“Narcos” has never been a simple show to process, especially for someone not embedded in this universe — there are many players, many complications, speaking in many languages, operating decades ago.
But it is one of the great examples of shows that have improved thanks to the opportunity to grow and evolve, and Season 3 continues that journey with an investment in human storytelling.
The third season of the Netflix period drama, circling around the drug cartels that gave birth to an international addiction to cocaine and the American war on drugs that failed to prevent it, had a major challenge ahead of it. For two seasons, “Narcos” had Pablo Escobar, one of the most famous drug kingpins of all time, at its center. Escobar was a fascinating character, anchored by an award-nominated performance by Wagner Moura, but at the end of Season 2, Escobar’s journey on the show ended.
Thus, Season 3 resets the chess board to a massive degree, refocusing the show on the members of the Cali Cartel, which is theoretically working towards a “retirement plan” that will allow its principles to segue out of illegal activity with their livelihoods intact. But even as that’s going on, the DEA and other forces involved are still committed to, you know, stopping criminal activity surrounding drugs. Even if, as they learn over the course of the season, that is a hopeless case.
As observed during Season 2, Pedro Pascal had true leading man potential for the show, and so bless “Narcos” for elevating his character of agent Javier Peña to the series lead — he even replaces former lead Boyd Holbrook (who left the show after Season 2) in doing “Narcos'” inescapable voice-over. Pascal, for the record, is a wonderfully authoritative voice.
In Season 3, Peña has graduated to a supervisory position as the show fully descends into the ’90s, and the show doesn’t stumble one single beat in the transition, as Peña devotes himself and his team to trying to stop the drug trade between Colombia and the United States. Partners Chris Feistl (Michael Stahl-David) and Daniel Van Ness (Matt Whelan) now serve as the American in-roads to the action, which creates a compelling dynamic with Peña leading the way for them.
Meanwhile, there’s a massive influx of new cast for the season, including Arturo Castro as David Rodriguez, who might technically be a familiar face as Ilana’s roommate on “Broad City,” but here proves to be truly terrifying in his ruthlessness. Miguel Angel Silvestre also appears as Franklin Jurado, a cartel accountant whose American wife Christina (Kerry Bishe) has some sparks with Peña. But the most notable scene-stealer, especially at the end of Episode 1, is Alberto Ammann as Pacho Herrera, an openly gay Cali cartel member who is perhaps its most ruthless.
Outside of the overhanging threat of Pedro Escobar, “Narcos” proves its ability to excel as an ongoing drama by not just introducing new members of these syndicates, but giving them real, fleshed-out lives beyond basic confrontations. There’s a most intriguing conflict that arises when characters who see themselves as technically “outside” the cartel — because they don’t carry drugs or actively sell drugs — are forced to accept that fallacy.
The downside, though, might be a facet of that focus, as Season 3 does lack the level of female presence enjoyed by Season 2. Beyond the relatively brief reappearances of a woman reporter, the women of this story are all wives and mothers, only deeply engaged with the action because of how their husbands and sons are involved. But “Narcos” has never been a show where passing the Bechdel test was a priority.
However, it is still a series that seeks to offer a unique perspective into an era many may not know about, a series grounded in enough humanity to elevate what might otherwise be easily stereotyped storytelling. The best moments of “Narcos” are when it shows that the men and women whose lives are entwined with these cartels don’t think of them as businesses. They think of them as families, institutions, governments, impossibly powerful. Which is why they might be loyal to them beyond all else, which brings their actions into such clarity on screen.
Digging into just how accurately “Narcos” depicts the history it captures isn’t necessarily the point. The point comes down to a scene relatively early in the season’s run, which might count as a spoiler except that it just speaks to reality. “The drug war? We lost it. You were there,” he says.
That’s been the whole point of “Narcos” this whole time. Understanding why is why we keep watching this show, year after year.
“Narcos” Season 3 premieres September 1 on Netflix.