1993. Pablo Escobar is dead, leaving a vacuum for control of Colombia's lucrative drug supply market. The Cali Cartel has taken up the strain, making absurd sums of money, and its leaders know to live under the radar rather than attracting attention like the publicity-hungry Escobar. The Cartel's leader, Gilberto, proposes that the Cartel abandon the drug trade in six months to focus on legitimate business, to avoid Escobar's fate, leading to a race against time for DEA Agent Javier Peña as he tries to bring down the Cartel before its leaders can escape justice.
The third and final (in this incarnation) season of Narcos focuses on the fight between the Colombian authorities, "aided" by the American DEA, and the Cali Cartel in the early 1990s. This is a different kind of battle to the one fought against Escobar, which was bloody and merciless, with the Cali Cartel at least initially trying to fly under the radar and not carry out such huge acts of blood-letting. As events unfold, however, the various factions lose control of events and chaos returns to the streets of Colombia.
Boyd Holbrook's character of Steve Murphy has returned to the USA (perhaps thankfully; Holbrook was something of an anonymous link in an otherwise splendid cast), leaving the considerably more charismatic character of Peña (Pedro Pascal) to pick up the slack, which he does brilliantly. The voiceovers and semi-docudrama feel of the first two seasons has also been dialled back, with Pascal providing occasional context-setting voiceovers but not to the same degree as in previous seasons. This makes Narcos much more of a traditional drama, with a larger cast of characters and multiple storylines unfolding in different areas.
The result is a rich drama, packed with excellent performances (Matias Varela as tormented security chief Jorge Salcedo is particularly outstanding) and paced expertly, with less of the repetition of story beats that slowed the previous seasons. However, it does feel like some characters and subplots are less well-serviced, and none of the new antagonists can really match Wagner Moura's Escobar for charisma and presence. The storyline revolving around Maria Salazar doesn't feel like it really goes anywhere and it's odd that the show goes to the trouble of casting the legendary Edward James Olmos as Peña's father and then gives him almost nothing to do. Eric Lange's CIA agent character is also an annoying kind of reverse deus-ex-machina, constantly on hand to thwart the DEA's plans at the last minute because of some realpolitik motivation which usually doesn't make much sense. Of course, Narcos is a prisoner of the real historical events which sometimes don't obey the laws of drama.
Overall, the third season of Narcos (****) is a very watchable, compelling drama that is highly watchable and constantly fascinating, although it can't quite match the tension of the hunt for Escobar. It is available on Netflix now.