[This is a review of the season 2 premiere of Narcos. There will be SPOILERS.]
Last year, Netflix had a surprise hit on its hands with Narcos, a drug war drama that told the rise and fall of notorious South American drug lord Pablo Escobar. The series found its fan base quickly for reasons both good and bad. Shot on location in Bogotá, Colombia, the period drama had the sort of lush production values that are worth taking notice of. The sense of realism and the lived-in feeling the setting provided was second to none. The production’s goal of adopting a quasi-documentary feel was achieved almost immediately, and it stayed that way throughout the series’ initial 10 episodes. The vibrancy of the visuals and the specific manner in which creators Carlo Bernard, Chris Brancato, and Doug Miro captured the fizzy sense of place and time that almost felt unparalleled in its specificity.
That sort of visual precision is this series’ friend; it may even be its bread and butter. But another kind of specificity is also the show’s greatest weakness, its crutch; as instead of presenting the audience with a dramatic retelling of the oft-told story of Pablo Escobar, Narcos too often settled for re-telling the story at the audience, dryly reciting words via voiceover with the enthusiasm of someone dictating a Wikipedia entry over the phone. The narration was so oppressive at times the drama hardly had room to breathe, and it was therefore, unsurprisingly, smothered under the weight of Boyd Holbrook’s voiceover as DEA agent Steve Murphy.
Holbrook talked audiences through a huge stretch of time in the drug kingpin’s life, striking a strange balance with the docudrama nature of the series. Given Holbrook’s sometimes languorous cadence and the sheer breadth of the subject matter at hand, it’s surprising how swiftly the first 10 episodes cruised through roughly 10 years of Escobar’s rise that would see him become one of the richest men in the world, and responsible for the deaths of so many people. During that time the show passed on opportunities for greater dramatic tension and for the series to not feel like it was on rails or simply tracing a history of events. Instead, news footage was spliced in, supposedly to add realism to events like Escobar strong arming the Colombian government and terrorizing its people while at the same time presenting himself as some sort of charming brigand, deserving of the country’s presidency.
Now, season 2 presents a chance for change. The series has already seen plenty of it with a replacement in showrunner, and now Narcos is poised to pick up where it left off: with Escobar (Wagner Moura) on the run from the prison he built with the DEA and Colombian military hot on his heels. What’s striking about the series as it opens up its second season is that while it’s not necessarily doubling down on its format, it hasn’t completely abandoned it either. Holbrook still talks up a storm and the series is still interlaced with actual news footage. And while that may be a hindrance for some and a big plus for others, the major difference for the season is how it makes a concerted effort to infuse the series with a more dramatic narrative. What was a dry history book-like feel has been replaced with a more sober crime drama, one that is better suited to exploring the final days of Pablo Escobar and the agents who spent so much of their lives working to bring him to justice.
That shift isn’t entirely evident in the season premiere. It’s as if the series is still shaking off the cobwebs of last season, dealing with an onset hangover by consulting a little hair of the dog. The season kicks off with plenty of voiceover and the odd use of actual news footage, cycling through various international accounts of Escobar’s flight from La Catedral before landing on a report from Tom Brokaw. The technique is something of a double-edged sword, as the images of the real-life Escobar put things into context but also continue to be jarring in a way that not only undercuts the work Moura’s put in to creating a compelling character and to go further than mere mimicry, but it also pulls the viewer’s attention from the drama at the moment. These moments are intended to blend the factual with the fictionalized account, but they too often create a dispassionate distance between the storytellers and those receiving the story.
At the same time, though, there’s a renewed focus on character moments that exist outside Murphy’s scope that result are some fascinating character details, like the driver La Quicna (Diego Cataño) hires to shuttle Escobar around in the trunk of his cab, and the young woman, Maritza (Martina García) who winds up paying the price for trusting her friend and wanting to make some money. These small moments, seeing the quick devotion many people have to Escobar, for the money he’s provided impoverished neighborhoods in the past and the money he openly hands them when crowds gather to thank him in the streets, do more to establish a sense of Escobar’s power and influence than any recitation of his lengthy rap sheet.
The season’s narrative also benefits from having Escobar’s complete history behind it. At this point, the drug kingpin has roughly a year and half left to live, and that limited scope also limits the series’ ambitions for the better. It’s a far more focused season this time around, and as a result, Narcos doesn’t feel as though it is going to collapse under the weight of a too hurried biography of a notorious criminal, the manner in which he held the Colombian government hostage, and the part the U.S. War on Drugs played in it all. By streamlining the narrative into a compelling manhunt that makes far better use of actors like Pascal and Holbrook, while still giving Moura room to shine, Narcos has definitely improved in season 2.
Narcos season 2 is available in its entirety on Netflix.