“Even the hero said it’s fucked up.”
“Follow The Money” starts out doing just what it says on the tin, with Peña’s obligatory narration giving us a brisk but extended rundown of how the Cali Cartel’s money laundering operation necessarily changed with the times. We meet the cartel’s cocky Mexican money trafficker, Amado Carillo Fuentes (José María Yazpik), introduced in the pre-credits sequence emerging from a cargo plane heaped with bales of American cash, the visiting Pacho saluting him as “Lord of the Air.” Peña’s briefing also brings in the cartel’s jet-setting money launderer, Franklin Jurado (Sense8's Miguel Angel Silvestre) and his American wife Christina (Halt And Catch Fire’s Kerry Bishé), whose brief appearance reveals that their marital squabbles about how his job consumes too much of their lives disappointingly recalls the similar trouble in the marriage of cartel security man Jorge and wife Paola. Narcos’ attempts to put the series’ action into historical context generally skim the surface via these montages of stock footage and effortful voiceover, and “Follow The Money” begins by setting up yet more pieces of this post-Escobar season. Thankfully, though, the episode gathers momentum as it steams ahead, and makes room for characters—both new and familiar—to expand their performances inside the narrative.
Chief among the new assets are the new guys, improbably. DEA agents Chris Feistl (Michael Stahl-David) and Daniel Van Ness (Matt Whelan) function as the hungry, hot-dogging replacements for the Peña-Murphy odd couple team, even though they are thrown together more out of proximity than any mutual respect. Showing up (on Peña’s orders) in Cali in tourist clothes and toting a flimsy warrant from a Bogota judge, the pair make contact with Colombian National Police Captain Calderon (Juan Messier), who challenges their assumption that all Cali cops are on the cartel’s payroll before taking them on a tour of supposed cartel front businesses. The chemistry between the Steve Murphy-esque cowboy Feistl (although, unlike Murphy, Feistl at least bothered to learn Spanish) and the more buttoned-down Van Ness smacks of a tired buddy cop dynamic, until each reveals himself to have more of a personality (and sense of humor) than expected.
There’s a tense scene where Jorge rushes (first by car, then on foot, then racing up an office stairwell) to warn cartel accountant Guillermo Pallomari (Javier Cámara) that the agents have strong-armed their way past security and are riding the elevator up to where Jorge knows Pallomari has millions of dollars in bribe money and incriminating documents piled on his desk. There’s some contrivance to the tension (it doesn’t make sense that Guillermo would blow off the trusted security man’s explicit warning so blithely), but the cross-currents of the DEA’s suspicions about their police guide (warranted, as it turns out), Jorge’s breathless attempts to hide evidence (he winds up with a trash can full of illicit money, hiding behind a door), and the semi-legality of the whole raid all work nicely, underscoring the many ways that Feistl and Van Ness are in over their heads.
Still, the pair manage to come away with cartons of evidence, and they face down Pallomari and his people with style. “People like surprises,” quips Feistl as he deftly steals the building security guy’s phone headset, and the stuffy-seeming Van Ness responds to the furious Guillermo’s insults with a deadpan, “Could you repeat that sir? My Spanish is a bit rough.” Whelan, with his complaints about his partner’s looser style and his fanny pack, comes off like a nerdy office drone (he looks like former Freaks And Geeks and Bones star John Francis Daley in his exasperated ordinariness), but Van Ness is a lot more capable than he lets on, spotting the Chilean slang in Pallomari’s bluster and sussing out that his foreign national status leaves the accountant open to extradition. He and Feistl impulsively ditch their tickets back to the embassy at the airport and rent a car to tail Pallomari around Cali, eventually being rewarded when they realize he’s led them to Cali kingpin Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela’s safehouse hiding place. The episode keeps having characters pump up the new agents’ abilities (“Those new DEA guys are sharper than they look,” Jorge tells his boss after his narrow escape during the raid), but the actors’ budding chemistry and the characters’ intuitive skills bear out the idea that they’re more than a pale retread of the originals.
As for Peña himself, his frustration with his new administrator (and figurehead) role at the embassy finds him itching to defy the ambassador’s promise to Colombian officials and investigate Jurado’s links to the cartel. Tailing Jurado to his luxurious digs, he orders a phone tap on Christina (despite his staff’s reluctance to break with protocol), and is prepared to hop a plane to Panama in pursuit of Jurado when he’s dragooned by Eric Lange’s CIA man Stechner. Stechner and the ambassador are eager to show a couple of visiting and well-connected U.S. senators (Louis Herthum and Glenn Morshower) how all those American tax dollars are being used in the War on Drugs. Lange’s presence on Narcos continues to deepen the series’ take on said drug war and U.S. policy toward Colombia, largely by showing how the machinations of “big picture” geopolitics undermine any attempts to actually fight drug trafficking—and anyone who takes the crimefighting aspect of the drug war seriously. After Peña sniffs out that the jungle drug lab massacre scene Stechner has brought them to is a set-up, he and the ever-smug Stechner have it out. “Sometimes you need to make the truth a little more... plain,” says Stechner to Peña after his spiel to the credulous senators about preventing “the next Castro” seems to have done the job. Peña’s anger sees him spitting out a threat to blow the CIA’s dog-and-pony show and thus endanger the funding for all their real, shadowy priorities. But even Peña knows that crossing Stechner directly is a futile and likely dangerous move, so he backs Stechner’s play in front of the senators, ending with the double-edged agreement that “a big win is coming.”
That big win, to Peña, means bringing down the Cali Cartel before their six-months-hence amnesty agreement kicks in. Pedro Pascal, again, makes Peña’s guilt and anger palpable. Last episode, he complained to the unsympathetic Martinez that there’s not a lot of actual police work being done, and actual police work—arresting those who break the law and hurt people—is what drives him. But he’s also seen how complicated the drug war is, and how fighting it makes doing the right thing a matter of doing a whole lot of wrong things. Peña rails against Stechner’s cynical exploitation of what he sees as actual police work to further the CIA’s ends, and Stechner mocks him, asking, “You ever stop to think that anyone who takes this as personally as you do is doing it wrong?”
But Javier Peña is someone who is affected by the personal, who feels that protecting people from harm is the actual big picture, so he calls upon the canniness his experience has lent him and, at episode’s end, makes his decision to act. When Feistl calls to say they have eyes on Gilberto and asks what they should do, Peña knocks on a door. Martinez answers. Peña, swallowing his pride to ask for help from the one cop he knows he can trust, simply says, “Sorry to interrupt. You wanna go after Gilberto Rodriguez?” For Narcos as much as for Peña, it’s a thrilling, liberating way forward.
- On the cartel front, Pacho, deeply hungover after a night of partying with Fuentes, confides in his younger brother that much of his motivation in becoming who he is in the cartel comes from a desire to prove their father wrong. Having been thrown out, it’s implied, because he’s gay, Pacho echoes his father’s insult that there was “no place in this world for a man like me,” telling his brother, “I made a place for myself. I proved him wrong. And now I have to give it all up. What kind of man would I be if I gave it up?” His brother counters that he will have billions of dollars and a lifetime to find out, but, for Pacho, money is nothing compared to the power to command respect.
- Gilberto, responding to Miguel’s reminder that, after the amnesty, he won’t be able to order people around any more, says, “I’m tired of telling people what to do,” adding offhandedly, “And nobody ever listened to you. What is the difference?”
- Maria accepts Miguel’s offer of a lavish apartment only after negotiating the terms that she will receive a stipend in recompense for her husband’s death, and that Miguel will retrieve her young son from her fearsome mother-in-law. When he agrees, she begins to strip, but Miguel stops her.
- Here’s hoping we see more of Curtis Cook’s Mills, the American, not-quite CIA operative aiding Stechner’s scam on the senators. That guy seems like he has stories to tell.
- That’s Wayne Knight, plying his usual trade in sleazy loudmouths as the cartel’s american lawyer, Starkman. He does give Jorge his card, explaining that, despite Jorge’s protestations that he’s never sold dope or shot anyone, he’s just as complicit in the cartel’s crimes, should the amnesty deal fall apart.
- Jorge also underestimates how tainted his work with the cartel has made him when David spitefully interrupts an investment dinner for Jorge’s new business to let Jorge’s shocked money men know he works for Cali.
- Narcos winks at the seeming attempt to reboot the initial Murphy-Pena chemistry with a new team of maverick DEA agents. Jorge’s boss dismisses Feistl and Van Ness’ attempt to follow up the DEA team whose cover was blown last episode, quipping, “The second team’s never as good as the first.”
- On their stakeout, Feistl and Van Ness argue about the best way to survive the bus in the then-current Speed. Feistl admits he would leave Sandra Bullock behind and jump.
- Van Ness, deadpanning once again, after Calderon gripes that, unlike them, he doesn’t have a DEA pension to fall back on should their proposed raid go south: “The pensions aren’t that great, to be honest.”