Credit: Nicole Rivelli/NETFLIX

The original allure of Narcos was built on dramatizing the rise and fall of the most notorious name in drug trafficking, Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura). His too-incredible-for-fiction story was detailed across two seasons, which prompted a big question for season 3 (out Sept. 1): Can the gritty drama hold our interest without its charismatic villain?

Short answer: Sí.

One chief antagonist has been replaced by four: Cali cartel bosses Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela (Damian Alcazar), Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela (Francisco Denis), Pacho Herrera (Alberto Ammann), and Chepe Santacruz Londono (Pepe Rapazote). Narcos explains how the cartel took Escobar’s homegrown business and evolved the cocaine trade into a slick international corporation during its 1990s reign. As the new season opens, the Rodriguez brothers surprise their associates by announcing the family is negotiating a surrender to the Colombian government that will allow them to shift to respectable billionaire businessmen with only the slightest of penalties. Naturally, there are people on both sides who aren’t on board with this plan.

Collectively, the Cali characters can’t quit fill the entertainment void left by Escobar. But thankfully, Narcos has a secret weapon: conflicted cartel security chief Jorge Salcedo (the excellent Matias Varela) who’s eager to quit the drug trade for a legitimate business. I won’t spoil his character’s arc, but Salcedo becomes the show’s stealth star and the main reason you stay on the couch watching every time the next episode automatically spins up.

On the law enforcement side, there’s been some improvements: The production ditched DEA agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), who was the least interesting presence in the first two rounds. His partner Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal) takes over the show’s narration duties (thankfully, the amount of expository voiceover also feels cut back). Peña finds himself in the curious position of being the agency hero who brought down Escobar and who’s now having to fight elements within his own government to bring the Cali bosses to justice.

The show could do better with its shallow portrayal of its female characters, but fans of mob dramas should otherwise find everything they want. The narrative picks up its pace as the season progresses into a final run of episodes that feature the most suspenseful sequences Narcos has ever had. If only the show’s thrillingly dramatized body count didn’t represent such a real-life human cost.

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