Tom Besley reviews Narcos’ second season, the must-see heart-pounding-then-breaking continuation of the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar.
Last year, Netflix released the first season of Narcos, a show documenting the careers of real-life Columbian drug lords, chiefly inspired by the rise and fall of the legendary Pablo Escobar. For whatever reason, the show failed to get the international attention it deserved, whether as a result of its mostly Spanish dialogue, its lack of famous faces, or simply marketing issues. Even the AV Club, who usually review everything worth watching and then some, somehow passed Narcos by.
It’s a shame because the first season was spellbinding. The show utilised a Scorsese-esque dual protagonist format – on one side of the law stood American DEA agents Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) and Javier Pena (Pedro Pascal), on the other mystical anti-hero Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura) himself. But quickly the good guys became completely eclipsed by their antagonist. As Murphy and Pena spent most of the time fumbling and failing to disrupt the Medellin Cartel, Escobar himself was taking on the ruthless Colonel Carillo (Maurice Compte) as well as rising political star and eventual president Gustavo Gaviria (Juan Pablo Raba). As Murphy and Pena became increasingly obsessed and ineffective, the narrative built to a final phone-line showdown between Escobar and Gaviria, ending with the former departing his self-built ‘prison’ La Catedral to go on the run.
And it is at this moment that the second season picks up – the moment in which all negotiations and hope of peaceful resolution have ceased. President Gaviria, the Columbian government and the DEA are no longer worried about capturing Escobar alive – now they desperately seek his quick death. Making matters even worse for Escobar is Judy Moncada (Cristina Umana), a powerful rising figure in the Medellin cartel who wants the empire for herself. Early in the season, Moncada and her business partner Don Berna (Mauricio Cujar) join forces with the Cali cartel to begin a coup.
The entire season builds an escalation of these conflicts – each side retaliates with increasingly brutal and drastic moves, driving every major player into one of the most compelling and hard-to-watch spirals ever seen on the small screen. Narcos relishes in the excruciating consequences of what happens when a rock meets a hard place. Escobar massacres the Medellin police, so Gaviria brings back Colonel Carillo who throws Escobar’s hitmen out of a helicopter, so Pablo traps and murders Carillo, so Pena joins forces with the Cali Cartel to avenge the Colonel, and so on and so on.
Mid-way through the season, the Cali cartel and Judy Moncada launch their campaign against Escobar under the title ‘Los Pepes’, a vigilante force backed up by informants within the DEA, police and government. President Gaviria refuses to condemn their actions, holding the most consistent stance all season despite political pressure from attorney general Gustavo de Greiff (German Jaramillo). Agent Murphy surprisingly drifts even further out of the picture – despite initial worrying signs that his arc would be a descent into obsession with Escobar a few scenes with his wife re-ground him in the lower echelons of the show.
Escobar’s main foe is now Los Pepes, and the conflict becomes increasingly savage to the point that Escobar’s home is attacked and his brother-in-law murdered. Desperate to get his family out the country, Escobar attempts to send his wife Tata (Paulina Gaitan), his mother Hermilda (Paulina Garcia), and his two children to Germany, but Gaviria intervenes to prevent their entry. In retaliation, Escobar bombs Medellin, and the last vestiges of his popularity cease to exist. One by one, Pablo’s hitmen turn on him and inform the DEA, leaving just Escobar and hitman Limon (Leynar Gomez) to make a narrow escape into hiding.
Moncada, Berna and the Cali Cartel celebrate their victory, and Pena’s last minute face-turn attempt to save Escobar’s lawyer results in his vindication by Los Pepes. Judy Moncada becomes panicked when the Cali Cartel attempt to assassinate her and intends to turn informant to Pena. This move proves unpopular both with Berna and high ranking government figures, who instead pin the vigilante attacks on Pena and extradite Moncada to the US. The Cali Cartel and Berna assume full control of Medellin.
Pablo returns to Medellin intending to start his campaign over, but the DEA locates him by intercepting calls between him and his wife. They storm his hiding place and Escobar is shot dead attempting to escape, launching Columbia into celebration. As Pena faces a committee in a cliffhanger ending, they ask him to covertly lead a new fight against the Cali Cartel. It’s a stirring promise for Season 3 but it’s hard to imagine this show lasting without Wagner Moura’s electric lead performance.
All of this is the most summarised of summaries, and it’s a testament to the show’s dense and interweaving narratives that everything happens so quickly and coherently. The narration of the first season has been greatly toned down, with Murphy popping in now only briefly to provide wider context rather than narrating large portions of the show. It’s definitely an improvement for the better, allowing scenes and characters to speak for themselves.
And it’s also remarkable how different Narcos’ second season is to its first – the tone is far more melancholy, the conflict more savage and the acting a wonderful leap-up. The season also covers a far shorter period than the first, taking place over just a year and a half compared to the fifteen years of the first season. This variation has a slight diminishing effect on the overall scale but it also makes each plot point feel more immediate. Gone is the sense of awe and delight in Escobar’s exploits, replaced by an increased number of longer and more tense cat-and-mouse action sequences. The magic and fantasy may be gone but every beat remains as unpredictable as ever.
For the most part, Moura plays Escobar as depressed and desperate, finding brief moments in satisfaction in acts of retaliation such as the incredible scene in which he murders Carillo. Moura’s chemistry with Gaitan is the best in the show – Tata’s intense affection for her husband is pitched perfectly, balancing her worries for her children’s safety precariously against her admiration for Pablo’s unflinching refusal to surrender. Pablo’s mother Hermilda is also far more prominent and she is just as fascinating as Tata, playing up blindness and stubbornness. Mother and wife play off each other perfectly, whether in argument or show of affection.
But it’s in the penultimate episode ‘Nuestra Finca’ when Pablo finds himself isolated and away from all except Limon and his estranged father ( that the character truly comes alive for the last time. Escobar reconciles with his father, apparently settling into the role of farmer, but when he suggests to his father that he might bring his family to live into the country, the old man walks away without saying anything. Escobar confronts him in the cowshed, asking why he didn’t answer, and in one of the most heart-breaking and well-acted scenes seen this year, the fantasy of the moment is broken. Escobar lists his achievements, his fame, his legacy, dares his father to tell him what he thinks of him and his father replies, ‘I think you’re a murderer.’
This final reprise of the first season’s loving and comfortable Escobar is shattered by the unforgivable acts he has committed. By the finale ‘Al Fin Cayo!’ Escobar is no longer a legend or a monster – he is a withered old criminal. He wonders the streets of Medellin and goes unrecognised. There is a world here without Pablo Escobar in it and it is still turning. Escobar is shot dead by the police officers who have been so on the fringes all season. He is posed and humiliated. His legacy is over.
Everything that happens in the show that doesn’t involve Escobar is executed brilliantly, but only Escobar is the part of the show that sets Narcos aside from other similar crime dramas. He is the magical realism element of the show, its most emotional yet most savage heart, and after spending an entire season building up his unbelievable story, it is an incredibly canny yet shocking move to cut everything about him down in such an agonisingly slow manner.
There are plot beats that fall out of place here and there, such as Murphy’s abrupt exit from the narrative, the sporadic appearances of Bill Stechner, Colonel Martinez’s relationship with his son, or the final resolution of the conflict between Limon and female friend Martiza, but they only matter in how they relate to Escobar himself. With its final scenes surrounding Pena and the Cali Cartel, the show makes a good attempt at an impossible feat – this show’s most magnificent creation is Moura’s Escobar and it will likely not outlast his departure.
Verdict: Pablo Escobar’s rise and fall must be seen to be believed. Narcos’ second season is wonderfully compelling and flawlessly executed despite a few stumbles with supporting characters. But it is Escobar and his family who are the emotional and heart-breaking core.
Written by Tom Besley