All Pablo Escobar wanted to do was live quietly with the wife and kids, smoke a little weed and run his cocaine business like the tough boss he was. It's just that other people kept preventing him from doing that. And so there were years of murder and mayhem in Colombia.
Season 2 of Narcos (now streaming on Netflix) is a magnificent continuation of the dramatization of Escobar's life and times. It is a tad more focused on being an outright thriller, but it remains a multilayered story with a serious political and social subtext. The first season had the saucy tag line "There's No Business like Blow Business," and there were gun battles and cocaine-fuelled craziness, but it was also a cautionary tale about American greed and the ease with which democracy can be undermined by the ruthlessness of business.
When we last left Escobar (played with truly remarkable skill and subtlety by Wagner Moura), he was in prison, but a cozy one that he was able to treat as a guest house. Now, he's out. "The fox was out of the cage and the hunt was on," Drug Enforcement Administration agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) says in a droll voice-over. And indeed, an early scene of his escape with hundreds of police searching for him is deeply telling. He's the boss, so he walks past soldiers who think of him as an immortal, a figure from mythology.
What ensues is a brutal cat-and-mouse game between Escobar and the authorities. "I want people to know that Pablo Escobar does not hide like a rat," he says morosely, and he means it. He intends to see as much as possible of his family and regain total control of a multibillion-dollar business that has frayed while he was in that faux prison. He's cunning and sees himself as a reasonable man. At one point, he offers to renegotiate his return to prison with the government. But there's no deal. The second season pivots on the shift in the Colombian government's decision: Enough is enough. Escobar must be captured. The mayhem that he causes must cease.
What we see is a man who feels deeply insulted and patronized. He has done so much for the poor. He has made a lot of money. It is the attitude of a born leader, a man who knows that he has a grip on the people and those against him don't really have a conscience.
Thus, what we get is a portrait of a disruptor. He could be a terrorist or he could be a left-wing champion of the people. But nobody has elected him. And so the story that plays out is about power and how a government can deal with fierce opposition that can undermine it.
Meanwhile, there is the matter of Escobar's grip on the cocaine trade. He is, after all, estimated to be the seventh-richest man in the world. He knows how to make and sell cocaine and, as we are reminded, there is enormous appetite for his product in the United States.
Some people have tried to operate without his blessing. They die. Often brutally and there is no mercy. This second season is, at times, furiously violent and does not flinch from showing how Escobar dealt with his enemies and competitors. The phrase "Pablo is weak right now" become famous last words.
Last year, when I interviewed the show's executive producer, Jose Padilha, he said this: "Narcos is not a fantasy. By making it grounded, I want it to be an education as well as entertainment. The education is making the audience see what cocaine is – it's cheap to make, it's a natural product and it makes the human brain go haywire. The American approach to dealing with the cocaine problem is basically fighting cocaine by fighting supply. The approach does not acknowledge that the demand is always there, or that the place that supplies the cocaine changes. So yeah, you wage war on the Medellin Cartel. You kill Pablo Escobar. And then it goes to Cali. Then you wage war on Cali. And then it moves on and then it goes to Mexico."
That assertion remains under the surface of this second season. In fact, taken together, the two seasons amount to a startling achievement in long-form TV storytelling. Narcos is an epic thriller about a compelling villain and a narrative of deep seriousness about power, drugs and how the United States deals with South America. It is insightful, angry, revisionist, well-argued and formidably entertaining.