“You can’t scare me.” No, I can just ruin your life.”
The Cali Cartel was always going to fall. Historical facts aside, the dramatic structure of this season of Narcos demanded it. Gilberto Rodriguez’s dream of a cushy surrender (plus retention of billions of dollars in coke money and no jail time) was just the sort of too-anticlimactic resolution, both for a season of television and a massive syndicate built on violence, greed, intimidation, and men brought up since birth to define success in those terms. Cracks shivered open even before Gilberto’s imprisonment. With him in jail, the amnesty deal in tatters, and unsubtly unconfident brother Miguel running the suddenly tottering criminal empire, the abyss gapes open. And that’s even before one of the cartel’s New York cocaine labs blows up.
It’s an accident, born of carelessness, nothing more. But it outs NYC Cali boss Chepe to the investigative reporter Manuel de Dios Unanue (Gabriel Sloyer) who’s been keeping tabs on him—and leads Chepe to murder the journalist in cold blood before fleeing back to Colombia. As Peña sums it up in his voiceover to begin the episode, “See, that’s the thing about plans. No matter how perfect you think they are, however brilliant or audacious they may be, well, they can still go to shit when that one thing goes wrong. And once that happens, there’s no going back. It’s all downhill from there.”
In the end, it’s not only the lab explosion that brings about the chaos that rages through “Best Laid Plans,” but the destruction of the illusion that the crispy professionalism of the Cali Cartel was somehow better than the brute power of Pablo Escobar. Security chief Jorge Salcedo tries to maintain his own illusion that he’s both part of, and separate from, a ruthlessly efficient drug operation. Following through with his plan to testify against the cartel, he tells skeptical DEA agents Feistl and Van Ness, “I’m not a murderer, I’m not like them.” And he’s not, in the sense that he doesn’t even carry a gun, a fact resentful David Rodriguez mocks him for at one point here. But he is a brilliant technical and surveillance mind who’s accepted the cartel’s cash to protect an army of killers. “You can’t trust them, I pay them,” Jorge sneers at the agents when they talk about enlisting the police or the military to arrest Miguel, Matias Varela continuing to embody the warring soul of a man whose ability to rationalize the choices he’s made crumbles more every time we see him.
Shattering, too, is the wall of wealth, youth, and globe-trotting luxury that sustains the marriage of Franklin and Christina Jurado. Last episode, Kerry Bishé’s Christina confided in Javier Peña that she had allowed herself to get swept up in those alluring things—and her obvious love for her money-launderer husband—until she found herself over her head. Buying coke from her hairdresser (presumably to hide the extent of her habit from Franklin) and continually expressing her restlessness to her husband, Christina is a prime target for Peña’s blunt reasonableness in pitching a way out. But Peña, knowing the clock is running on Gilberto Rodriguez’s time in custody, can’t wait. Tracking Franklin to the untraceable banking “smuggler’s paradise” that is Curaçao, Peña—after a primer on the uniquely business-friendly rules of policing by the local cops—winds up chasing the refined but wily Jurado through the tourist-ambling streets until a few warning shots convince Franklin to finally stop playing gangster. (Peña, thanks to his recent desk duty, gets a stitch in his side by the end, his gun-drawn “Don’t run” emerging from the sweat-drenched Peña sounding as much plea as warning.) On the plane back to Colombia, Franklin, like his wife, plays at defiance before Peña’s promise of “a new life” sees the captive money man exclaim, “I’m not saying a single word... until I see my wife. Then you’ll have your witness.”
That Christina gets herself captured by the cartel (and her beautician friend shot to death by the impassive Navegante), might indicate that Kerry Bishé is stuck playing a thankless wife role. (And compared to her Donna on Halt And Catch Fire, Christina definitely comes across as particularly helpless so far, here panicking at the sight of the cops Peña has staking out her hotel for her protection.) But Christina and Franklin Jurado collapse so quickly because, like Jorge, they have convinced themselves that they aren’t really in the cocaine, corruption, and murder business. They’re susceptible to Peña’s promise of a new life back in the States because they don’t see the cartel life as their actual life. It’s just a job—one they can quit. The cartel shows them both otherwise, with Christina in the cartel’s custody and Franklin, visited in his DEA interrogation room by Wayne Knight’s slimy lawyer Starkman, rescinding his offer to testify as soon as Christina’s plight is revealed.
Like Franklin’s frantic foot chase through the colorful streets of Curaçao, Jorge sees his plans explode in unexpected chaos, as Cali rivals the North Valley Cartel stage a bloody assassination attempt on Miguel. Brought in to provide security (alongside ever-contemptuous David, who grudgingly asks for advice as his father’s new personal bodyguard), Jorge tells Feistl and Van Ness about Miguel’s plan to attend the traditional carnival blowout that was brother Gilberto’s most public display of power. The hiccup here is that the mutual distrust between Jorge and the DEA agents prevents Van Ness and Feistl from fully trusting that information.
The agents, scanning Jorge’s long involvement with the cartel, harbor doubts about risking an operation (and their lives) on a high-level cartel operative whose protestations can’t hide—from them at least—how enmeshed Jorge is in the cartel. So they merely go alone to see if Miguel would be at the party, a fact that, once Jorge learns of it during a surreptitious urinal-chat with Feistl, sends the security man rushing to usher Miguel out of the club. And that’s when all hell breaks loose, as the North Valley chooses that exact time to strike, sending cartel men, DEA agents, and innocent partygoers (some 15 of whom are killed, according to a later newscast) scampering for survival. While Narcos has revelled in elaborately staged action set-pieces in the past, here, the action is appropriately choppy and frantic, as the three different factions flail through the music- and light-throbbing club for escape, or for prey. The same goes for the rival cartel’s simultaneous assault on Pacho’s Mexican villa, although we see how Pacho, sizing up the bullet-zinging panic that sees both his young lover and his brother get shot (the brother survives), executes a nifty strategic maneuver, and then the last remaining North Valley gunmen.
The fallout from the massacre sees Miguel, safe thanks to Jorge’s leadership (and a lot of luck) restoring his personal security to him. (David, disgraced yet again, can only glower.) There’s a fake-out where Miguel angrily asks how Jorge knew the attack was coming, only for his anger to swerve toward David, for not knowing. There’s a narrative glibness to the move, underscored by the fact that the rapid confluence of events remains unclear, even after Jorge’s angry assurance to the DEA on the phone that he had no idea the attack was coming. Still, that Jorge’s risky gambit failed largely because of the human factors of mistrust and necessarily rushed and incomplete communication hews close to Peña’s thematic summation of the episode retains a certain elegance. (And, sticking to that human element rather than larding an exposition dump with world-weary cliché lends the deservedly world-weary Peña’s words a satisfying film noir quality for a change.)
For the remaining Gentlemen of Cali, the blunt violence of their rival cartel has the opposite effect to that their inner conflicts have on their subordinates. Assembling together for the first time since Gilberto’s “retirement party” in the first episode, Miguel and the returned Pacho and Chepe nod at Miguel’s assessment, “All of us know there’s only one appropriate response to this.” It’s time for the Gentlemen of Cali to go to very Escobar-like war in the streets, something they’re all clearly itching to do, for their own reasons. Here too, however, the human element intrudes, as Miguel, clearly affronted at the now-clear indication that his rivals (and, he suspects, his own men) think he is weak, acts with unwonted confidence. “This is Gilberto’s decision?,” asks Chepe, circumspectly. “It is... mine,” Miguel responds, and, it seems, Peña’s prediction will come true in the form of an open drug war in the streets of Colombia.
- Manuel de Dios Unanue was a real Cuban-American journalist whose investigation of the Cali Cartel in New York indeed saw Chepe (aka: José Santacruz Londoño) murder him. (Although he ordered the murder rather than carrying it out himself.) It’s thought that this was the first time a Colombian drug gang killed a reporter in America.
- Manuel dresses down Chepe for comparing their shared immigrant stories, brushing aside Chepe’s pitch to accept money in exchange for dropping his story with a contemptuous, “We are both immigrants, but we have nothing in common.” Unfortunately for Manuel, Chepe is finally convinced he means it.
- The doomed New York lab crew are watching the O.J. Simpson trial on TV as they do their fatally sloppy work. “Mark Fuhrman is a son of a bitch,” exclaims one, not incorrectly.
- One flaw in Jorge’s plan that will no doubt widen is that his trusted right-hand man Enrique (Carrell Lasso) knows about Van Ness and Feistl’s continued presence in Cali. He appears to be buying his boss’ explanation of the need to conceal that fact, for now.
- The season’s whole “woman who doesn’t understand what the job entails” thing claims another victim, as Chepe is revealed to have an alternately weepy and demanding New York girlfriend.
- Oh, and another, as cartel accountant Guillermo Pallomari’s wife loudly complains about the relative meagerness of the apartment safe house Jorge puts them in.
- Neither Pallomari, however, understands how close they came to being killed instead of ushered to safety, as Gilberto’s lawyer son Nicolás—now fully embracing the cartel business as his father never wanted him to—implies very strongly his father’s message that “taking care of” the accountant would steady some allies’ suspicions about Gilberto’s arrest. Nicolás, leaving the meeting with his uncle, doesn’t return the little wave cousin David gives him, leaving the perpetually smarting David to seethe with yet another resentment.
- Apart from their firm belief that Cali under Miguel is ripe for the picking, North Valley boss Henao (Julián Arango) is revealed to have the backing of Vicky Hernandez’s furiously resentful Gerda, still looking for vengeance against both Miguel and former daughter-in-law Maria.
- Also, Fuentes puts the final seal on the war when he informs Henao that the “Lord of the Skies” will abandon the cartel and fly solely for North Valley.