Narcos Season Premiere Recap: The Life of Pablo

Wagner Moura as Pablo. Photo: Juan Pablo Gutierrez/Netflix
Episode Title
Free at Last
Editor’s Rating

"Okay, here we go again." With that drawled voice-over, Narcos is back. Last year, the Netflix series covered Pablo Escobar's dizzying, coke-powered rise to power. Now, we get to watch him fall.

For the uninitiated: Narcos is all about heists, cocaine, and a whole lot of camera filters. It's not prestige TV, even when just about everything else is, but it can be a great time. The question on my mind is whether the show can keep up its many grim thrills. Any story about a criminal's rise and fall has to face what you might call the Goodfellas problem: These things are always more fun when anti-heroes are on their way up, when they surround themselves with women and lots of consequence-free drug use. The fall from grace, when the (possibly) chastened protagonist shuffles between safe houses and prison cells, usually doesn't offer the same excitement.

There's a material challenge, too. While the first season of Narcos pulled from decades of Escobar's life and the Colombian drug trade, this season only has a year's worth of history to mine. When all these deficiencies come together, the future doesn't look so promising.

When last we left our drug lord, Pablo and his Medellín Cartel were wrapping up a series of bombings aimed at preventing the Colombian government from extraditing cartel leaders to the United States. Facing pressure from both the DEA and the more sophisticated Cali Cartel, Escobar still had enough juice left to cut a cushy deal with the government that allowed him to build his own prison, stock it with his guards of his choosing, and basically settle down to a comfortable house arrest. Not too shabby, all things considered.

At the end of the season, though, Pablo managed to screw even that up. Thanks to the drug lord's paranoid murder of two cartel lieutenants, the government called off his sweetheart deal. That mistake, which turned both a complacent Colombian government and Pablo's former cartel cronies against him, is set to become Pablo's fatal error.

As the new season opens, Pablo manages to flee from the army siege of his "prison" solely on the strength of his legend, but everyone knows that he can't stay on the run forever. Newly escaped, he coos to wife Tata that he'll never leave her, but the amateur historians among us know the truth: Pablo Escobar has just a year to live. Even his cronies realize any attempt to reclaim power is doomed.

Why? Medellín is crawling with federal agents, and Pablo is too notorious to avoid attention. Even after he's forced to collect his own tribute money — while traveling inside the trunk of a taxi! — Pablo can't resist handing out cash to adoring crowds. The impending doom falls at episode's end, when President César Gaviria announces in a television broadcast that he won't negotiate with Pablo. The guy who once took down an airliner and nearly became president himself now can't even get Gaviria to return his calls.

Since hanging out with Pablo Escobar tends to dramatically shorten one's lifespan, a new season of Narcos also means restocking the cast. Pablo — a pudgy, steely patrón whose defining motivation is that some politicians were rude to him once — isn't all that interesting himself, so the supporting ensemble needs to be pretty nuts. Last season, Narcos solved this problem by surrounding Escobar with flashier members of his Medellín cartel: his maverick cousin, Gustavo, along with the aristocratic Ochoa family, now turned state's evidence. But alas, even Luis Guzmán's scenery-gobbling, rocket-launcher-wielding La Gacha is gone, shot dead from a helicopter last season in a Scarface-style last stand.

The new cast of schemers and minions looks promising, if not quite up to the level of Guzmán with a bazooka. We meet Ricardo Prisco, a cartel associate, gang leader, and doctor of some sort who relishes ripping out his opponent's teeth. Then there's the cartel faction opposed to Pablo: Judy Moncada, the wife of one of the lieutenants he murdered last season; her brother, Jaime; and their ally, Don Berna.

Speaking of Jaime, let's observe a moment of silence for Colombia's most inept drug magnate. After scene after scene where he's warned about the Prisco gang, Jaime invites them over to "guard" his drug lab. Unsurprisingly, this ends with the Priscos "guarding" Jaime's men full of bullet holes, while Pablo delivers the headshot to Jaime himself. Adiós, amigo.

And speaking of bumblers, no episode of Narcos would be complete without our audience surrogates, DEA agents Steve Murphy and Javier Peña. With Pablo finally stashed in prison, these two ended last season feeling quite triumphant. Regrettably, Pablo's escape hasn't sobered up our "heroes." If anything, these DEA agents are even more immature and reckless. The Colombians keep them out of the prison crime scene until everything of interest is gone, and you can see why — as our boys abroad get inside, they gravitate towards Pablo's porn. The Colombian officer in charge of the investigation wisely gives this hapless pair a desk in the middle of the station, so everyone else can see what they're doing. 

Meanwhile, Murphy's wife takes their baby out of Colombia, despite his plea that she's safely living right next to the U.S. embassy. (It's not as comforting a thought as it might seem, since Pablo engineered the bloody takeover of Colombia's entire supreme court last season.) As a result, our cowboy beats up some coked-up Gordon Gekko wannabes because he can't beat up the drug war itself.

By the time this episode comes to a close, it's no secret that these American bozos can't take down Pablo by themselves. As the dissident cartel faction so subtly hints, they're going to need some help.

Cartel Club:

  • Effectiveness aside, the Starsky & Hutch dynamic between Boyd Holbrook and Pedro "Gregor Clegane Popped My Head Open" Pascal makes for decent comic relief, especially compared to Wagner Moura's never-not-glowering Pablo. As the federales hunt for Pablo's men, the Colombians aren't surprised to learn that Peña knows exactly where to find the brothels.
  • For all his promises to wage a bloody drug war, Pablo insists on dressing like a preppy toddler. With its nautical theme and navy backdrop, the anchor sweater in this episode makes him look less Tony Montana and more a Ralph Lauren teddy bear.
  • Say what you will about her tactics, but the widow Moncada knows interior design. In her big plotting scene with Don Berna, she stands in front of a painting of herself and her dead husband, which is actually a painting within another painting of herself, this time substituting her husband for a white tiger.
  • Historical spoiler: As the organizer of the paramilitary death squad that allegedly helped take down Escobar, Don Berna will eventually be the big winner (at least until his own prosecution by the United States — check back in Narcos season 20!). So far, we haven't seen the tactical genius that'll allow him to take down Pablo, especially since all he's had to work with is a grieving widow and a guy who just got executed. (R.I.P. Jaime.)