable if the show sought to progress. And it turns out to be an unsurprising, if mild, letdown, as this collection of baddies aren’t quite the equal of Moura’s legendary crime lord. Throughout its new chapter, it often feels like something weighty is missing—a legitimate force of nature to compensate for the so-so characterizations of the many cops and politicians who populate the multi-character proceedings. Escobar’s absence looms large, highlighting how his successors were, for all their triumphs, pale imitations when it came to world-shaking bravado and mercilessness.
Nonetheless, despite this inherent disadvantage, Narcos is anything but a fiasco—and, in fact, its limitations are, to some extent, reflections of its core themes. That’s because Season 3 is rooted in an underlying sense of despair over the inexorability of the drug industry. Think of it as a “the more things change…” scenario in which new players emerge but the game of whack-a-mole stays the same. To wit: Gone is Boyd Holbrook’s Steve Murphy but Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal) is still with the DEA, now famous for ending Escobar’s reign of terror, albeit compromised by his use of Los Pepes (a vigilante murder squad) to achieve those “heroic” ends.
Peña’s mission is to fell the Cali Cartel, who run their operation in an efficient, headline-avoiding corporate manner that’s the opposite of Escobar’s crash-and-burn style, thus making their capture all the more difficult. Complicating matters further, Cali head honcho Gilberto has chosen a shrewd path forward: a negotiated surrender with Colombia and America’s governments, which will lead to minimal jail sentences—and the preservation of personal fortunes—in six months’ time, before which Cali can make as much illicit money as possible.
Having seen what getting into bed with the devil does to one’s soul, Peña naturally finds this plan distasteful. Narcos, however, is still a show where good answers to difficult questions are in short supply. With the Cali Cartel having corrupted Colombian society to the bone, few by-the-books options are left for Peña and his fresh-faced DEA recruits Chris Feistl (Michael Stahl-David) and Daniel Van Ness (Matt Whelan). As with so many Netflix series these days, the season builds urgency at a slow pace that’s borderline alienating. Fortunately, employing its tried-and-true aesthetics—a docudrama visual approach; portentous narration; real-life documentary footage inserted into key moments—it hits its stride in Episode 4, with an operation to arrest Gilberto that generates intense suspense from not only its various moving parts, but also from its protagonists’ navigation of an untrustworthy world. Figuring out how to catch bad guys in an environment in which almost everyone is bad (or, at least, on the bad guys’ payroll) is what gives Narcos its nerve-jangling restlessness, and the ruse orchestrated to nab Gilberto—as with a later one to catch Miguel—is as good as anything the series has delivered.
Though he’s nominally the main character, Peña continues to be imagined in two-dimensions; his moral dilemmas are often front-and-center, but they rarely slow down his single-minded pursuits. No matter Pascal’s gung-ho performance, he’s a functional piece of this puzzle, mostly defined by his tie-with-an-unbuttoned-collar look. The Cali Cartel villains, on the other hand, are considerably more fun. Alcazar’s Gilberto is a smiley sort of CEO cretin, nicely contrasted with the insecure-and-jealous dourness of Denis’ Miguel. Ammann’s smooth Pacho is the scariest of the bunch, this even before he uses motorcycles to draw-and-quarter a rival, and his homosexuality—which he uses as a veritable taunt to his enemies, who view it disparagingly—lends a further layer of complexity to his twisted behavior. Meanwhile, Londono’s Chepe (stationed in New York City) is given the least screen time but does the most with it, emerging as a cocky psychopath whose cruelty really shines in a barbershop sequence straight out of High Plains Drifter.
Their fates are intertwined with that of many other associates, including Cartel money launderer Franklin Jurado (Miguel Angel Silvestre) and his American wife Christina (Kerry Bishe), as well as Gilberto and Miguel’s upstart sons. Best of all, however, is the story’s prime focus on Jorge Salcedo (Matias Varela), Cali’s security chief, who at season’s outset is denied a chance to move on and start a legitimate business, and who eventually becomes ever more ensnared in the very ugliness from which he wants to protect his wife and kids. Jorge isn’t exactly sympathetic, since his underworld circumstances are of his own doing. And his quest to escape the criminal life is a familiar one. Yet as embodied by an impressive Varela, he’s also the material’s most engaging figure, a man with legitimately decent intentions who—like Peña—is drawn further and further into the muck, no matter how much he wants, or struggles, to do otherwise. In his plight, Narcos proves a stinging portrait of the war on drugs as akin to stepping in quicksand: Best to avoid it altogether, because once you’re in, you’re in for good… until you’ve drowned.