Shot on location in Colombia almost entirely in Spanish and using real-life news footage to reinforce its message, Narcos depicted the real-life efforts of the US’s Drug Enforcement Administration to stop the famous drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s operations in Colombia and beyond. It was a slow-burning but ultimately mesmerising critique, showing the complexity of the drugs trade, crime, law enforcement and life in South America almost as well as The Wire did. It also had a tour de force performance by Brazilian actor Wagner Moura that dominated proceedings.
However, season two ends up with the capture/death of Pablo Escobar, so what would Narcos be about for its final two seasons, you might wonder. More importantly, given that the show thrived on its sheen of veracity, what would it do for leads, given not only the departure of Moura but also the fact its two DEA agent heroes (Pedro Pascal and Boyd Holbrook) had little to do with the Colombian drug trade after their ultimate location of Escobar?
Answers at last
Now we have our answers, some of which were partly provided at the end of season two. Season three follows the fate of the four Colombian ‘godfathers’ (played by Alberto Ammann, Damián Alcázar, Francisco Denis and Pêpê Rapazote) of the so-called Cali cartel, as they try to negotiate their way to a surrender and a future as legitimate businessmen – something that not all of them want and that the other cartels might take advantage of.
Still at the DEA, though, is Pedro Pascal who also gets to take over narration duties from Holbrook. Although the CIA and even the US ambassador are playing a more strategic, political game, Pascal wants to do the right thing, and he’s going to try to bring all of Cali to book before they’re able to negotiate their own terms. There are also two new DEA agents (Michael Stahl-David and Matt Whelan), who unlike Holbrook have been trained from the outset to deal with the new sophistication of the cartels. Unfortunately, even they don’t quite realise just how deep and far the fingers of the cartels have penetrated every aspect of Colombian society.
Importantly, season 3 doesn’t quite follow the same template as the previous two seasons since a huge part of the season is Matias Varela’s smart, considered head of Cali security. A former engineer who’s looking to go legit, he’s not a bad guy at heart, so the question is whether he’ll be able to stomach Cali operations for much longer, particularly once his friends and their families start getting murdered by his own employers…
Less Narcos mimesis
The third season continues to excel in almost exactly the same ways as the previous two seasons. It’s beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, feels authentic, has a lot to say and sticks pretty closely to the historical record. It even has Edward James Olmos speaking Spanish. The likes of Snowfall just can’t touch it.
However, at the same time, in all the most important ways, it just feels a little bit ‘less’ than the previous two seasons. Watching it, there’s precious little news footage – perhaps because the Cali cartel were far more secretive than Escobar, perhaps through choice – making everything feel potentially far more fictitious. It certainly doesn’t help knowing that Pascal’s character almost certainly wasn’t there for any of it, so literally no scene in which he participates can have happened that way. But even scenes where he’s not present have been fictionalised.
Sure, it makes everything more dramatic, rendering season three even more exciting than the previous two, with no lulls caused by the necessities of historical fact. There’s car chases, helicopter raids, firefights and more. But that drama feels less realistic, more scripted as a result. And with Pascal operating more or less by himself, the show lacks the buddy-buddy quality of the first two seasons, with Pascal just a dour, nihilistic, tired investigator constantly hitting brick walls.
The change in focus away from Moura to Varela is also important. In many ways, Varela is as good an actor as Moura, but his quiet, contained, methodical informer is simply not as interesting a character to watch as the explosive, personable drugs kingpin. He’s also (spoiler alert) (spoiler alert) still in the witness protection programme so there’s no news footage of the real man to compare against and no feel for him as a real person.
While the show also has a few things to say about politics, it’s mostly about Colombian politics and CIA Realpolitik. We’re in the Clinton era now, and there’s precious little to be said about his regime (apparently) compared with that of George HW Bush’s, which means previous seasons’ subtle, wry, insidious critique of the Drug War’s naivety is passed over in favour of the easier condemnation of Colombian corruption.
Lastly, it’s not as Spanish-language as it was before. There’s still plenty of it, but many of the scenes involving Pascal and another Spanish-speaking character (including Olmos) either switch between Spanish and English without reason or are entirely in English. Which is odd.
But Narcos is still good
All the same, this was an easy weekend’s viewing of only 10 episodes. It’s got enough history in it that you’ll end up with a reasonably fair understanding of the Cali cartel, as well as how they were brought down. It’s great to look at and chock full of some top South American actors and is often properly thrilling.
If you liked the previous seasons, the latest season of Narcos should be almost as satisfying. If you haven’t seen the previous seasons, where have you been?