Wednesday, August 30, 2017

TV REVIEW: Netflix's 'Narcos' - Season 3

Netflix's Narcos returns for its third season on Friday, September 1 at 12:01am P.T. The drama stars Pedro Pascal, Damián Alcázar, Alberto Ammann, Francisco Denis, Pepé Rapazote, Matias Varela, Javier Cámara, Arturo Castro, Eric Lange, Andrea Londo, Michael Stahl-David, Matt Whelan, José María Yazpik and Kerry Bishé.

Read on for my thoughts on the new season after screening all ten episodes.


When Narcos first started in 2015, it was billed as a dramatization of the rise and fall of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. It would reveal the behind-the-scenes details that led to the rise of cocaine in the 1980s as well as the investigators tasked with bringing him down. The first two seasons of the show told that story. The second season closed with the death of Pablo Escobar. He was shot dead on a rooftop. That was the end of his story. It wasn't the end of drug trafficking in the world though. That story continues and is still ongoing in today's world. So, the creative team pivoted. They are now taking the approach of continuing to tell the true story of the drug trade across the years. It's no longer just the Pablo Escobar story. The third season focuses on the Cali cartel - the organization that came to rule the drug trade after Escobar's death. It's a shift in focus that could be very perilous for the show. It succeeded with its look into the life of Escobar and the DEA agents investigating him. A new story changes everything. And yet, the execution of this new season is tremendous. Every season of this show has improved. Narcos has now made the leap to one of the most dramatically tense, thrilling and satisfying dramas on all of television. This season completely fulfills all of the potential that has been within this story for a long time.

In the early episodes of the new season, the show is basically operating in compare and contrast mode. The Cali cartel ran things very differently than Escobar did. As such, the story details how things differ. Escobar was a man running the most lucrative drug business in the world. He was in search of fame and appreciation amongst the Colombian people. With Cali, there were four leaders at the top who ran the cartel like a Fortune 500 company. They also valued their secrecy. They never all met together in the same room. It was a business of secret meetings. Of course, both sides of this story are full of corruption throughout the country. It's a significant part of this new season that the Cali cartel has bought off virtually everyone in their main city of operation. Their surveillance protocols are top notch and allow them to always be one step ahead of any investigation that threatens to take them down. It's both impressive and very terrifying to watch. The leaders of the cartel have widespread influence as well as complete anonymity. They've been running this business for awhile and are making more money in a year than Escobar ever did. So taking Escobar out of the picture really didn't change anything in the war on drugs of the 1980s and 90s.

This is a season of fundamental change though. Pablo Escobar is dead. Agent Murphy is no longer involved in the main investigation. The leaders of Cali are running things differently and have a unique plan for their futures in this business. Both the United States and Colombian governments are transitioning into new presidential administrations. And yet, Pablo Pascal's Agent Javier Peña still feels the call to return to Colombia to arrest these individuals and make a difference in this war. He's a man obviously haunted by what he had to do in order to catch Escobar. Pascal is now playing the character as a veteran who came home from a war completely changed and doesn't like being called a hero. He returns to the front lines of this war with a new promotion. He does it because he feels he's not quite done with this story yet. He doesn't feel at home in Texas. He needs to be in Colombia making a difference. That's the world that is more familiar to him at the moment. But even down there, he's no longer the agent working things on the streets and getting potential witnesses to help him make a case. Now, he's more of the administrator who is deciding which risks to take and just how far he and his men are willing to go in order to capture the leaders of Cali.

The show also just feels more confident and purposeful with its storytelling this year as well. Every year has been a learning curve for this creative team. They chose to stretch the Escobar story across two seasons. The first was very much the show hitting the basic plot points of this main story. It would explain the setting and circumstances to the audience but didn't have much for the audience to really invest in. The second season saw the show experiment with more personal stories. It told the stories of the random people who got caught up in this crazy world - like the man who would become Escobar's personal driver. But it was still an experiment that the show didn't fully commit to because it still had an overarching story it needed to tell. And now, the show is more than comfortable telling these personal stories of a number of characters trapped in this world of the cartel. The ensemble is much more widespread this season. The story itself takes place in Colombia, Mexico, Texas and New York. But it still feels intimate and personal when it's focusing on the characters in their current situations and how their decisions will impact their futures. The show subverts expectations when it wants to and manages to pull off a couple of big surprises in stories that initially seem formulaic.

Plus, it just feels like the show is going after more familiar faces with its casting this year. It's a gambit that is a little hit-or-miss. Edward James Olmos pops up as Peña's father but really isn't given much to do. Wayne Knight is an American lawyer helping the Cali cartel in a few scenes. Gabriel Iglesias appears as nothing more than scenery decoration. And yet, this season improves overall with its ensemble. During the Escobar era, the show suffered because Wagner Moura's performance towered over everyone else's. He was just so good on the show that all of the charisma and energy of an episode went towards him. This season could have suffered from the sequel problem of introducing multiple villains in an attempt to top the previous story. But Moura's absence allows the entire ensemble to shine more. This season I'm able to appreciate what Pascal brings to the show. His character arc this season is pretty devastating but rewarding as well. Meanwhile, there are just a ton of great actors given tremendous material to work with this year. Damián Alcázar and Francisco Denis shine as brothers and two of the leaders of Cali. Arturo Castro has left his innocent face of Broad City behind to be absolutely terrifying as a gangster. Sense8's Miguel Angel Silvestre and Halt and Catch Fire's Kerry Bishé play a money launderer and his American wife who get caught up in this story. They probably aren't given enough screen time to justify their casting. But they still allow the material to shine. But above all else, this is a terrific breakout performance from Matias Varela as a security consultant who gets closely entangled with the cartel. His story is essentially the backbone of the season and is incredible to watch.

It's always so rewarding when a show that's been on the air for awhile produces a strong season that rewards the audience for all that has happened before. Narcos does that this season even though so much of it is new material. The three episodes building up to the season finale are probably the strongest and most tense episodes this show has ever produced. This show is a well-oiled machine at this point that knows exactly what story it wants to be telling. This season sees many twists and turns that hit as hard as they do because it's easy to invest in the characters both old and new. And the finale provides just the right amounts of closure to satisfy the audience. So again, Narcos is back and better than ever before.