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In its first season, Netflix’s drama series Narcos did all the necessary heavy lifting about how the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar, already the subject of so many true-life unscripted takes, could hold up and be interesting as a longer, involved story.
The answer was more than just taking the granular approach to Escobar’s rise to power: It was in how Wagner Moura’s riveting and nuanced portrayal of the Colombian drug kingpin could glue the whole thing together and make it withstand any slower or questionable moments. It was in how Pedro Pascal and Boyd Holbrook, as DEA agents Javier Pena and Steve Murphy, respectively, could flesh out their end of the bargain as law-enforcement agents one perpetual step behind, both with enough personal and professional issues to keep the pace moving.
Air date: Sep 02, 2016
A lot came together for Narcos, including the creative, broadly cinematic approach of director Jose Padilha, who, in the first season, set the template for the mix of documentary-style footage with a visual narrative that encompassed tight streets and aerial shots (and the series’ voiceover homage to Goodfellas), all of which made the drama fresher than any of the unscripted glop popping up everywhere.
Escobar’s rise was communicated at a much slower pace in the first season than his downfall is in the second. The world-building of season one is replaced almost immediately in season two with the adrenaline rush of a chaotic loss of control.
Escobar’s escape (or walkout, if you will) from La Catedral prison in the finale of the first season wasn’t anticlimactic after all the previous story — a lot of viewers are savvy to the Escobar details and knew there was more to come — so much as it was the culmination of a surprisingly good, well-told first season.
Chris Brancato, Padilha and Eric Newman were able to deliver, in that first season, what was arguably Netflix’s best international series (a model it has tried to repeat and will continue to emulate as it rolls out more dramas to its vast international audience).
Now, with Newman running the show in season two, fans of Narcos will get the payoff, as both the showrunner and Netflix haven’t hidden the obvious — that Escobar dies this season. Historical fiction has succeeded countless times in bringing tension and actual stakes to the screen as it depicts the fates of people viewers know will die, so there should be no worry that Narcos will lose its effectiveness along those lines. (Newman hopes to continue into a third season without Moura/Escobar, a far more dubious idea that Netflix hasn’t signed off on yet.)
What works in the early going of season two is that the fall is almost always more thrilling, if not engaging, than the buildup. Escobar senses the loss of power, and Moura does some of his best work as viewers read the worry and interior thinking on his face. We know the end is coming, but we also know it’s not going to be swift or easy. And it’s definitely going to be bloody.
Narcos now gets to narrow in on Escobar’s attempts to keep his empire active while his rivals close in. It can spotlight the vicious, violent and extremely dangerous actions of a dying supernova narco-terrorist who is lashing out in the final throes of his eroding empire.
What keeps the series compelling in the process is Moura’s incredible performance, which captures the unraveling of the calm, when Escobar thinks he still can barter and negotiate his way out of his fate, through the more epic rage of holding on against exterior forces. If Moura, Pascal and Holbrook managed to get viewers through the vast world-building story of season one — which witnessed the slow creation of the cocaine empire that was Colombia (fueling American drug desires) — then they are easily up to the task of depicting it all going to hell and the intricate processes of governments and gangs that led it to happen.
All of historical fiction has its money moment. The entirety of season two should be that for Narcos fans.
Whether viewers will opt in for more drug-empire stories without a central figure like Escobar remains to be seen. But the payoff of season two, if it is Narcos‘ final season, is more than enough to bring back fans of the first season and perhaps create an enticing, closed-ended, acclaimed story for those yet to stream it.
Cast: Wagner Moura, Pedro Pascal, Boyd Holbrook
Creators: Carlo Bernard, Chris Brancato, Doug Miro, Paul Eckstein
Showrunner: Eric Newman
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