Wagner Moura’s Pablo Escobar wasn’t the only good reason for watching Netflix’s Narcos, but he was surely the best reason.
A wholly inhabited performance that largely overcame the Brazilian actor’s lack of experience as a Spanish speaker, Moura’s work earned a Golden Globe nomination and left major question marks when Narcos made the courageous creative decision to get to Escobar’s death in only two seasons.
Yes, Escobar was inevitably going to get killed, but Narcos could have dragged it over four or five years in order to keep its acclaimed leading man in the fold. Instead, the series returns to Netflix on Friday for its third season as nearly a new show, featuring only vestiges of what came before. It’s an initially rough transition and after watching an episode-and-a-half, I was prepared to walk away from Narcos for good, but then after watching six of the new season’s 10 episodes, I was reasonably hooked and eager to see the rest of them.
Part of the problem with the season-opening installments is that this is a show that has never handled exposition with smoothness. The use of cumbersome voiceover narration and backgrounding news footage was initially lifted from Goodfellas, but the failure to give that voiceover any particularly distinctive voice and the show’s always tenuous relationship with the historical record has invariably made it feel like a wasted opportunity.
The third season begins with a lot of that, because the story is making the move from Escobar and his reign of terror to the prominence of the Cali Cartel, which requires the wholesale introduction of a new cast of characters and an attempt to distinguish between the salt-of-the-earth populism that Escobar tried to represent and the elite proficiency that the so-called Gentlemen of Cali aspired to. This is done in frustrating Narcos fashion by telling/narrating rather than showing and leads to what is probably my least favorite part of the show’s viewing experience, namely suspecting that it is giving only partial information and Googling to get a better, more accurate version of the history.
The season begins with the four partners of the Cali Cartel on the verge of an unprecedented and appealing Shakespearean transition. Leader Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela (Damian Alcazar) has reached an agreement with the Colombian government to get out of the drug business in six months and, after facing small penalties, make the family entirely legitimate. The move has the approval of Gilberto’s brother Miguel (Francisco Denis), but causes wariness for the more hot-headed Pacho Herrera (Alberto Ammann) and New York City-based Chepe Santa Cruz Londono (Pepe Rapazote), who are less willing to leave behind the perks of kingpin-dom.
The potential deal with the Colombian officials also doesn’t mean American law enforcement is done with Cali. Pedro Pascal provides continuity between seasons, although his Javier Pena was less involved in the war against Cali. (Moreso than the first season, my searching for the actual history revealed liberties being taken for TV.) Here, Pena’s capacity is mostly butting heads with Bogota CIA station chief Bill Stechner (Eric Lange), a clash of jurisdiction and styles that prompts much discussion of the stumbling, misapplied War on Drugs.
New faces include DEA agents Chris Fiestl (Michael Stahl-David) and Daniel Van Ness (Matt Whelan), plus Matias Varela as Jorge Salcedo, cartel security mastermind and eventual turncoat. Halt and Catch Fire star Kerry Bishe eventually shows up as the American wife of a carter money launderer.
By the time the excellent Bishe arrives in the third episode, Narcos has already turned the corner from exposition and introduction into another examination of the compromises relatively good men must make in order to bring down relatively horrible men, the lies that have to be told and the legal and ethical corners that have to be cut. There’s an action scene at the end of the second episode that’s really the turning point between the bland introduction of initially blandly performed characters and the stylish thriller the show can be when it isn’t just actors speaking slow, over-enunciated Spanish for American audiences nervous about subtitles. The fifth and sixth episodes are straight-up thrilling, exciting enough to distract from that other typical Narcos problem — that the series is a game of cat-and-mouse in which the American cats aren’t nearly as interesting as the Colombian (and occasionally Mexican) mice.
Stahl-David and Whelan deliver more personality and more welcome humor than Pascal and the departed (and entirely unmissed, through no fault of his own) Boyd Holbrook brought in the first two seasons. Lange’s pragmatic Stechner is still a better character than those two DEA white knights or Pena, now grafted into storylines that didn’t actually involve him.
The season’s hero is Varela’s Salcedo, whose self-preservation instinct kicks in slowly and with welcome performance nuance. It’s like he’s replacing the thoughtful and strategic side of what Moura brought to Escobar and the fiery, dangerous side comes from Rapazote and especially Ammann as a kingpin whose open homosexuality contributes some of the season’s fresher insights into the Cali Cartel’s different approach to the drug game.
Another major player in the show’s tendency to go full Scarface is Arturo Castro’s David, son of the more bookish cartel partner. The distance between Castro’s hilarious work as Jaime on Broad City and his chilling, insecure volatility here points to another thing Narcos does smartly in the third season, which also includes effectively against-type appearances from the normally comedic Wayne Knight, as a cartel lawyer, and Gabriel Yglesias.
The series continues to benefit from its Colombian production locations and from the reality that I probably wouldn’t recognize if the third season actually shot in Cali or if they continued to just use locations in and around Bogota. I just know that from lighting to architecture to wilderness backdrops, Narcos looks and feels like no other show on TV, even if the early episodes of this run have the feeling of a slightly above average reenactment from a true-crime documentary. As the season progresses, directors Gabriel Ripstein and Josef Wladyka add more flash.
I think by the last of the six episodes I watched, I was more engaged than at any point in the first two seasons, despite the lack of Moura. If you’re a Narcos fan, stick with the show through the place-setting opening and know that it finds its footing.
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)