Narcos, about the savage rise and bloodthirsty fall of Pablo Escobar, is a singular show. That doesn’t mean that the bilingual Netflix drama is “good,” per se. Season 1 was a soupy mess, zipping through a decade of the drug trafficker’s life in ten hours. It was too much story for so unlikely a figure — the son of a farmer who became the seventh-richest man in the world, as well as a domestic terrorist who’d killed thousands but enjoyed enough mass support as a modern-day Robin Hood to justify fantasies of being president. Narcos’ debut season attempted to balance this already brimming biography of Escobar (played by Wagner Moura) with the tales of his captors, real-life DEA agents Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) and Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal). Aiming to explain how Escobar held the Colombian government hostage and how America’s drug war made life in that country a Hieronymus Bosch-ian hell, Narcos’ weighty ambitions caved in on the show.
Season 1 ended with 17 months left to go in Escobar’s 44-year-old life, as the drug lord fled La Catedral, his self-designed prison. After a game of musical chairs with the showrunner’s seat, Season 2 will arrive on Friday, September 2, decidedly improved. It’s not free of its finicky docudrama format: Scenes are interspersed with news footage, and we’re still stuck with Holbrook’s probably necessary but overweening voiceover. But the history-textbook feel has mostly been replaced by an uneven but ultimately satisfying procedural. The Colombian police and the DEA’s search for Escobar, now a fugitive on the lam, finds allies in the newly steely President Gaviria (Raúl Méndez), the Cali cartel, and a small, secretive cabal who meets Escobar’s viciousness mutilation for mutilation.
The season premiere opens with a few of the 4,000 soldiers assigned to apprehend Escobar wondering if he can be killed at all. One recalls hearing that the narco has survived 20 shots. Another says Escobar’s already been murdered and his body burned, but that he arose from the ashes. The trafficker appears soon enough, parting a sea of uniformed men with machine guns aimed at him. But after performing that miracle, Escobar is slowly undone by his humanity. Hiding in ever-humbler lodgings, his young wife (Paulina Gaitan) and his overbearing mother (Paulina García) poke at each other until one of them makes a fateful mistake. His vast fortune trickles away, as his many enemies dismantle his empire and chop off his connections. Lonely, fuming, melancholy, and increasingly delusional, he sits in the dark with his remaining lackeys, reminiscing about Disneyland.
Moura didn’t manage to find Escobar’s essence last year; he was fine in every scene he was in, but those moments didn’t add up to a coherent character. He does better in Season 2, in which Escobar is very much the villain, but simultaneously pitiable and fascinatingly self-assured, even as his henchmen-assassins are eliminated like fingers at the mercy of a machete. It’s a cliché, but he’s also a good dad (at least when he’s not putting his children’s lives at risk by refusing to turn himself in), burning stacks of pesos to keep his toddler warm when there’s no firewood to be found.
Narcos has never strived to make its non-Pablo characters remotely interesting, but Gaitan’s Tata manages to wring some sympathy for her entitled but trapped widow-to-be. A new cast addition, Escobar’s beta-male driver Limón (Leynar Gomez) helps illustrate how much of a contagion the narcotraficante becomes in his final months, as anyone who comes into his orbit grows a target on their forehead.
The other half of the show, devoted to Escobar’s hunters, remains a muddle. Murphy and Peña are mustachioed ciphers, mostly receptacles for variations on the phrase “gringo pendejo!” and occasional stumblers into clues. The war of attrition against the drug lord is waged on a number of battlefields, and Narcos doesn’t always make clear why we should care about, say, the infighting between the DEA and the CIA. Murphy’s disbelieving scoffs get tiresome with each episode, and the scripts are still so disorganized that we don’t learn that one of Escobar’s (real) sicarios, introduced in the premiere, is his most prolific mercenary until eight hours in. But the steady search — through deductions involving toilets, torture, and good ol’ phone triangulation — earns its tension, and a flurry of standout action scenes elevate the season’s end. Escobar rivets with his violence and rage, but Narcos makes us crave peace for Colombia even more. By the end of Season 2, we believe the police, that “putting an end to Pablo Escobar is a patriotic act.” If only that were enough.