“Now the king is dead. Long live the kings.”
(Warning: Some spoilers below)
If season one of Netflix’s Narcos was all about the rise of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, then season two is at once a slow burn as well as a meteoric plummet. Within the first few minutes, the tone is set for the entire season – the vultures have begun to circle.
It was always clear that the story of Pablo Escobar had an expiration date – December 2, 1993. While most TV shows go to great length to keep character deaths a secret, Narcos chose to embrace the fact that Escobar would die, instead emphasising the how and the who, as seen in the hashtag #WhoKilledPablo.
By doing this, Narcos was able to focus on the even more riveting portrayal of Escobar by Wagner Moura, who perfectly captures the very Shakespearean foreshadowing of Escobar’s doom. Moura’s expressiveness is a masterclass in subtle, yet powerful acting. However, it also becomes much more apparent that the show sags in his absence.
The emotional intensity that surrounds Escobar is the essence of how season two managed to distinguish itself from its predecessor – a fast-paced, world building narrative that had to cover around 15 years, and left little scope for viewers to form emotional ties with the characters.
The King of Cocaine and the Medellín Cartel
Moura’s portrayal of the young, seemingly invincible leader as well as the aged don struggling to hold the reins of his empire is without a doubt the backbone of Narcos. Escobar is visibly old now, with greying hair a much more generous waistline. The worry lines dig deeper into his face, and he becomes more introspective.
We see in this season two homages to the “baptism scene” in the Godfather, which is one of the most lauded sequences in cinema. In one, Escobar belts out opera in the shower, even as his men execute an entire brothel on the other side of town to kill a possible informant. In another, while his men conduct a mass slaughter of Colombia police personnel across the whole of Medellín, Escobar dances tenderly with his wife.
The dichotomy between the man who scores his son’s dives into the pool and gifts his daughter a bunny and the man who casually orders bombings just to make a point, grows more extreme and more fascinating as the season progresses.
The introduction of Limon helped greatly in fleshing out the cartel, which hitherto was comprised of unnamed goons. The journey from being a cab driver who drove prostitutes around, to being the last man standing at Escobar’s side added a fresh new element.
The “Good Guys”
It’s a relief to see that the show toned back the involvement of Boyd Holbrook’s Steve Murphy. Arguably the blandest character, he becomes a lot darker (though it tends to come across as teenage sulkiness instead) as a result of everything he underwent. Thankfully, his presence and narratory sequences have been scaled back.
Javier Peña, played by Pedro Pascal, is given more prominence and an engaging storyline as he navigates the complex scheming between different cartels standing against Escobar.
New elements like Murphy’s marital problems do little to encourage emotional connectivity with the DEA or the Colombian authorities. Rather, it’s within the Medellín cartel that we find characters who – despite being undeniably cold-blooded mass murderers – nevertheless allow viewers to connect with them. Prime examples are the relationships between Escobar, Gustavo, Tata, his children and even the inner circle.
César Gaviria (Raúl Méndez) and the new American additions to the manhunt take an extremely hard-line stance towards Escobar, going so far as to avoid negotiations of any kind. This results in a sequence of manhunts that becomes repetitive after a point – they attack, he escapes. It’s at this point that it starts feeling like the show is stretching itself out.
The ability of the writers to showcase atrocities by both the cartel and the US-Colombian authorities in equal measure will leave viewers with many moral dilemmas, as well as the question of whether anyone really won at all, even with Escobar’s death. No, you might think, there were no winners, only losers. Perhaps that’s the point.
Los Pepes and a possible season 3
Rising as the dominant force, and occupying far more screen time than the previous season are the drug lords of Cali. Despite playing second fiddle to Escobar, the Cali cartel became hugely successful by tapping into New York instead of Miami. As far as first impressions go, however, the characters fall flat on the screen.
Depicted as straightforward criminals posing as businessman, with standard dashes of cruelty, malice, betrayal and greed thrown in, they come across as standard crime lords who could just as easily have featured in a Jason Statham movie. A notable exception is Judy Moncada (played by Cristina Umaña), widow of Kiko Moncada, who is utterly convincing as the vengeful widow who initiated the Los Pepes alliance.
The seeming lack of standout characters is cause for concern, especially because there could be a potential Narcos season 3. With Cali slated to be the possible focus, one cannot help but wonder if there will be another lead character who can grab attention the way Moura’s Escobar did.