Warning: this post contains spoilers for Seasons 1 and 2 of Narcos
“The blow must go on,” reads the text splashed across the screen in the teaser for the recently announced Seasons 3 and 4 of Narcos, as an image of Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura) fades off, replaced by the visage of Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela (Damián Alcázar)—leader of the Cali cartel and, presumably, our new villain.
It’s a nice play on words, sure, but is it true? Do we really need more Narcos after Season 2 wrapped with Escobar dead on a Medellín rooftop? Other shows have tried to make us care about a batch of new central characters after their originals have moved on or otherwise departed (see: Seasons 4 and 5 of Friday Night Lights, the final season of Scrubs, the revolving door of new intern classes to counteract the seemingly endless list of Grey’s Anatomy main characters who’ve been killed off or otherwise written out of the show) with varying success. But no series has attempted to outlive its very reason for existence.
Those close to the show have insisted it’s about “the birth of the drug trade,” but any way you slice it, Narcos is a story about Pablo Escobar. Season 1 chronicled nearly two decades of his life, beginning in ‘73 and following the druglord all the way through his July 1992 escape from La Catedral prison. Season 2 focuses entirely on the 18-month hunt for Escobar following his escape. New characters are introduced, but like everyone else on the show, they are defined by Pablo. Murphy and Peña, President Gaviria, Colonel Carrillo, Limón, Tata Escobar and little Juan Pablo and Manuela, Judy Moncada, everyone—on Narcos, they’re all either entirely consumed by their desire to catch and/or kill el patrón, or they’re dragged into his dangerous world out of desperation (Maritza) or by association (Tata, Carlos, etc.).
Any character development that occurs is—directly or indirectly—because of Pablo. Murphy starts brooding after his wife leaves (which she does because the violence ordered by or directed at Escobar has made Colombia too unsafe for her and their baby). Carrillo, motivated by the killings of over 600 of his fellow officers by Escobar’s men, becomes just as monstrous as the man he seeks to bring to justice—torturing and killing men close to Escobar, throwing a few suspects out of a helicopter when they refuse to talk, even shooting a child dead to send a message to his friends about spying for Pablo. Limón transforms from a seemingly normal taxi driver with a crush to a man trapped so tightly in Pablo’s web that he’ll shoot a woman he used to love in front of her daughter just to get some of his boss’ money back. It’s all by and for Pablo Escobar.
And why not? He’s a hell of a character.
The very first episode of Narcos opens with a quote about, of all things, magical realism. “Magical realism is defined as what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.” Those last four words turn blood red for emphasis before it continues: “There is a reason magical realism was born in Colombia.”
The idea that the story of Pablo Escobar is stranger than fiction is one that Narcos hammers home with Murphy’s narration and the use of real news footage to remind us that, yes, most of this really happened. The show is unafraid to pepper in images of the real Escobar because it knows it won’t take us out of the story. If anything, it sucks us further in—we marvel at the real-life things that are too strange to believe, like wide-eyed kids around a bonfire listening to ghost stories.
And of course, Narcos knows that its Escobar—our Escobar, Wagner Moura—is too good to be upstaged by the real kingpin. His performance isn’t just award-worthy or central to the show; it’s essential. Moura’s Escobar isn’t simply an impression (and, to be fair, it shies so far away from that, that native speakers have criticized the Brazilian actor’s accent on the show). It’s the way Wagner Moura stands—belly jutting out, arms hanging at his sides, mouth twisted into a defiant pout that somehow makes the nautical sweaters and dad jeans he’s wearing look haunting. It’s the way he shows us a variety of Pablos—the sociopath, sure, but also the doting father and the working-class hero who was elected to the Colombian house of representatives and dreamt of becoming president.
Season 2 is especially effective, because we get yet even more Pablos. Though he never speaks it, we see worry in him as everyone close to him starts dropping like flies at the hands of Los Pepes. Being on the run takes a toll on him, and by the time he’s cornered in that Medellín apartment, he’s not looking so hot. He’s heavier, grayer, with a scraggly beard, but mostly, he’s tired, and Moura presents us with a Pablo who—though he’ll never surrender—seems finally resigned to his fate.
There’s a remarkable thing that happens about halfway through the season finale, when the show takes some creative license and employs a little bit of that magical realism it’s so keen on, to present a scene where Pablo, “disguised” only by a pair of sunglasses, drives into town to buy some rolling papers on the day he’s killed. He walks anonymously through the streets he once ruled, buys himself a sad-looking ice cream, even hands a lighter back to a cop in the store who dropped it without getting recognized as the country’s most wanted man, one who essentially waged a war against the police. Perhaps encouraged by that, he ditches the sunglasses and walks into a park where, again, not a soul recognizes the nation’s most notorious fugitive—a folk hero to some, a monster to others, but certainly someone whose face everyone in Colombia would know, beard or no beard.
It’s there that he’s joined by the ghost of his cousin/right-hand man Gustavo. They bust each other’s balls for a bit, before things get more serious. “I think that everything started to fall apart the day you left,” Pablo admits. “So you do miss me, you son of a bitch,” Gustavo replies, laughing. Then the tears start to well up and all a choked-up, beaten-down Pablo can do is nod before finally responding, “Every fucking day of my life, brother.” Gustavo nods gravely, gets up and walks away without a word, and all of a sudden I realize that there are tears in my eyes too, that somehow Narcos has made me cry because a narcoterrorist who once blew up an airplane and killed 110 innocent people in an attempt to assassinate a presidential candidate misses his friend and realizes it’s the end of the road. Too strange to believe.
There will not be any moments like that in Seasons 3 and 4. We haven’t seen enough of the Cali cartel to be invested in their story, and what we have seen has presented them as entirely believable. Unlike Pablo, they hate attention. (“If you’ve never heard of him, it’s because that’s exactly the way he wants it,” Murphy’s narration explains while introducing us to Gilberto.) They wear suits. They own and operate legitimate businesses (a bank, a drug store chain, a soccer team) as a front. They’re compelling, but they’re not larger-than-life and inconceivable like Pablo Escobar. And, as such, they’ve got quite an act to follow.
Why even bother? Limited-run series are commonplace these days. Or, had Narcos presented itself as an anthology series from the get-go, told Escobar’s story in a season and then moved on to Cali, perhaps it’d be easier to go into subsequent seasons with an open mind. But instead, it’s like if—rather than cutting to black halfway through “Don’t Stop Believin’”—The Sopranos hung on beyond whatever happened in that diner and tried to make us care about some new mob family for a couple Tony-less seasons.
The last we hear of Murphy’s narration, he’s on the rooftop, staring down a wounded Pablo, looking like he just caught the Easter Bunny, marveling at the fact that Pablo Escobar is just a guy. “Beard grows when he doesn’t shave,” he says. “Fat and shoeless. You take a good, long look at evil, and it reminds you of one—” He’s cut off by a Colombian Search Bloc member delivering the final shot to the side of Escobar’s head and yelling “Viva Colombia!” There weren’t any cops gleefully posing for pictures over the corpse of Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela. He was taken alive.
Drug trafficking certainly didn’t end with the death of Pablo Escobar (you’d have to be a fool to even think it has come close to ending at all), but this particular story feels finished. (We even get a cameo of the real Steve Murphy and Javier Peña clinking glasses at a bar and looking satisfied in the Pablo death montage. If that’s not resolution, what is?) Indeed, the blow goes on, but the show should’ve had the good sense to go out on top.