Here’s a theory: For any TV creators who get more than a season to prove themselves, it’s Season 2 where they really figure out what kind of show they’re making. And with “Narcos,” we see some pretty clear proof of that.
Season 1 of Netflix’s fact-based drama — about how cocaine created criminal empires in Colombia and beyond — was jam-packed with over 15 years of drug cartel history, and the result, unfortunately, was not consistently engaging for anyone other than the most passionate fans of the subject matter. But from the first moments of Season 2, the Netflix series shows new focus. Thanks to a much narrower scope — the 18-month hunt for Pablo Escobar, following his escape from La Catedral prison — characters are allowed to breathe more. The power struggles have real weight. And the potential for seasons to come becomes clear.
“Narcos” isn’t necessarily a show about war, but it does capture all the peculiarities of the battles that ensue when violence on the streets becomes commonplace, when women and children are as likely to serve as cannon fodder as actual soldiers. And more often than not, it’s filmed like the best of gritty World War II battles, with kinetic action scenes that keep the camera moving with those running through the streets.
The narration by DEA Agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) is still an ever-present force, though it’s somewhat more subtle this year, and does feature some moments of irreverent wit, keeping it enjoyable. What’s driving this voice-over, exactly, is its biggest flaw. Clearly, it’s Steve’s point-of-view, but he has an omniscient knowledge beyond the character’s scope at that time. Is this meant to be his reflection on past events? Will the final episode of “Narcos” reveal Future Steve writing his memoirs with whatever fancy technology we’ll one day be using to blog about our raucous youths? Or is this just a relatively easy narrative device to communicate a lot of information to the viewer while also reminding them of beloved films like “Goodfellas”? These are the sort of things you might find yourself dwelling on by Episode 6 or so.
In general, “Narcos” likes its devices, most especially intercutting idyllic scenes of Escobar spending time with his family while the violence he’s masterminded fills the streets with blood. “Narcos” is also a show that likes all the other trappings of life as a wealthy renegade: the fancy estates and vistas, the massive piles of cash, the endless supply of guns and bullets and the power that comes with it all.
It’s a very masculine show, but for a genre that often doesn’t give this much thought, it deserves props for creating some substantial female characters who aren’t just wives or girlfriends. This includes Messina (Florencia Lozano) as a tough new superior for Steve and his partner Javier (Pedro Pascal), and rival drug kingpin Judy Moncada (Cristina Umaña), who makes for an imposing enemy. Even the wives and girlfriends get some attention, especially Paulina Gaitan as Tata, Escobar’s loyal wife who nonetheless isn’t thrilled with the life of subterfuge and hiding that loyalty has brought on her and her children.
Meanwhile, the most exciting thing to report about Season 2 is that “Narcos” may have finally figured out who its star is. While Wagner Moura’s Pablo Escobar is as nuanced as ever, it’s Pascal who really gets the opportunity to shine. DEA Agent Javier Peña was a substantial part of Season 1, sure, but in Season 2 he’s a more active, engaged presence who’s challenged in new ways. While last year, the show kept emphasizing Holbrook as the ostensible lead, this year Steve takes more of a back seat, and Pascal shines with the extra exposure.
This is more important than one might think, given the deliberate choices made in Season 2 to stay true to history and thus shake up the status quo. The show has been relatively open about how given the way events in 1992 and 1993 occurred, this will be Moura’s last season with the show (yes, we’re trying to avoid spoilers even while talking about real events). Given how much of Season 1 depended on Moura’s powerful and charismatic performance, it was clear that the end of Season 2 would bring with it a potential power vacuum. For a (currently non-greenlit) Season 3 to flourish, it will need equally compelling figures at its center. It’s yet to be seen if the new narcos that emerge in Season 2 can command our attention the way Escobar did (hard to top the most notorious drug kingpin of all time). But in the meantime, the show has figured out how to balance its ostensible heroes. The buddy cop energy between Peña and Murphy was one of Season 2’s most enjoyable side dishes — enough to make one hope for more.
It’s not a particularly deep show. Like a lot of narratives about criminals and outlaws, “Narcos” is too caught up in the surface battles to really ponder broader questions: Why does the cocaine trade flourish to such a degree? What level of collateral damage is acceptable in this sort of war? When cops make deals with criminals to catch other criminals, what does that say about the very concept of law and order? “Narcos” is a very good example of a well-established and popular genre of crime fiction, but it’s this inability to engage on a more profound level which keeps it from being something truly transcendent.
There’s a duality when it comes to watching “Narcos,” like a lot of stories based in truth. You might be someone who’s read the books, speaks the language and as a result bears the weight of that knowledge. Or you might be relatively ignorant of what happened in Colombia during the ’80s and ’90s; unaware of how these events were seismic not just for the region, but the entire world, and also very much in need of the subtitles when characters habla español.
In the former instance, the historical inaccuracies and accents might bother you. But in the latter instance, there’s no denying that “Narcos” has found its way in depicting a battle that still wages today. As the producers have said more than once, as long as there’s a drug war, there will be story for “Narcos” to tell. If they keep with this approach — tracking shorter periods of time, continuing to broaden its ensemble and highlight the real stars within it — fans will continue to be pleased.