For a show that is rarely surprising, Narcos makes a pretty gutsy move in attempting to move past the death of Pablo Escobar in its third season. Wagner Maura‘s seductive performance as Escobar served as an anchor to the Netflix show’s first two seasons but the show’s underdeveloped thematic ideas stretch far beyond the lifespan of the Colombian drug lord. In its most potent and radical sequences, the series depicts the cocaine trade as primordial capitalism enacted by peoples repressed by their own nation and often in conjunction with the USA,which is deeply committed to an unfathomably fatal, hypocritical, and unjust drug war. Escobar’s death might look like a win to the American public and the DEA for a moment in Narcos, but his downfall only means the ascension of a more ruthless, careful, and ambitious drug empire, namely the Cali Cartel. Would that Narcos‘ third season had brought these ideas fully to the fore of the drama, though, with the change in focus from Escobar’s Medellin Cartel and the Cali Cartel, from southern Colombia.
One of the more quickly noticeable advances that the third season makes is narrowing the narrative sprawl of the show. The battle over international drug policy now comes down to the five men who run Cali and Pedro Pascal‘s agent Javier Peña, who returns home as a law enforcement superstar in the wake of Escobar’s death. The writing turns more toward the inner-workings of the cartel and its competition in its better stretches: tented enclaves and dilapidated garages full of workers chopping up product, middle-management keeping eyes out for betrayal, thievery, and laziness. Unfortunately, the undeniable key to the show’s narrative draw is sex and violence, typified by an early sequence in which Pacho Herrera (Alberto Ammann), one of the heads of Cali cartel, rips an underling’s head off using two motorcycles and some rope. The world of the Cali cartel is involving enough, powered by familiar cracks of internal strife between partners and subordinates, but its insights and criticisms are frustratingly limited, weighed down by an abundance of plot-centric dialogue.
In contrast to the cartel storyline, show creators Carlo Bernard, Chris Brancato, and Doug Miro explore Peña as a trembling, tailored veneer hiding a morally wrecked legal killer of perceived criminals, exasperated by the clearly illegal actions that led to Escobar’s murder. From a distance, there are similarities here to Clint Eastwood‘s recent spate of grave dissections of militaristic and governmental iconography – J. Edgar, American Sniper, Flags of Our Fathers, Invictus, etc. – especially in its depiction of his deteriorating social life and arguable alcoholism. There’s also a healthy dollop of spy business, most notably in his conversations with Eric Lange‘s amiable, unsparing spook.
Pascal carries the series admirably, expanding the scope of his character through Peña’s relationship with his father (Edward James Olmos) and, more potently, within the DEA’s operations and evolving PR machine. Despite such a bold changing of the guard, the sluggish, brazenly expository voiceover remains and dulls the sensory experience of the deft camerawork. Much of the setting is thus rendered into little more than moody nature b-roll accompanying a deluge of plot that has little bearing on the action of the series.
Gunfights crackle, and horror fans might get some modest thrills out of the cartel’s lengthy list of victims, but for all the emotional density given to Peña in the writing, the cartel members are never considered outside of their role as power-hungry, defensive drug lords. They are afforded little in the way of character, left to spend most of the show exuding dominance in an admittedly impressive variety of exchanges, though most of it connects back to sex, money, or violence.
For all the shake-ups in the cast and in the show’s scope, Narcos is still Narcos. It’s just engaging enough to keep up a basic interest in its skeptical vision of the war on drugs and what it was like to live in Colombia in the 1980s. What remains frustrating is that the series’ intermittent passages of visual or narrative brilliance are regulated in the name of a cat-and-mouse game overburdened by backstory and words in general. Such overabundance of talk barely veils a disappointing lack of confidence in the apparent power of the imagery. The promise of Narcos remains tamed in the show’s third season and most turbulent refocusing to date, which suggests that this timidity is not a bug but a feature of the show.
Rating: ★★ — Only for the dedicated
Narcos Season 3 premiered in full on September 1st on Netflix.