Michael Stahl-David (Photo: Juan Pablo Gutierrez//Netflix)

“If you want anything we do in there to count, follow the fucking rules.”

Bookended by a pair of flashy, violent glimpses of the escalating Cali-North Valley cartel drug war begun in earnest last episode, the bulk of “Sin Salida” takes the form of an extended caper. Unlike the similarly satisfying capture of Gilberto Rodriguez in “Checkmate,” this episode’s hunt for Miguel Rodriguez is largely confined to Miguel’s lavish safe house apartment, where, on a shaky warrant and with both the “clock is ticking” and “one last shot” cop show clichés deployed to deftly intense effect, Peña leads an increasingly desperate search. If “Checkmate”’s action against the Cali Cartel was a wide-ranging action set-piece, “Sin Salida”’s is a thrilling exercise in claustrophobia.

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Just ask Miguel who, hearing the approach of the helicopter carrying DEA agents Peña and Feistl, seals himself in a suffocatingly tight bathroom wall hiding place with an oxygen mask, while, in a scene as gratuitously manipulative as it is gloriously squirmy, Van Ness pierces the space repeatedly with a big-ass drill. There’s an equivalent ostentatiousness from the first scene of the episode, with a solemn church service in North Valley territory interrupted by gunfire, an explosion, and finally Pacho, striding down the aisle to the altar and, after crossing himself, announcing the Cali Cartel’s intentions with a gleefully villainous, “I am Pacho Herrera. Now pray... pray.” The same goes for the scene near episode’s end where Pacho and Chepe sit nonchalantly on a car outside the shipyard that represents North Valley’s main strength and crack jokes while their men stage a bloody massacre. Pacho, sobering for a moment, says of the growing rift between the Rodriguez brothers, “I don’t like this disagreement between them. It isn’t us,” to which Chepe replies, “Maybe, but times are changing.” Meanwhile, distant gunfire rages and the two Gentlemen of Cali share a rueful sigh that they’re not out there, enjoying the action.

Alberto Ammann (Photo: Juan Pablo Gutierrez//Netflix)

All these crowd-pleasing action beats (we even see how the more brutal North Valley men favor chunky chainsaw executions) might come off as glib fan-service for the Scarface set, if everyone’s actions here weren’t so tightly justified and plotted out in advance. (Well, maybe not the chainsaw guys.) We’ve seen how the complacently successful Gentlemen have, each in their own way, been primed for decisive, cathartic violence. Chepe’s New York operation, and his cover, have been blown—plus, he’s never been far removed from the cartel’s bloodiest tendencies. Pacho is seething over the North Valley assault that has, as he says, left his younger brother Alvarez most likely impotent for the rest of his life. Not to mention how his wavering resolve in the face of Amado Fuentes’ offer to defect from the cartel was steeled after several days reflection on the true bond he carries with the other three Gentlemen. And Miguel, his innate inferiority complex and desire to overcome it making him both headstrong and paranoid, is implacable in his orders to take the formerly businesslike Cali Cartel to the streets in vengeance. Meanwhile, all the imprisoned Gilberto can do is hurl his phone in frustration at the incoming news of the war and urge his brother to caution.

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“You have to embrace that this is the reality we’ve built,” counsels Gilberto on the phone, “embrace it.” “The reality you built,” is Miguel’s answer, “And where the fuck has it gotten you?” As Gilberto tries again to get Miguel to renegotiate the amended surrender plan Gilberto had brokered, Miguel cuts him off with a resolute but not unkind, “That was just a dream you fell in love with. It’s not mine.”

Francisco Denis (Screenshot: Netflix)

As a leader, it’s not certain from his actions exactly what Miguel Rodriguez’s dream is, although his showy confidence in taking charge of the cartel in his brother’s absence is telling. Swilling whiskey at his ornate desk, Miguel lords his beneficence over the summoned Jorge Salcedo, his forced bonhomie belying how insecure he is in his role. After a last-moment save from a the not-quite deus ex machina of the on-the-take Cali attorney general, who halts Peña’s raid just as Van Ness is about to sledgehammer through to Miguel’s hidey-hole, Miguel stumbles out, completely shaken by his experience. Spotting his ruined desk (smashed by Feistl during the raid), and seeing that his incriminating ledger is missing, Miguel stands shattered and gasping until the reassuring hand of Maria on his shoulder makes him jump like a startled deer. Jerking back, he regards Maria for a moment and then, unseen by anyone else, he breaks down in sobs in her arms.

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Not that Miguel’s state isn’t understandable, considering that the extended siege of his supposed refuge (taking up some 30 minutes of screen time, and a whole night for Miguel) is one of the most enjoyably tense sequences I’ve seen on Narcos. Again, the search is extended through some circumstances that would seem contrived if they weren’t so lockstep logical in the world the show has set up this season. Peña has to hide all but the sketchiest details from both the government minister who begrudgingly okays the mission and the DA, who is required to file any warrant where cartel spies are sure to see it ahead of time. That leads him to recruit an officious little DA willing to don a flak jacket and accompany Peña and his men in order to fill out the warrant on the spot—only to delay the proceedings once he sees that their paperwork is even flimsier than he’d anticipated. Peña requests the aid of the legendarily incorruptible and God-fearing anti-corruption national police commander, General José Serrano (Gaston Velandia), but asks the general to remain behind, so that, should the tenuous operation go south, his name won’t be on the warrant. Peña, all too aware of the dangers of cutting corners, is forced to rein in hotheaded young agents Feistl and Van Ness once the DA’s boss (dragged sweatily off his tennis court by the furious David Rodriguez), commands the Americans to stop their search—with them literally one swing from the towering Van Ness’ hammer away from their prey.

Matias Varela (Screenshot: Netflix)

And all that’s not taking in the even more perilous circumstances their inside man, Jorge, must cope with, as his own solid but delicate plan to allow the DEA access to Miguel shakes apart, one piece at a time. When Miguel is attempting to drunkenly bond with his trusted security head, it tingles with the dramatic irony that Jorge is in fact setting him up for arrest, and that Jorge is trapped playing obedient guest while the DEA—who need him to get them past a checkpoint—is en route. Matias Varela continues to impress, here layering controlled panic on top of exasperation as he’s forced to watch Miguel’s henchman extol the virtues of the Japanese bread crumbs he’s using for their dinner and Miguel himself tipsily talk up the wine. He nimbly distracts both of them just enough to switch off a squawking walkie talkie, and even attempts—once Miguel and Maria are scrambling for cover at the sound of the approaching police—to ferret out the location of Miguel’s hidden crawlspace. But, in the end, he and his henchman colleague are trapped at gunpoint on the same couch while the frustrated Peña orders Feistl to get his informant (codenamed Natalya) on the phone. “Um, that’s Natalya on the couch,” Feistl whispers, leaving Peña scowling at the dawning knowledge that his last chance to capture Miguel Rodriguez is slipping through his fingers.

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Pedro Pascal (Photo: Juan Pablo Gutierrez//Netflix)

It’s a bravura sequence, all the interlocking pieces snapping together with an increasingly queasy logic. In the end, Jorge is frantic that he’s exposed himself and his family in a losing gambit, Feistl can only apologize as he, Peña, and Van Ness have their passports confiscated and are shipped unceremoniously back to the Bogota embassy, and Peña, confronted by his furious young agents, can only respond, with finality, “It’s over. We fucked up.”

Of course, this third season of Narcos isn’t over, Peña’s excited flip through the confiscated ledger suggesting the way forward. But, as the crisply exciting “Sin Salida” (“No Exit”) shows, whatever way any of these characters choose at this point, they’re all unlikely to escape the consequences of their accumulated sins.

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Stray observations

  • After Peña asks why Miguel’s ornate desk (that Feistl and two soldiers have just ransacked) lies in ruins: Pena: “It fell over?” Feistl: “I mean, in a way it did.”
  • I’m a sucker for people figuring out that the dimensions of a room don’t quite make sense.
  • Security expert Jorge is not impressed with Van Ness and Feistl’s initial intentions for a raid on Miguel’s house. “Guys. That’s it? That’s the plan? Christ.”
  • Jorge returns to find that Paola has made good on her threat to leave, taking their girls to her parents’ house. In a season without a single memorable female character so far (Kerry Bishé still has some time to make Christina into something), Paola’s parting words to Jorge stand out. “We weren’t poor Jorge. We had choices. This was your choice.”
  • Arturo Castro’s hotheaded David, after rushing around trying to save his father, can only wait silently until he gets the news that the DEA has been forced to abandon their search. Castro takes David’s face through tension, to disbelief, to smiling relief in a loaded moment, his final, shaky “Okay...” as human as we’ve ever seen him.

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