The second season of Narcos, Netflix’s historical drama about drug lord Pablo Escobar and the law enforcement officers who worked to bring him down, is a marked improvement over the first — which I didn’t like very much.
And yet as I got deeper into it, I grew more and more frustrated with the series all the same. Season two builds to a suitably grand climax — no spoilers here, but, uh, if you know anything about Pablo Escobar, you can probably guess what I’m referring to.
This is not to say you shouldn’t watch it. In particular, fans of season one — and of Wagner Moura’s performance as an Escobar who seems to constantly be positioning himself for ironically doomed foreshadowing — will likely feel that season two is a suitably impressive step forward.
But along the way, it struggles with the difficulties of telling straightforward historical true stories within the confines of episodic television, the plotting challenges that affect almost all of Netflix’s dramas, and the biggest problem facing the American TV system itself.
Let’s take a look at what’s better and worse since season one. There will be spoilers, but again, you probably already know where this story is headed.
Better: The show focuses much more on Escobar
Pablo Escobar was the one thing about Narcos’ first season that kept me watching. The DEA agents and Colombian police officers tasked with bringing him down were comparatively dull — especially as the show dug into the drastically different sides of Escobar’s personality, which could help Colombia’s poor with one hand while the other was ordering the murder of dozens.
Part of that was thanks to Moura’s performance, which carried with it a heavy grandeur, as if Escobar knew his operation could only end in his death, even when he was becoming one of the richest men on Earth. Moura so ably played Escobar’s many personas, from loving family man to ruthless criminal, that he could briefly make you forget how much TV has overdosed on antihero shows.
So it’s a relief that season two spends much, much more time with Escobar than season one did. Where season one frequently felt like a dry informational seminar on the techniques the DEA used to disrupt Escobar’s distribution networks in the ‘80s and ‘90s, season two is comfortable with the idea that the viewer might want to see Escobar escape into the night — all historical evidence to the contrary.
And by shifting the focus more forthrightly to Escobar, Narcos also subtly refocuses its look at law enforcement.
Sure, the DEA agents who took up so much of season one are still around, but Boyd Holbrook’s Steve Murphy — the show’s narrator — takes a backseat to Pedro Pascal’s Javier Peña (who entertains various deals with various devils) and the Colombian police officers who grapple with what it might mean to take down a national folk hero.
Worse: The show becomes hugely repetitive, especially in the season’s second half
One of the few things I liked about season one was how heedlessly it plunged forward through time. Even though it knew Escobar’s death came at a fixed point in history — December 2, 1993, to be exact — it began in the 1970s and came within spitting distance of that death by the end of season one.
Between seasons of the show, however, Netflix changed showrunners, and if there’s one big, obvious difference, it’s that Narcos has mostly abandoned that breakneck pace. At all times, it wants you to be aware that Escobar will by dying very soon — and then it drags its feet so that the death doesn’t happen until the very end of the season. He’s not even cornered by the DEA and the Colombian police until there are only 20 minutes in the finale.
And the show becomes weirdly repetitive on its way to that final showdown. Escobar finds somewhere to hide out, realizes he might be busted, and flees. Along the way, more and more of his compatriots fall, even as he makes daring escape after daring escape.
Narcos does a reasonably good job of highlighting Escobar’s increasing isolation as this pattern continues, but it frequently left me checking to see how much time the season had left in it.
In a way, this is the problem with making a TV series about historical events that directly interprets said events instead of loosely flirting with them (as, say, Boardwalk Empire did). The audience knows certain big and moments are coming, and no matter how much the writers try to build that central dramatic irony into the storytelling, everything feels like a delay of the inevitable. That works in a movie — where the story lasts three hours, tops — but on TV, it feels ever more stretched out.
Better: The show is more willing to acknowledge the horrible things its law enforcement agents do
Make no mistake: Narcos thinks it’s a good thing that the DEA and Colombian law enforcement brought down Pablo Escobar. It knows he was an agent of chaos, responsible for the deaths of hundreds, and maybe even thousands if we include the indirect deaths that came about as the result of the growth of drug-related crime.
But in season two, the show is more willing to grapple with the fact that, in their single-minded pursuit of Escobar, law enforcement officials did some terrible things — while inadvertently clearing space for the Cali cartel (Escobar’s rivals) to expand its own operation.
I was especially taken with an episode in which the DEA leans heavily on every government official it can think of to make sure that Escobar’s wife, mother, and children — all innocent of any crime other than being associated with the man they all loved — aren’t allowed to escape to another country.
If they can make it into Germany (the country they choose to flee to), they’ll be safe. Back in Colombia, they’ll be threatened by Los Pepes, a group with ties to the Cali cartel (and other drug traffickers) that’s killing anyone associated with Escobar.
But if they remain in Colombia, the DEA reasons, Escobar might be more likely to slip up and put himself out in the open, where he can be arrested or shot. Narcos doesn’t back away from the cold calculus inherent in this equation.
Worse: Maybe the show should just be over now? But it’s not.
Netflix has yet to renew Narcos for a third season. But the season two finale — even with Escobar’s death — clearly sets up for a third season in which Murphy and Peña work to bring down the Cali cartel.
And maybe that story will be as fascinating as the pursuit of Escobar. Maybe Narcos will just continue to get better. But TV often struggles with this kind of reset, causing confusion and frustration by ditching a bunch of characters viewers have come to know and care about in favor of something completely new.
Why couldn’t Narcos have been an open-and-shut, 20-episode story of Pablo Escobar’s rise and fall, alongside the story of the men and women who brought him down?
The simple answer is that there’s still no good place for that kind of story in the American TV system, which is still largely aimed at creating series that run for years, the better to make more money for everybody involved.
Yes, streaming services and cable channels and a whole host of other new TV platforms and inventions have changed a lot about how we tell stories in the medium. But until we let go of the central idea that TV series should run as long as humanly possible, we’re going to find ourselves in a lot of situations like this: One story wraps up, and then the show tries to suggest there’s an even more exciting one around the corner.
Better and worse: Murphy’s narration is still so stupid — but at least there isn’t nearly as much of it
My major complaint about Narcos season one was that Murphy was constantly telling the viewer exactly what was happening onscreen, via voiceover. It felt a little insulting — like Narcos didn’t trust viewers to follow along, or to pay attention to a show with so much Spanish language dialogue.
Well, season two has improved on Murphy’s voiceover in one regard: There’s a whole lot less of it. Murphy might narrate a couple of scenes in each episode, but the wall-to-wall chattering that defined much of the first half of season one is gratifyingly absent.
There’s even a slightly hilarious gag after Escobar has been captured, where Murphy is pontificating about how Escobar was just a man after all — but gets cut off by somebody shooting Escobar in the head.
And yet Murphy is mostly still present to tell viewers what’s happening right before their very eyes. This detail illustrates the larger problem with Narcos in a nutshell: It’s built for binge-viewing, but not particularly attentive binge-viewing. And the show is always worried you might stop paying attention.
Narcos season two is streaming on Netflix.