When Netflix announced their true-crime drama Narcos would be renewed for a third season I couldn't help but feel a little dubious.

For two seasons the show had been all about the American DEA's efforts to bring in the fabled drug baron Pablo Escobar. With that goal fatally accomplished by the end of season two it appeared that was that for the show.

Especially in light of the fact that the breakout star of the series had been Wagner Moura, the actor portraying the Colombian crime kingpin. His performance, weighty, intense, charismatic, was simply remarkable and gave the show a villain you could empathise with but also despise. And, if we're being honest, fear.

So with both Escobar and Moura gone I had figured Narcos was done. I figured wrong.


In the opening scene of season three DEA agent Javier Pena and his father are driving home after a party and having a restrained heart-to-heart. Pena's just announced he plans to return to Colombia. His old man turns to him and says: "So... Cali?".

"Cali," Pena nods, as the opening credits kick in and season three kicks off.

This low-key opening tells you that the mustachioed lawman Pena, played by Pedro Pascal, now leads the show. Meaning yes, he also takes over Narcos' famed narration duties. In season one DEA agent Stephen Murphy's voiceovers were incessant to the point of irritating. In season two they were reined right in. Now, save for an introductory exposition dump at the very start to set things up, you don't hear too much out of Pena. The show has got a lot better at showing, not telling, improving it no end.

So... Cali?

Cali was the number two drug cartel in Colombia. When Escobar fell, Cali got a promotion.

Over shocking real news footage of Colombian cocaine violence in the late 80s, Pena sets up the next two seasons of the show.

"The day Pablo went down the Cali cartel became public enemy number one," he says. "The fact that they helped us bring him down didn't mean s***."

The Cali cartel does not have the same level of wide and general recognition as Escobar. But that was very much by design. Pena explains how the four godfathers of Cali operated in complete opposite of Escobar.

Where Escobar was public and visible, revelling in the fame and seeing himself as a sort of saviour of the people, the "gentlemen of Cali", as they were called, fancied themselves as respectable businessmen.

They were relatively low-key. They spent a billion a year (Pena:"that's billion with a 'b'") paying off everyone. From the usual suspects like politicians and police right through to taxi drivers and phone operators. They had eyes and ears everywhere.

Because of this Pena's superior in Colombia tells him any surveillance efforts to bring them in will result in "double zero".

"These guys don't make mistakes. You try to go after the Cali bosses all you'll get is more bodies."

Regular viewers of the show will be no stranger to the Cali family, they've been in the periphery of prior seasons. But moving them into the limelight is shrewd. Not only because that's what actually happened but also because it expands the show's reach.

Now, instead of one baddie, you get four. Each very different and full of character. It's a great move on the show's part.

It also means you really don't need to have watched the first two seasons to jump in. It's essentially a series reset.

After the first episode Pena was still alone. His partner of the first two seasons Steve Murphy nowhere to be seen and no reference to be made of. We know he'll be teamed up with agent Daniel Van Ness because the new character is played by Kiwi actor Matt Whelan, but he hadn't shown up by the end of the first episode.

While the opening scene is a slow burn the rest of the episode cranks up the pace. There are two scenes that are genuinely and awfully, tense. The threat of horrific violence always simmering.

And there's one scene where that simmer boils over into grim, stomach-churning, torturous brutality. It's hard to watch. And not just because of the cringing atrocious onscreen action but because you know that these terrible people actually did these terrible things.

Narcos has never pulled punches or done anything other than show that these guys were monsters. The newsreel footage of bodies always a sober reminder in the face of the show's excellent giddily thrilling entertainment.

After all the dragons and snow zombies of the past few months the grounded reality of Narcos hits hard. I'm only one episode in but already Narcos is proving addictive viewing.