What’s not to love about Pablo Escobar? In an era of emotionally disabled heroes, virtue-challenged antiheroes, and generally miserable human beings on TV, the central figure on the Netflix drama Narcos is striking for his profound decency. He’s an attentive, protective husband and a present, nurturing father. He has a heart for the poor and disadvantaged children. He even marvels at the beauty in the most common of garden plants. There are just two knocks against him: (1) nautical-themed sweatshirts that don’t flatter his Buddha-belly paunch; (2) billionaire drug kingpin. But beyond that, a real mensch!
Portraying Escobar, a criminal responsible for so much death and social destruction, as a paradox is neither new nor inspired. It’s been Crime Drama 101 since The Godfather. But Brazilian actor Wagner Moura reenergizes the archetype with an intense, deceptively minimalist performance that imbues his Escobar with an authentic humanity. Moura’s characterization, combined with his puppy-dog visage, warmth, and cute waddle, creates a soulful, schlubby Everyman at odds with the image of Escobar promoted by politicians and the press during the Reagan/Bush-era war on drugs. The smug, swarthy thug smirking through a mug shot. The uncatchable menace wallowing in inexplicable freedom and ridiculous wealth. In fact, Narcos pits Moura’s Escobar against the cultural representation of Escobar by incorporating real news footage into the storytelling. In doing so, Narcos provokes us to question media representations of villainy, fictional and otherwise, and challenges us to wrestle with Escobar’s humanity and evil.
The second season is an improvement on the first. It dials back on cutout protagonist DEA agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), a shallow cautionary tale of gung ho soldiering. His narration served season 1’s fascinating, inside-baseball education on the workings of the cocaine trade and Colombian society. But the tone was condescending, as if the show didn’t trust us to understand or appreciate Murphy’s work or Escobar’s business. There’s less of that this season. The storytelling favors Murphy’s partner, Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal); like Murphy, his angst isn’t original, but Pascal connects with his character deeply and effortlessly.
Where season 1 spanned 10 years, season 2 captures Escobar’s last days on the loose. Each tightly packed episode moves quickly without sacrificing richness, chronicling the queasy alliances and gross tactics employed to snare Escobar. History is a spoiler, but some reasonable fictionalizations produce surprise, and the well-blended mix of grit and wit keeps things lively. There’s an abundance of sharply drawn secondary characters and compelling subplots. Most notable: the soul-killing escalations of Search Bloc commander Horacio Carrillo (Maurice Compte) and the flailing machinations of coke queen Judy Moncado (Cristina Umaña) to get vengeance and maintain status.
Holding the center and your attention is Escobar and his tragic paradoxes. His arc becomes more resonant as he becomes trapped by fame, incapable of enjoying the wealth he amassed by killing. On the run, stuck in a cold house, Escobar resorts to burning stacks of cash to keep his family warm. In the world of Narcos, the love of money is the root of all evil, and then it blows you away like so much smoke. B+
Narcos season 2 will be available for streaming on Netflix on Friday, Sept. 2.