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In its penultimate episode, Narcos masters the art of the gut-punch

Eric Lange, Pedro Pascal (Screenshot: Netflix)
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“Like you’ve never cut a corner to get to the front of the line. The question is what you do when you get there.”


With one episode left, “Todos Los Hombres Del Presidente” careens towards the end of Narcos’ third season with a deceptively sure, even witty hand. This latter half of the season has leapt forward in a series of masterfully executed, self-contained caper episodes, with the hunt for Miguel Rodriguez veering perilously close to both success and bloody disaster, only to find a logically and dramatically sound way to keep the chase alive. This ninth episode continues that streak with such effortless, propulsive grace that, at points, it toys with both contrivances and cheap shocks—only to save its real, more profound swerve for the final moments.

Michael Stahl-David, Matt Whelan (Photo: Juan Pablo Gutierrez: Netflix)

We don’t know as much about reckless young DEA agents Daniel Van Ness and Chris Feistl as we did about Murphy and Peña in the first two seasons. That means, at several times tonight, when the latest raid on one of Miguel’s safe houses is underway, episode director Andi Baiz primes us for one or both of them to fall. Perched on a bluff overlooking the building exit where he and General Serrano’s men lay in wait for Miguel to show his face, Feistl pleads on the phone with Peña to move in early once he senses (rightly) that their informant Jorge Salcedo is in danger. Reluctantly given the go-ahead, Feistl readies himself, and Baiz’s camera raises up over his shoulder like a sniper. (The same goes for the moment when Feistl boosts himself over a high wall, leaving his uncovered head perilously exposed.) Simultaneous to the assault on Miguel’s high-rise, Van Ness spots an enraged David Rodriguez (whose obsessed investigation of Jorge has uncovered the fact that he is the one who’s been working with the DEA) heading into the Salcedo’s home with his henchman, Dario (Roberto Cano). After a convincingly clumsy, close-quarters gunfight, Van Ness, hearing his attackers flee, walks out the front door, and, again, Baiz frames the panning shot so that Van Ness’ blind side is a prime target.

Arturo Castro, Roberto Cano (Screenshot: Netflix)

Neither agent is shot, but, with the fleeing Miguel (who’d been forced to abandon his brutal plastic-bag suffocation of the bound Jorge by Feistl’s approach) lying bloodied in the street, Van Ness and Paola Salcedo’s rushed but confidently relieved flight into Van Ness’ car is breathlessly suspenseful, priming us, once more, for a sudden burst of violence. (Especially when Jorge calls to tell her triumphantly, “We did it, Paola,” a cue for ironic death if ever there were one.) Here, too, the shock doesn’t come. Baiz and writers Jason george, Carlo Bernard, and Doug Miro are playing with us like only very confident storytellers do, using our familiarity with police procedural cliché to keep us expecting the worst. How else to explain how they set up a plot twist based on Miguel not hearing David’s frantic phone call about Jorge because of his Walkman headphones, only for Maria’s son to carry the ringing phone to Miguel. Or for Paola to abandon the machine gun Jorge had shown her how to use, only for Van Ness to sensibly trade his pistol for the discarded thing once he sees it in the middle of his gunfight. Or, just when we’re expecting yet another extension of the chase for Miguel Rodriguez when the escaping Miguel’s car, speeding away from the embattled building, is suddenly broadsided by Serrano’s hurtling police vehicle from out of frame. In a season where Narcos’ momentum has only accumulated, these are the final, thrillingly unexpected little moments that reveal how assured the series has become at propelling itself toward its historically inevitable conclusions.

Matias Varela (Screenshot: Netflix)

But when the real final twist comes, it’s not a head shot, but a metaphorical gut shot to Javier Peña. Throughout the episode, we’ve seen his old willingness to compromise in pursuit of a cartel godfather take him over. After one more “I mean it this time” warning that he’s being pulled off of the case from both Ambassador Crosby and Defense Minister Botero, Peña, knowing he only has until 5 p.m. to turn over his Cali files, puts Jorge Salcedo’s life (and that of his family) in mortal danger on the riskiest of premises. Protesting to Crosby that their informant will be killed should the corrupt authorities get his intel, he pleads, “He’s done everything we asked him to do. He risked his life, he risked his family.” But when Crosby tells him to pull Jorge and his wife and daughters in now, thus abandoning the hunt for Miguel for good, Peña doesn’t do it. “What’s more important, Peña? Getting Miguel Rodriguez, or your C.I.’s life?,” Crosby asks, but Peña’s already made his call, subsequently lying to the worried Van Ness and Feistl that Crosby won’t allow him to take the Salcedos into protective custody.

Michael Stahl-David, Matt Whelan, Pedro Pascal (Screenshot: Netflix)

The same goes for the raid itself. After talking the incorruptible General Serrano (whose career has been threatened by his superiors) into going on the raid while Peña stays behind this time, he holds off on sending Feistl and Serrano’s men in, even when Feistl sees Jorge being called back upstairs. “All due respect, sir, we have to go in,” demands Feistl, finally breaking Peña’s will to hold out until Miguel is in the open. Peña had put everything on the line in his one last shot—including feeding intel about the raid to Botero after surmising that the Minister himself is the one on the take who’d leaked their operations to the cartel in the past. Once Serrano calls to tell him, in spite of all the unexpected (but by now de rigueur) complications of the mission, “Agent Peña. I have Miguel Rodriguez handcuffed by my side,” Pedro Pascal has Peña pause for a long moment with eyes closed before asking, “And Salcedo?” Jorge lives, too, rescued by Feistl at what looks to be literally his last breath. All is won.

But this is Narcos’ Colombia. As shocking as it was to Peña when he found out (through his own investigation and that of journalist Carolina Alvarez, with whom he shares info) that the Defense Minister of Colombia is in the cartel’s pocket, it’s nothing compared to what he learns once Crosby plays him a cassette tape. On it, a cartel associate offers $6 million—to the campaign of President Ernesto Samper, in exchange for the amnesty deal that Gilberto Rodriguez has been so dedicated to preserving. “The point, Agent Pena is that you’re right,” says Cullen somberly, “But in this case, it doesn’t matter.” In the end, Peña the lawman was playing one game inside another he was unaware of. “So that’s it. They bought… the president,” Peña says, hollowly. “And for now, they get to keep him,” says Cullen.

Pedro Pascal, Eric Lange (Screenshot: Netflix)

Visited in his deserted office by Bill Stechner, Peña, staring at his big board of meticulously arranged cartel targets, can’t raise himself to respond to his CIA nemesis’ gentle taunts or his sincere praise. (“Let me guess, it’s complicated,” is all Peña manages before Stechner can start explaining.) Holding out the big red marker with which Peña had satisfyingly used to cross off the picture of Gilberto Rodriguez upon his capture, Stechner urges Peña to cross off Miguel as well, saying, not unkindly, “There’s always new bad guys, Agent Pena. We make new ones every day. But any way you slice it you’re the agent who put cuffs on two Cali godfathers. No small feat.” Javier Peña walks away.


Stray observations

  • In welcoming his chastened brother to their now-shared cell block, Gilberto tells Miguel, “By catching you, my brother, they did us a favor.” He explains that Chepe and Pacho have agreed to turn themselves in so that their bought and paid-for negotiations of surrender can begin anew.
  • Miguel, who began the episode by revealing to Chepe and Pacho not only that he’d been tapping their calls with Gilberto, but that he’d also taken action to solve their most pressing problems (new NYC credentials for Chepe, the location of the men who shot his brother to Pacho), winds up, once again, under his older brother’s thumb.
  • Chepe, scarfing down some delicious-looking food at a restaurant, welcomes the two cops who’ve come to arrest him to sit at the bar and relax until he’s done. To their protests, he responds, “Who do you think called the police. When I’m done, when I’m fucking ready, then you can give me a ride to jail.”
  • Pacho sits sharing a bottle of tequila with his wheelchair-bound brother and assures him that he, too will turn himself over to the police—but not until he takes revenge against the men who attacked them.
  • Plotting the raid, Peña looks at the faux tourist surveillance picture Feistl and Van Ness took in front of Miguel’s apartment building. You can see the real Feistl and Van Ness in the same picture in the opening credits.
  • Jorge to Feistl before they part after planning the raid: “My older daughter, she has her first soccer practice tomorrow. She’s afraid they’re going to make her play goalie. I don’t know what to tell her.”
  • David, to Dario, on his dogged investigation of Jorge Salcedo: “There’s plenty of people I don’t like but still trust. Like you.”

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Dennis Perkins

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.