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Narcos season 3 finally gets a frustrating show on track

All it had to do was change its main character!

Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal) takes aim at the Cali Cartel in Narcos.
Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal) takes aim at the Cali Cartel.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

I’ve always thought Netflix’s Narcos was merely okay at best and downright bad at worst. The show has its strengths — some powerful performances and elegantly constructed action sequences — but whatever doomed grandeur it could muster from the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar, which took up the first two seasons, was muted by its worst impulses.

Those worst impulses surfaced again and again, usually in the form of endless voiceover that (especially in season one) underlined events that were happening onscreen. Narcos so often seemed to have little faith in its viewers to keep up with what was happening, a flaw that permeated almost everything about the series.

Some of the problem with the voiceover also stemmed from the man delivering it: actor Boyd Holbrook, whose laid-back drawl worked whenever he appeared onscreen as DEA agent Steve Murphy but sounded too laconic and held back when divorced from his physicality. It got to a point where I would have to force myself to pay attention to these sequences.

So the first thing that made me think Narcos season three (of which I’ve seen five episodes, out of 10) might improve upon the show’s first two seasons was the fact that it handed over the voiceover task to Holbrook’s co-star, Pedro Pascal, who plays DEA agent Javier Peña, now the series’ lead. (Steve Murphy left the DEA shortly after Escobar’s death in reality, and Holbrook has summarily been written out of the show as well.)

Holbrook had his moments, to be sure, but Pascal’s Peña was always more compelling than Holbrook’s Murphy, and Pascal gave the more compelling performance. So it’s fitting that season three begins at a party, where Peña’s family and friends want to celebrate his victories in law enforcement, even as he has no real appetite for such fanfare. (It only helps that Edward James Olmos turns up in this scene to offer the proceedings all the gravitas the actor typically brings with him.)

From there, it’s clear that Narcos has clearly thought about how to rejuvenate and reinvent itself in the wake of Escobar’s death. Season three’s ostensible focus is the DEA’s attempt to bring down the Cali cartel, a massive, shadowy organization that funneled illegal drugs into the US.

Talking about such a large organization — instead of one built around a key figure, like Escobar — could cause the series to shoot itself in the foot. There are so many opportunities for exposition! But the choice instead frees the show to almost reverse the arc of the first two seasons. Now, the Cali cartel, not the DEA, is a complicated organization full of squabbling individuals with separate motivations; and it’s the DEA that seems increasingly haunted and run to ground, especially since Peña is by far the most interesting figure there.

Ironically, it’s also possible that some of Narcos’ improvement has to do with the fact that shifting away from the Escobar story means that Wagner Moura — who played the kingpin and gave by far the show’s best performance — is no longer around to steal the spotlight even in scenes he’s not in. But season three feels straightforward and muscular in a way that the previous two just didn’t. It’s far more confident that viewers will keep up with the action (and there’s plenty of great action and gruesome sequences) without constant hand-holding. And when it needs to hold hands, Pascal is a much abler guide than Holbrook was.

By shuffling Steve Murphy and Pablo Escobar offscreen in its third season, Narcos handily indicates that the story here isn’t about any one character, or even any one plot. It’s about the overall battle against illegal drugs, and the darkness that resulted (on both sides) from trying to force genies back into bottles. It’s possible — maybe even probable — to imagine a version of Narcos that eventually has almost no continuity with its first season other than the idea that cocaine is somehow involved. That’s incredibly ambitious, and even a Narcos skeptic like me has to admire the way it doesn’t want to be TV as usual, even if it doesn’t always succeed.

Perversely, just as Narcos has started to gain strength, it’s garnered competition, especially in the form of FX’s (generally solid) “birth of crack” drama Snowfall. I generally prefer Snowfall to Narcos, but the former is more of a character drama and Narcos is more of an action-tragedy, of sorts. Both shows suffer from a similar flaw — their worlds are so huge that they risk alienating viewers due to a lack of connective tissue (Snowfall’s approach is vaguely similar to that of Game of Thrones, of all things) — but I find myself admiring Narcos’ overall design all the same, even if the show will never be completely my thing.

Narcos is streaming on Netflix.