‘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.