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TV Review: Narcos (Season 3)

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When Narcos announced its third season, having wrapped up the Escobar storyline, many (including myself) were wary at the prospect of it continuing without Wagner Moura in the role that was synonymous to the show’s name.

And yet against expectations, Narcos: Season 3 does a splendid job of hitting the reset button and allowing the Cali Cartel quartet to fill the void left behind.

What makes this more exciting is that, unlike in season two where viewers were acutely aware that all was building to Escobar’s death, this sequence of events is new and exhilarating. This was missing last year, and comes back in full force this time.  

Colombia’s drug world is now explored through the Cali Cartel: Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez, openly gay mobster Pacho, and Chepe, the New York associate who is separated from the others for the first half of the season. The show begins with an unexpected hook; one that propels events towards a countdown to the cartel’s surrender. Of course (and thankfully for viewers), Gilberto’s plans for the cartel to go legitimate do not go smoothly.

This season struggled with keeping the pace in its first episodes, as it scrambled to transition from its old format and grapple with many more disjointed arcs. The show’s handling of exposition through cumbersome narration and newsreel footage weighs down the first handful of episodes. When the scene is finally set however, and once it finds its stride, Narcos is back in full form.

Blessedly, Holbrook returned to the US and thus does not make an appearance this season. In his stead, Peña (Pedro Pascal) moves centre in the DEA’s storyline. Despite his faults, being a relatively two-dimensional character subscribing to the old trope of ‘downtrodden lawman with hazy morals’, Peña is easily far more dynamic a hero than Holbrook ever hoped to be.

If Peña steps up to the role of gunslinger in Holbrook’s absence, then it’s Jorge Salcedo, fantastically portrayed by Matias Varela, who takes over from Escobar in centering the narrative. Family man and head of security for the Cali Cartel, Jorge is a new introduction - a quiet individual whose attempts to distance himself from a life of crime for the sake of his family are forcibly put on hold by his employer.

This too offers an interesting counterpoint to Escobar’s family-oriented persona, though their approaches to keeping the ones they love safe diverge dramatically. When violence amps up and Jorge’s desperation grows, he begins cooperating with the DEA, reluctantly becoming their inside man and thus adding a new dimension to the storytelling.

Jorge fast becomes Narcos’ stealth star, delivering a nuanced performance that develops slowly and authentically. The most relatable of the show’s characters, he is the one to anchor viewers amidst the tumultuous interweaving of so many characters and storylines.

Whilst it’s true that frustratingly, Jorge’s character can at times be too good to be believable, this doesn’t last. As the walls close in on him, he’s pushed to show his mettle and grit, which lends itself to a far more convincing performance and finds its place organically amongst Narcos’ moral greyscales.

Another important introduction is that of Miguel’s son David - as of yet the most unsympathetic individual to grace the show’s screen. It’s one more disappointingly flat characterisation, but is necessary as a vector for shocking violence. Because the writers need viewers to care about Miguel and Jorge’s relationship, since a sense of betrayal is at the core of the latter’s internal struggle, the role of cold-blooded murderer needed to be outsourced to his son.

As a balance against David’s extreme and horrific use of violence, the likes of which surpass by far what we’d witnessed of Escobar’s men, come two new DEA agents. Feistl and Van Ness deliver more personality and humour than Peña and Holbrook had. Their refreshing brothers-in-arms banter breathe small moments of levity into a season that is otherwise oppressively dark.

One of Narcos’ downfalls, which is by no means new to this season but still worth mentioning, is the thorough lack of note-worthy female characters. If any women make an appearance, it’s generally to represent a form of victimisation. While it’s true that blame falls partly to the nature of the show and the story it recounts, it could still make better efforts to delve into those female arcs that do make the cut.

For instance, Miguel’s murder of Maria’s husband, so that he could have her, had the potential to set up a fascinating character exposition for Maria. Yet by the season’s halfway point, she becomes a nonentity. The show is let down because of this, and will undoubtedly make audiences long for the likes of Valeria Vélez to make a return, adding dimension to an otherwise toxically masculine ensemble.

Overall Narcos’ third season wasn’t faultless by any stretch, but the ambition to reimagine the show, leaving only scraps of continuity to tie it to previous seasons, paid off. Narcos certainly found a new lease of life in a blank canvas.

Narcos: Season 3 is available to watch on Netflix now.

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