What do you think is harder for an established show to do? Lose a character or gain one? What if it loses two major characters and has to gain a new protagonist in season 3, would that work? Because that’s exactly what Narcos did for season 3 and dammit if they didn’t pull it off. Spoilers ahead, in case you don’t know what happened to Pablo Escobar.

Season 2 ended with Pablo on the rooftop, which meant that the series’ antagonist and main focus was gone. So was Agent Pena’s (Pedro Pascal) partner, Steve Murphy. The real life DEA agent returned to the US shortly after Pablo was killed. (On a side note, I think the actor Boyd Holbrook is the new Charlie Hunnam and one day he will reveal his hotness for the world to see.)

First, the not great stuff. One thing lacking in the first two seasons was three-dimensional female characters. That problem is not solved in season 3: many of the women are forgettable and short-lived, or foolish wives who argue with their husbands as gunmen burst through the door. This year a journalist showed promise, but she was just a storyline saviour for Pena. Maybe season 4?

Season 3 required new blood to work. For that they turned to the already-introduced Gentlemen of Cali, a cartel made up of two brothers and two partners who took over Colombia after Pablo died. Turning them from Pablo’s enemies into the show’s antagonists was a big move that paid off. The men had distinctive traits and motivations within the cartel structure and beyond Pablo. Where Pablo killed wantonly, the Cali cartel killed selectively (but brutally), so there’s less violence this season (I still found it quite gory at times). And having four bad guys to chase kept Agent Pena and his team busy, so the scenes moved quickly but logically.  

What was really impressive with season 3 is that it centered its heart around a new character, Jorge Salcedo, the head of Cali security. When they first introduced him I thought there’s no way they are going to make me care about a man working for a corrosive criminal organization, no matter how many scenes they give him with his loving wife and children.

But Jorge received so much screen-time and motivation that it became impossible not to like him if not outright empathize with him. Jorge with his little pager and no-weapons policy seems pretty harmless in comparison to bloodthirsty militia or corrupt CIA officers. His stakes were high and urgent and he played the nuances of each scene well so that it was easy to understand his motivations but still hard to predict his behaviour. Actor Matias Varela is outstanding at playing every eye shift, every finger tap, every shoulder check. He also gave us someone to care about as Agent Pena grew more disillusioned with his role as a suit-wearing superstar agent.

With Narcos continuing past Pablo, it slightly widened the show’s reference of drug trafficking. Working larger themes of corruption and political policy required a disciplined performance by Pedro Pascal. He goes from being a hotshot to being a veteran, willing to take calculated risks instead of leaps of faith. But he’s never naïve enough to think the DEA is wining the war on drugs. That world-weariness should serve him well next season when he’s in a new country, with new bad guys and new allies.

Next stop: Mexico.