‘Narcos’ Has Become A Better Show By Leaving Pablo Escobar Behind

The third season of Narcos is now available on Netflix. The drug drama is moving on from Pablo Escobar — who, spoilers, is dead both on the show and in the real life — and onto a new criminal organization, the Cali Cartel. Also gone: DEA agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), leaving the meat of the investigation (and narrating duties) in the hands of his newly promoted former partner, Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal). Everything goes very smoothly.

(Everything does not go very smoothly.)

Below, some mostly spoiler-free thoughts I had after watching the third season. Short version: It was pretty good. Long version: Well…

1. Season three picks up after Escobar’s death, with the Cali cartel now controlling the cocaine trade. Unlike Escobar, who ruled through violence and intimidation, the Four Godfathers of Cali are depicted more as businessmen, greasing palms in situations where bloodshed can be avoided, but also not afraid to use violence. At the beginning of the season, they are negotiating a “surrender” with the government, in which they’ll leave the cocaine business behind and turn over their illegal assets, but keep the billions they’ve laundered through the legitimate side. With six months left until the surrender date, they are pushing hard to maximize profits in the time they have left.

“Ahhh,” you’re saying. “But isn’t this starting to sound like a ‘one last job’ plot, where the bad guys try to pull a final score before retiring, but everything goes to hell?” Well, yes, because that’s exactly what it is. And that more gentlemanly approach goes out the window once the wheels come off, leading to the cartel facing threats from every angle: the authorities, their rivals, and ones from inside their own house. You get the idea. You’ve seen drug movies before.

2. The thing is, even with that said, the new season is still really quite good. I enjoyed it more than either of the first two seasons. (I liked season two more than season one because it did away with some of the history and world-building to focus on action, but I’m open to alternate viewpoints on it.) Moving past Escobar appears to have freed the show up a bit, where it’s no longer the world against one man, but the world combating an issue that has no easy solutions. Killing Escobar gave rise to Cali, taking out Cali gives rise to another group. And so on. I mean, spoilers, but we’re still fighting the drug war today. Season three sees the big picture better, and sets the stage for future seasons, by escaping Escobar’s shadow.

In fact, the only real downside of moving on from Pablo Escobar is we won’t get any more incredible promo images of Wagner Moura as the kingpin, like this one from season one…

… and this one from season two.

Sad Pablo Escobar On A Bench Swing is my current mood most Mondays.

3. With Holbrook and Moura gone, that means, you guessed it, new characters. And there are a handful. The biggest and most important one, though, is Cali security officer Jorge Salcedo (Matias Varela). Salcedo is one of the real guys who turned on Cali to help the government, so a substantial chunk of the second half of the season follows him as he feels out both sides before taking the plunge. Varela is good in the role, kind of your classic Good Man In A Tough Spot, even if it does sometimes make a drug cartel security official come off a little too Do-Gooder-y to feel real. Still, it’s a nice switch-up from the previous seasons, and having him work with lower-level DEA agents on the ground frees up Pascal to run around handling the politics of it all. It works.

4. Heeeyyyy recognizable faces. Kerry Bishé from Halt and Catch Fire has a smallish role as the American wife of a cartel money launderer and Arturo Castro from Broad City plays the son of one of the Cali godfathers. This second thing is weird at first because Castro’s character on Broad City, Jaime, is a bubbly flamboyant puppy dog roommate, and his character here, David, is an icy suspicious killer. I almost didn’t recognize him. I was like “Is that… no. It can’t… wait a second.” I had to pause to look it up because it was taking me out of the show completely. My point here is that I’m a child.

5. Another note on the Kerry Bishé thing: Kerry Bishé is very good on Halt and Catch Fire. Very good. But she has nothing to do here. None of the female characters do this season, really, unless you count screaming for help or shouting “YOU ARE RUINING THIS FAMILY” at their spouse or lover. This is not ideal. Hopefully the show finds a way to do… something with that in the future seasons. Especially if they’re going to go to the trouble of casting talented, familiar actresses.

6. A third note on the Kerry Bishé thing: Halt and Catch Fire, now in its final season, has jumped forward into the 1990s. What decade is season three of Narcos set? I’m glad you asked.

Kerry Bishé is the queen of the 1990s.

7. Just to clarify, the priest is not delivering a sermon backed by a Montell Jordan song. The song is blasting from a car parked outside the church. Still, pretty decent image right there.

8. All in all, I’d call the third season a success. They had to move on from Escobar at some point and doing it the way they did allowed them to open up the world a bit. Again, it’s no longer a “Pablo Escobar” problem they’re addressing, now it’s the whole drug trade. I wonder if the people involved are actually a little relieved to be at this point of the story. Escobar is a big splashy name to get started, but there’s more nuance to the story this season with more players involved in the rush to fill the Escobar void, and the show is better for it.

9. Where does Narcos go from here? Well, if the narration in the show is to be believed, to the next big hub of drug smuggling: Mexico. And if they wiggle the timeline a bit, that works pretty well to chart the rise of El Chapo. They have other options, sure, but — from a filmmaking standpoint — it’s got to be hard to resist a prison escape that involves a bathroom trap door and a motorcycle ride through a tunnel. So maybe keep an eye out for that.

10. The year of Wu-Tang on television continues. First, Nora Durst’s tattoo on The Leftovers. Then, multiple fight scenes on The Defenders. Now, a money laundering montage set to “C.R.E.A.M.”

The next logical step: Ghostface cameo on The Good Place. Fingers crossed.