Narcos season 3
Pedro Pascal reprises his role as Javier Pena in the third season of Narcos. Photo: Andrea Miner/Netflix

Our spoiler-free Narcos season 3 review

You don’t always need fire-breathing dragons and hordes of the undead to tell a compelling story. If you’re feeling fatigued by the slew of genre programmes saturating your TV screens these days, Narcos may just be the antidote. This Netflix period drama that chronicles the war on drugs is grounded in real-life events and actual people but truth can often be more provocative than fiction, if the storytelling is done right.

Narcos season 3 picks up from where the series left off last year. It’s well into the 1990s and the Bill Clinton administration. Narcotics kingpin Pablo Escobar is dead but the drug war is far from over. With the top spot vacated, the Cali Cartel rises to the occasion.

The four main players: brothers Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez (Damian Alcazar and Francisco Denis respectively) who lead the cartel and their assistants, openly gay thug Pacho (Alberto Ammann) and runner Chepe (Pepe Rapazote). Together, these “Cali godfathers” provide 80 per cent of the world’s cocaine supply and run the cartel like a Fortune 500 company.

The Cali Cartel doesn’t harbour any political ambitions to rule Colombia. Instead, it operates more insidiously, politicking with other cartels, buying out the authorities and hiding behind a mix of legitimate and fake businesses to further grow their wealth and get away with murder.

Narcos season 3
“There’s no business like blow business”. Chepe and a whole lot of cocaine. Photo: Andrea Miner/Netflix

Working hard to take them down are the few Colombian authorities who have not been bought and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Agent Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal), who has been promoted to a more supervisory role for his part in ending Escobar’s reign, and two younger agents Chris Feitl (Michael Stahl-David) and Daniel Van Ness (Matt Whelan) lead the charge. Caught in the crossfire is Jorge Salcedo (Matias Varela), a tenacious everyman who juggles his job as the cartel’s head of security and the safety of his family.

So the burning question on every fan’s mind: What is Narcos like without the enigmatic Escobar, who was played so brilliantly by Wagner Moura and earned him a Golden Globe nomination? I’m happy to report that the show is just as gripping and addictive thanks to its continued investment in dramatic tension and robust characterisation. The drug trade post-Escobar has evolved and the storytelling has too, which means the series hasn’t fallen into the trappings of lazy writing.

But unlike the explosive action that peppered the first two seasons, Narcos season 3 starts off as a slow burn neo-noir. And when the pace picks up tremendously mid-season onwards, it doesn’t feel uneven. In fact, it’s a well-calibrated build up that leads to a thrilling climax and a satisfying resolution.

Narcos season 3
Gilberto Rodriguez is the head of the Cali Cartel. Photo: Andrea Miner/Netflix

The third season is also proof that Narcos isn’t dependent on just Escobar. Without its notorious antihero hogging the spotlight, the writers have made the effort to develop nuanced characters and cast capable actors to breathe life into them.

Stepping up this season is Pascal, whose resourceful Peña has replaced Boyd Holbrook’s straight-laced Steve Murphy as the main protagonist and narrator of the show. Fans of Holbrook will be disappointed to know that Murphy is not in this season but personally, I always thought he was rather plain vanilla as compared to Peña, who was all too willing to get his hands dirty to get the job done.

And Peña’s promotion, which takes him out of the field and places him squarely among the upper management of the DEA, is an interesting development. How will an agent who is accustomed to taking risky shortcuts get things done in a place where there’s bureaucratic red tape waiting for him everywhere? Pascal navigates this with finesse and a certain coolness that displays his leading man potential.

Narcos season 3
Pacho, who is as ruthless as he is hot. Photo: Andrea Miner/Netflix

Members of the Cali Cartel, even the supporting characters, are just as captivating to watch. Their collective stories paint a vivid portrait of life in the drug trade, something viewers won’t get to see much of otherwise.

My only complaint is that while there are several female characters, they are not as deeply engaged in the story as their male counterparts. Personally, I’d love to see more of the gun-toting grandma, the matriarch of the Salazar clan which is part of a rival cartel.

Our Narcos season 3 review verdict: this is an enthralling series that is rooted in humanity. It’s heartrending at times but always smart. But what impresses me most is how the show pretty much reinvents itself after the demise of its iconic antihero.

Narcos season three premieres globally on Netflix on September 1.Check out the teaser.