Season one of Narcos was a bit of a mixed bag.
On one hand, it had a lot going for it: a compelling story (the rise of Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar), a riveting and commanding performance by its lead (Wagner Moura as Escobar, all mustache and menace), and a former Game of Thrones actor as one of the DEA agents who was out to take him down (Pedro Pascal, although it would have been cool if Jason Momoa showed up in the premiere ready to fight the war on drugs while still playing Khal Drago, wearing eyeliner and ripping out throats all over 1980s South America). And it had a compelling structure, telling a large part of the story in Spanish and using real news footage from the time. It was pretty good, all in all.
On the other hand… it was kind of a lot. I mean, I’m sure you can tell the story of the rise of Pablo Escobar in 10 episodes, but to do so in a complete way really requires you to pick your spots, like how American Crime Story took us from murder to verdict in its first season by zeroing in each episode on one particular aspect of the O.J. Simpson case. But Narcos went a different route. It tried to pack in almost everything, from Pablo’s start in the mid-1980s to his escape from his self-made prison palace in 1992, and the result somehow felt too slow and too fast at times. That was the thing that kept it from separating itself from the gaggle of other biggish budget prestige dramas out there.
(Think about it this way: Breaking Bad spent the better part of four and a half seasons — 50ish episodes — chronicling Walter White’s one-year journey from mild-mannered teacher to New Mexico meth magnate. Narcos covered almost a decade of Pablo Escobar’s life in less than a quarter of that time. Which, again, is doable. It’s just a lot.)
But then back on that first hand, season one also gave us this hilarious promotional picture that makes Pablo Escobar look like a naughty little mischievous boy instead of a violent billionaire cartel boss. I think that’s important to note, mostly because I really want to post the picture again.
All in all, it was a good, highly watchable show that left little to be desired, which is why it pleases me so much to tell you that the second season is a marked improvement, and sees the show make that tricky leap from good to great.
The main way it does this is by narrowing its focus. At the end of season one, Escobar escapes from his prison, La Catedral, and runs off into the woods. Season two picks up from there and follows Pablo in his last days, on the run from the government, which is playing fast and loose with the rule of law to track him down. It’s a lot like The Fugitive, except instead of an innocent Harrison Ford running from Tommy Lee Jones in an attempt to clear his name, it’s an extremely guilty Pablo Escobar running from the DEA and a cartel-funded anti-communist paramilitary group called Los Pepes in an attempt to, uh, keep selling cocaine. Otherwise very much the same.
Shrinking the story down to this chase improves the show in a few ways. First of all, it adds an intensity that wasn’t there until the final episodes of season one. Putting Pablo on the lam creates a furious game of cat and mouse — the Tom & Jerry kind, where the cat and mouse take turns doing bodily harm to each other — and forces him to close ranks within his family, which gives us a chance to see him as a more complex character: a goofy fun dad one second and a murderous sociopath in literally the very next.
The narrowing also lessens the need for the explanatory narration from American DEA agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), which was used in season one to fill in historical gaps and set up action. Now, the action mostly sets up itself, creating a much better and more frantic flow between episodes. Showing, not telling, often with firefights in the streets. Narcos is not playing around in season two.