“Narcos” season three, episode one, “The Kingpin Strategy,” begins with Agent Javier Pena, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent who’s been through this all before, in an intimate conversation with his father. The older man pleads with his son not to put his life on the line in the name of the drug war again, knowing that he’s already made his decision. “So, Cali . . .” his father says, begrudgingly accepting his son’s choice. The younger Peña nods his agreement,.“Cali,” he says in a grave tone as the screen quickly fades to black.
Just like that, a new season of the most binge-able show on Netflix has begun. Pedro Bromfman’s “Tuyo” rises to an ethereal drone as perfectly curated clips of Colombia are intercut with real-life news clippings from the era of the Cali cartel. The contrast between the dark reality of the Colombian drug trade and the romanticized life of a Narco is put on full display, and the viewer has no choice but to be absorbed into the haunting, (almost) real-life twists and turns that the show takes with its narrative.
What is it about “Narcos” that makes it so infinitely watchable? The first two seasons, which focused on the rise and fall of the most prolific, and enigmatic, drug lord of all time, Pablo Escobar, followed a straight-to-the-point narrative characterized by solid storytelling and excellent character development. While nobody could have confused the show for anything remotely close to a documentary, it was as close to a retelling of events as possible while remaining one of the most entertaining watches on Netflix. After the death of Pablo Escobar at the end of season two, many people wondered how season three would fare without such a compelling boogeyman to thwart its DEA protagonists. How would the storytellers craft that “magical realism” that made the first two seasons so successful without Escobar (played by Wagner Moura) to light up the screen with his domineering presence?
By adopting the Cali cartel as their new subject matter, the showrunners took on quite a challenge: making a cartel which ran itself like an actual business appealing enough on an emotional level to fill the void left by the death of Escobar. While the third season has its downfalls, and I assume that there will be plenty of viewers who simply won’t be able to get into the show with its bell-weather of badness six feet deep from episode one, I have to say, season three was my personal favorite. Objectively, I still have to give it to season one for crafting a world so consistently unbelievable, yet all too real. But in terms of personal preference, season three captivated me in a way that no other show has before.
With season three, the writers were forced to condense the exploits of an entire criminal enterprise into a single season. And with four godfathers taking the helm for this go-around, I’m sure it was a struggle to keep the narrative contained within the scope of its 10 episodes. To their credit, the four “Godfathers of Cali:” Chepe, Pacho, and the Rodriguez brothers, while certainly no Pablo Escobars . . . are each interesting in their own way, and serve the narrative well with their different styles of management and unique senses of morality. What the show lost with Escobar’s death it replaced heftily with a laser focus on the moral ambiguity of the whole situation. While never exactly a feel-good show, the third season dives deep into the self-defeating nature of the American drug war, a theme which will almost certainly be delved into at even greater length going forward.