‘Narcos’ Remains a Pulse-Pounder in Its Third Season

“When you lay eyes on him, the devil’s a real letdown,” DEA Agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) says upon seeing Pablo Escobar’s (Wagner Moura) corpse, finally gunned down in a belligerent blaze of glory.

Over its first two seasons, Netflix’s cornerstone series “Narcos” has been far from a letdown, feeling almost as addicting as the product around which it revolves. Fans really started feening for a fix following Escobar’s demise, a climactic moment that could have functioned as a perfect series finale. Instead, Netflix, perhaps emboldened by some direction we’ve yet to realize ourselves, renewed the series for not one, but two more combative seasons. Naturally, with Escobar out of the picture, the idea that two more seasons were on-deck raised a lot of questions. The series puts on a fresh coat of paint and tackles many of them in its third season.

For its third go-around, “Narcos” offered up a few changes to its production — some that felt refreshing, and others that will leave viewers perplexed and even a little less committed. It’s almost like this season lost much of its predecessors’ potency — like it was cut with baking soda. The first change was a welcome one, though, doing away with Murphy altogether, and that mercifully includes his “GoodFellas”-style voiceovers, which rarely added anything to the production, and when they did, they detracted more than anything. Murphy always felt like the series’ least compelling character, which, considering all the murderous miscreants running around in this show, is quite the condemnation for the hard-working DEA agent. Instead it’s Murphy’s partner Javier Pena (Pedro Pascal) taking up obligatory voiceover duties, but thankfully writers have finally figured out that less is more in the way of expository narration. That’s not to say there aren’t moments when things feel rough, especially in the first few episodes, but elegantly setting the table has never been “Narcos’” strong suit.

Escobar might be out of the picture, but villainy has a new face. Actually, it has four. Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela (Damian Alcazar), Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela (Francisco Denis), Pacho Herrera (Alberto Ammann) and Chepe Santacruz Londono (Pepe Rapazote) comprise the cutthroat Cali Cartel, and they are not to be trifled with. The quartet have taken Escobar’s relatively small operation and propelled it to unfathomable heights. Still, their character work revives the age-old maxim of quality over quantity. There are four baddies now, but they can’t make up for the entertaining Escobar, as individuals or as a collective. Escobar’s character also felt like it had a lot of layers to work through, committing cold crimes, but with the understanding that he did so for a greater cause. It made the character endearing, or at least easier to digest.

The fiery foursome who supplanted Escobar’s empire look to hatch a deal with the Columbian government that would legitimize the family, a decision that ultimately drives a rift between them. It’s not as big of a rift as the one cartel security mastermind Jorge Salcedo (Matias Varela) poses, though. It’s Salcedo who really boosts the series into another stratosphere, especially by the time viewers reach the series’ back half. The back half also reinforces that despite its slow start and choppy transitions, “Narcos” can still be a pulse-pounder. Viewers can rest easy knowing another fix is on the way.

Narcos” season 3 premieres Sept. 1 on Netflix.