Season 3 of “Narcos” picks upwhere the last one left off, with DEA agent Javier Pena (played by Pedro Pascal) having been given the mission of taking down the Cali cartel, one of the biggest drug cartels in history. At its peak, the Cali cartel moved almost three times as much cocaine through America and Europe as Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel, and this was largely possible thanks to a complex network of government corruption and extensive surveillance systems. Pena establishes the context through the series’ signature voiceovers, taking over for Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) from the last two seasons. It took broad effort from the U.S. and Colombian governments to take down the Cali cartel, and Season 3 of“Narcos” does a great job of framing this conflict of titans in a personal way while maintaining the broader historical implications for the War on Drugs and representing its effect on the people of Colombia.
Despite the absence of Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura) as the bombastic terrorist with a penchant for grotesque violence, the kingpins of the Cali cartel provide a more subdued tone to their criminality, though not without its violent flourishes. In fact, the season’s first scene inverts expectations by having Cali’s chief architect Gilberto Rodriguez announce that the cartel will be turning itself into the Colombian government in six months, in accordance with a deal struck on the condition that they keep their fortunes. Naturally this receives a lukewarm reception from members of the cartel at large, who are wary of turning themselves into the government in any capacity. The conditions of the deal raise the stakes within those six months for the leaders of the Cali cartel — known as “The Gentlemen of Cali” — since getting captured within that timeframe loses them all their leverage with the government, essentially voiding the agreement. It also puts pressure on the DEA to bring the drug lords to justice before the deal comes to fruition. In a country where there’s no way to know how deep corruption goes, Pena navigates carefully with his new DEA subordinates Chris Feistl and Daniel Van Ness, played by Michael Stahl-David and Matt Whelan, respectively. Feistl and Van Ness work well as the scrappy agents hungry for a big bust, and the show’s writers do a good job making sure their dynamic isn’t a carbon copy of Murphy and Pena’s relationship in the first two seasons.
The show’s greatest strength has always been its ability to create compelling characters, and Season 3 is no different. The villains this time around have more complex motivations than Pablo Escobar did in the past, but there are consistencies among the series’ antagonists in that their egos and pride play a significant role in their decisions. As the season unwinds and tensions rise, the true nature of the Gentlemen of Cali is revealed, particularly when the hubris results in them doing things against their best interests. Pena and the DEA’s motivations are straightforward compared to the Cali cartel’s, with a “stop the bad guys” mindset dominating their narrative arc. The most compelling character of Season 3 is Jorge Salcedo, Cali’s head of security, played masterfully by Matias Varela. Jorge’s 10-episode arc is complex and filled with moral dilemmas, and Varela does an uncanny job reflecting the internal turmoil through facial expressions and demeanor. While the motivation to protect one’s family isn’t anything new to “Narcos,” Jorge’s character has enough nuance to make it feel fresh, and the stakes aren’t higher for anyone than for him.
“Narcos” Season 3 isn’t without its faults, with the most noticeable one being the lack of real character development for its protagonists. As always, the series excels at creating deep, exciting villains, but the heroes are more vanilla — perhaps as a consequence of the straightforwardness of their task. Overall, though, season three is a worthy addition to the “Narcos” universe, and will be enjoyable to newcomers and returning fans alike.