“God forbid anyone thinks they’re the bad guys.”
Narcos’ biggest challenge in continuing past the death of Pablo Escobar is cannily mirrored in the season three premiere’s dilemma of now lone DEA agent protagonist Javier Peña. (Boyd Holbrook’s Steve Murphy has exited the series, leaving the lead role and its attendant voiceover duties to Pedro Pascal’s dogged Peña.) Promoted after his highly publicized role in taking down Colombia’s most notorious drug kingpin, Peña finds himself the object of hero worship, both at a wedding in the States, and from his bright-eyed new underlings at his U.S. Embassy office in Colombia. Back home, his knowing father (Edward James Olmos) reminds the conflicted Javy of his long-ago warning of the dangers of trying to change the world. “More likely, it’ll change you.”
Pedro Pascal, in this first episode, brings his signature soulfulness to Javier’s plight. Fully expecting to be fired (at least) for accepting the rival Cali Cartel’s aid in finally bringing down Escobar, Peña, instead, finds himself recruited as the head of the DEA unit tasked with bringing the cartel down. In crisp white dress shirts and chewing nicotine gum in an attempt to give up old habits, Pascal makes Peña’s conflict intensely physical. Penned in by both his new golden boy image and the Cali Cartel’s cannier approach to drug trafficking, Pascal’s Peña strains against his wonted cowboy cop instincts. When the officious ambassador congratulates him on his promotion, Peña, hunched on the office’s posh sofa, watches warily, knowing there’s a big “but” on the way. “Things won’t be like Escobar, Agent Peña,” the ambassador tells him. “They can’t be. Things have changed down here.”
And things have changed, at least on the surface of the insanely lucrative drug business. The Cali Cartel, as Peña explains in the pat, over-dramatic voiceover that remains Narcos’ storytelling crutch, operates in almost complete opposition to Pablo Escobar’s flamboyantly violent methods. “It’s like the Soviet Union with nice weather,” Peña’s narration informs us, as we see how the annual billion dollars in bribes (“That’s ‘billion’ with a ‘b’,” Peña underscores) has everyone from the police to the telephone company busily operating as the cartel’s spies. We see a suspiciously familiar hot-dog DEA two-man team (a smug gringo and his Spanish-speaking partner) setting up an elaborate undercover operation. They pressure a young waiter to spy on an unprecedented Cali organization get-together, only for the cartel’s smoothly efficient head of security, Jorge Salcedo (Matias Varela) to pull the terrified kid aside with an unconcerned joke about the expensive DEA button camera he’s wearing, a rundown of all the waiter’s loved ones and their addresses, and a warning to get out of town. As Peña—sidelined into exposition mode for much of the premiere—tells us, the four top men of the Cali Cartel (who call themselves “the Gentlemen of Cali”) run their operation “like a Fortune 500 company,” relying on bribery, intimidation, and nigh-omnipresence to maintain a veneer of, if not respectability, at least of not being “as evil as the guy before.” The show’s portrayal of Colombian culture remains intertwined with the drug trade, with Peña suggesting that, as long as the Cali kingpins aren’t waging literal open war in the streets as Escobar did, most people are content to let them operate in relative peace.
But running coke, in the world of Narcos, is an inherently evil business, and the Gentlemen of Cali carry out their vendettas just as bloodily as did Pablo Escobar, if not as ostentatiously. (With one exception we’ll get to.) Peña tells us dutifully that the cartel’s preferred method of body disposal (involving chicken wire, natural decomposition, and a river filled with obligingly hungry fish) isn’t “very gentlemanly.” Therein lies this third season’s (and Peña’s) problem—how to get people invested in a group of wealthy villains whose more surreptitiously polished misdeeds seem dramatically unimpressive next to the thrillingly grandiose, bombastic villainy of Wagner Moura’s Pablo Escobar. If Moura’s towering performance unbalanced Narcos’ narrative of murky morality in Escobar’s favor (especially when the series began by positioning Holbrook’s wan Murphy as his nemesis), the post-Pablo Narcos begins in a muddle of mostly nondescript new characters and exposition.
Pascal’s Peña, ending the episode in bed with a woman he’s picked up at a bar and lighting up his first cigarette in a long time, remains a compellingly compromised protagonist. Confronted at a bar by local CIA man Stechner (Eric Lange, making his spook’s unkempt casual friendliness as subtly menacing as ever), Peña registers the truth behind the smug Stechner’s knowing condescension about the value of his “hero cop” reputation. “You’re the dashing DEA agent who took down Escobar,” smiles Stechner, taking his leave with the effortlessly emasculating, “It always helps to have a hero on board.” If, over the course of its first two seasons, Narcos gradually edged Peña into the spotlight, it’s because Pascal earned it, and even as the premiere lays out its new narrative mission with customary klutziness, the prospect of ten episodes focused on Pascal’s Peña trying to adapt to this de-centralized but equally dangerous new adversary is promising.
Less so is the Cali Cartel themselves, however. The show’s creators have always stressed how their examination of the birth and growth of the Colombian cocaine business was bigger than one man. But Wagner Moura became Narcos, for better and sometimes worse, the actor’s powerful embodiment of such an infamously larger-than-life figure perhaps necessarily overshadowing the overarching narrative. Now that both Escobar and Moura are gone, though, the Gentlemen of Cali can’t help but come off as underwhelming, at least in their rushed introduction here. We’ve seen Damian Alcazar’s Cali boss Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela previously, but his toothy, glad-handing menace isn’t the stuff major players are made of. Newly introduced characters like Gilberto’s money man brother Miguel (Francisco Denis) has a subplot shoehorned into the episode about how his infatuation with the wife (Andrea Londo) of an unruly sub-boss affects his decision making when it comes to the man’s fate. And NYC-based captain Chepe (Pepe Rapazote) conveys hints of being the cartel’s cruder loose cannon (if his metaphor about how he plans to “fuck the Statue of Liberty in her ass” is any indication).
But if there’s one character positioned to take up the narrative space vacated by Pablo Escobar, it’s Pacho. When it was announced that Narcos would continue with the Cali Cartel as its focal point, it was Pacho Herrera, Cali boss and, as Peña fills us in here, leader of “a team of young psychopaths,” who appeared the heir apparent to Escobar’s series bad guy crown. In my review of the season two finale, I contemplated a Pablo-less Narcos, asking, “Do we really want a season focused on Pacho?” Well, we’re getting one, and, on the basis of the effort put into establishing Alberto Ammann’s character in this first episode of season three, it’s not as farfetched an idea as it once seemed.
Pacho—with his blow-dried hair and patterned silk shirts—was always positioned as a softer, more polished foil to Pablo’s bull-snorting machismo. But Pablo is dead, the Cali Cartel—here announcing a controversial deal with the Colombian to get out of the cocaine business after six final months of snorting up all the cash and power they can—is more successful than Pablo Escobar was, and Pacho Herrera is nobody’s foil any longer. After tracking a reticent under-boss to a roadside club (he’s the same boss whose wife Miguel Rodriguez has a thing for), Pacho roars up on a motorcycle with his men, orders a bottle to share with the man and for the bartender to put on a particular song (“Dos Gardenias”)—and then makes the entire club watch as he holds out his hand for a handsome young man to dance with him. As the swooning bolero plays and the dance floor empties, Pacho and his partner perform a passionate, romantic dance, finally kissing with abandon. When the song is done, Pacho walks back to the table where the under-boss sits averting his gaze and smashes the bottle over his head. (He then is shown killing the unfortunate guy via an Old West-style motorcycle drawing-and-quartering, riding off into the night with the man’s arm clattering from a rope behind him.)
Narcos has never been the most gracefully written show. Tonight, expository dialogue clunks to the floor as the pieces for this third season are dropped into place. (“Congratulations on the promotion, sir,” beams Peña’s new aide, adding, “You know, you’re kind of a big deal around here. You know, since Escobar.”) And there’s an effortful strain here in propping Pacho up as the new badass in town. But Ammann rules his big scene, an ostentatious demonstration of his unquestioned power that flies in the face of the homophobic abuse he’s suffered, no doubt, during his rise. Sure, Pablo threw gay slurs at a lot of people, but the cultured Pacho bore some of his harshest, and Pacho’s long-implied sexuality is presented here as intrinsic to his violent response to being shown disrespect. Earlier at the Cali party, Pacho had only said of the under-boss, “You know I have a personal issue with that son of a bitch.” In the club scene, that issue is never explained to us directly, but Pacho uses his sexuality to underscore just how far above anyone’s opinions of him he sees himself to be. That his show of pride and power partakes of the sort of over-the-top, very public violence that was Pablo’s preferred style hints that his inner conflict is going to bring Pacho into promising clashes with both his own allies and with Peña. Narcos’ third season begins with two restless men, bristling for a fight.
- A pair of admirable fake-outs reveal the extent of the cartel’s reach. A group of men gathered in preparation of the party seem like police, bidding an ominous farewell to the officer doing one last job before retirement. (No word if he’d bought a boat called the “Live-4-Ever.”) As it turns out, the impressive mobilization comes from the army of cartel operatives who will be scanning the gathering for any intruders, and the retiring man is Cali security chief, Jorge Salcedo, as revealed when he threatens the spying waiter.
- In the other, Gilberto is presented with a bulging envelope filled with audio cassettes, suggesting damaging information, perhaps blackmail. As it turns out, the cartel had bugged every one of the under-bosses in attendance, and—like Pacho’s victim at the club—every one who expressed reluctance to go along with the six-month plan is summarily executed.
- Jorge’s plan to go legit is scuttled by Miguel, who informs his security chief, “We didn’t get where we are by allowing good people to leave.” It sets up another potentially interesting conflict within the Cali organization, although that the show felt it necessary to saddle Jorge with a worried wife angry that he’s breaking his promise to quit falls back on some worrisomely tired tropes.
- Cali’s more nuanced way of dealing with problems (chicken wire and arm-amputating aside) is seen in the fact that Jorge allows the terrified young waiter to split town for good (without even telling his mother or his girl), rather than killing him. Also, the clumsy DEA team (including Shea Whigham, continuing to mark out the “undeservedly cocky lawman” territory, post-Fargo) is allowed to find out their surveillance is blown, not with bullets, but with pictures of their meeting with the waiter—that they’re allowed to develop themselves.
- Peña’s narration, on Gilberto: “They called him the chess player because he was always one move ahead.” Thanks, Javy.
- Gilberto cites Joseph Kennedy’s bootlegging background as proof that the Cali Cartel can retire from crime and still maintain their standing and power going forward. His people are not impressed.
- Pascal doesn’t get to do much in this first episode, but his confrontation with the oily Stechner sees the actor registering Javier’s warring guilt, shame, and contempt, rousing himself finally against the CIA man’s manipulations with a contemptuous, “You don’t care about American streets or dead Colombians.”
- Stechner’s unfazed. “If there were any justice in this world, Javier, you’d be in jail.”
- And we’re back for season three of Narcos, everyone. I’m Dennis, and I’ll be your reviewer. Look for new reviews at noon every day until, one assumes, the last body falls. As usual with streaming shows, I’ll be reviewing the series in order, without reference to future events, so let’s keep things a spoiler-free in the comments as possible. Don’t be spoiler-person. No one likes spoiler-person.