In the opening scene of Narcos’ second season, a soldier searching for Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar—who’s fleeing his self-made La Catedral prison following its invasion by the military and law enforcement—describes the kingpin as an unholy supernatural monster capable of withstanding gunfire and rising from the dead. The relationship between myth and man is central to Season Two of Netflix’s sterling series about the efforts to stop (i.e. kill) Escobar. And even more than during its previous outing, it generates suspense not from any mystery over its story’s ending—a quick Google search will provide plenty of details on Escobar’s ignominious fate—but from how events transpired during the lead-up to its conclusion. At heart, it’s a show about how the war on drugs works, and one that’s at its gripping best when it embraces a macro view of the intertwined forces at play in the hunt for the notorious cocaine overlord.
Thankfully, there’s a lot of Big Picture stuff still going on in Narcos, which picks up where Season One left off: with Escobar (Wagner Moura) escaping into the jungle after avoiding capture by President César Gaviria’s (Raúl Méndez) soldiers and DEA agents Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) and Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal). The government’s failure to secure their target is a crushing blow, and though it sends Escobar into hiding, his power remains largely undiminished—at least, at first. While Escobar’s right-hand man La Quica (Diego Cataño) convinces fresh recruit Limon (Leynar Gomez) to drive the wanted man around Medellin in the trunk of his taxi cab, Murphy and Peña are bestowed with a new American boss (Florencia Lozano) intent on overseeing their activities. There’s also rival cartel bigwig Judy Moncada (Cristina Umaña), who’s intent on exacting revenge for the murder of her husband, and who thus joins forces with the Cali Cartel to snuff out Escobar. They’re soon aided in their efforts by anti-communist paramilitary psychos partnering with the cartels, thanks to a CIA liaison (Eric Lange) who wants to make sure the U.S. has some influence in the forthcoming post-Escobar drug-biz landscape. Oh, and ruthless police chief Horacio Carrillo (Maurice Compte) is also brought back to Medellin, where he begins crossing all sorts of boundaries in his quest to bring Escobar to justice.
If that makes Narcos (which largely takes place during the early ’90s) sound overstuffed, well, that’s because it is—in the most exciting way possible. Though it underwent some significant showrunner changes in the lead-up to its premiere, the second season is even more assured at wide-canvas storytelling this time around, using Murphy’s narration to tether together the myriad dynamics driving its narrative forward. The twisted tangle of alliances, ruses, and betrayals is scripted with pinpoint clarity throughout, and even though its points of focus are many, it fleshes out its numerous players—including Escobar’s wife Tata (Paulina Gaitán) and mother Hermilda (Paulina García), whose plights become increasingly central to the proceedings at hand—with a confidence and clarity that’s thrilling. Rarely has a show presented so many uniquely interconnected personalities, and then derived so much drama from their development, letting twists and turns spring naturally from the way that competing interests, fears and desires intersect.
Amidst its action, Narcos delivers quick archival-film-footage glimpses of its real characters—a device that should be destabilizing, and yet instead further affirms how true-to-life its portrait of new-world-order warfare feels. Aside from a stunning mid-season single-take during a siege on an Escobar family hideout, the show’s handheld-heavy aesthetics are light on flair and heavy on unassuming, you-are-there energy. That helps keeps the focus on its many plot strands, all of which repeatedly suggest (as Peña says to one cartel bigwig) that honor is a meaningless word in a fundamentally amoral kill-or-be-killed business involving selling poison for personal profit. As a new Security Bloc chief takes command of government efforts, and as Escobar becomes the target of not only the DEA but also the rival cartels’ vigilante death squad “Los Pepes” (aka “People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar")—whose vile tactics involve staging “Colombian Folk Art” tableaus of death—Narcos becomes a large-scale study of trying to catch a madman in a world without rules.
Given that they often feel like its most overtly scripted, Hollywood-ish touches, Narcos is wise to treat its nominal protagonists’ predicaments—particularly, Murphy’s strained relationship with his wife—as mere peripheral distractions. Better still, it shifts attention away from Holbrook’s Murphy (who’s best utilized as the audience’s guide through this thicket) and toward Peña, whose willingness to covertly collaborate with Los Pepes generates pressing moral dilemmas that echo the material’s larger concerns. Meanwhile, the domestic tensions mounting in Escobar’s own home—thanks to his devoted wife’s fear over their situation and his rancid mother’s refusal to criticize her son—lends the show an added, complicated element. Narcos depicts their ordeal empathetically, thereby amplifying its from-all-sides anxiety. At the same time, however, it repeatedly reminds us that they’re damnably complicit in Escobar’s reign of terror, culminating with a final sequence involving Escobar’s mom that juxtaposes her woe-is-us remarks about her son’s nobility with snapshots of the actual horrors he wrought (and, by extension, she approved of).
That nuanced approach also, ultimately, pertains to Escobar as well, whom the great Moura embodies as a fascinating, larger-than-life titan who rules through intimidating reputation, and whose thirst for power and murderous amorality (resulting in hundreds upon hundreds of dead cops, rivals and innocents) is paired with hypocritical arrogance. Decked out in hilarious preppy sweaters that cover his growing belly, Escobar rails against his unjust treatment by the government and Los Pepes while ignoring the fact that he created this lawless paradigm (and brought such madness upon himself), his ego so great that it can only, inevitably, result in his doom. As the noose he’s fashioned for himself begins tightening around his neck, the show becomes a case study in the unfathomable horrors wrought by unchecked narcissism. Moreover, unlike last year’s similarly themed Sicario, Narcos doesn’t feign heavens-to-Betsy! shock and awe at the idea that governments, and men, are compelled (or willing) to do shady things in order to combat evil; rather, it exposes the futility of hewing to a traditional moral compass in the face of borderline-apocalyptic drug-world chaos. After such a blistering second season, which ends with Escobar’s downfall, the only question it leaves is—what happens to a monster-movie show when the monster is dead?