In the tensest scene in “Checkmate,” an episode bristling with tense scenes, Juan Pablo Shuk’s ramrod-straight Colonel Martinez stands on a runway in front of a phalanx of corrupt cops. There to prevent Martinez and Peña from putting captured Cali kingpin Gilberto Rodriguez on a plane bound for Bogotá, the young policemen, automatic weapons pointed at the legendarily incorruptible Martinez, are the last line of defense of the Cartel, and of Gilberto—the man who’s not only paying them, but whose reach all but guarantees they will be endangering themselves and their families should that plane leave the ground. Striding up to the terrified young cops, Martinez addresses them directly: “What you do today, what you do in this moment, defines you. For the rest of your lives. Are you police or not?” The young officers hesitate, then lower their weapons. The plane, carrying the central figure in the world’s largest drug cartel takes off, carrying Gilberto Rodriguez to prison.
It’s the culmination of a deeply satisfying, 35-minute game of cat-and-mouse, as Peña and Martinez play out an elaborate scheme to arrest Gilberto, all the while keeping one step ahead of the Cartel’s own corrupt police commander, Calderon. Andy Black’s script plays us almost as deftly as Peña and Martinez play Calderon, piling nifty fake-outs and misdirections, one after another. Peña knows that Calderon is untrustworthy, thanks to him taking control of the Cali documents seized by Feistl and Van Ness last episode. So when the episode starts with Calderon being taken aback by Peña’s request that he and his men give up their beepers and cell phones prior to the mission, it leads him (and us) to suspect that’s the extent of Peña’s surprise preparations. It’s not, as we get misled into thinking that Gilberto has simply fled the empty mansion they end up raiding—until we realize that Martinez and his men (hidden in the back of a bloody poultry truck), are on their way to the actual refuge. “We need to stop by a friend’s house,” says Peña on the way to rendezvous with Martinez, leaving the formerly relieved Calderon suddenly speechless. Calderon makes a break for it after Martinez pulls Gilberto out in cuffs, allowing him to call in a warning—and the order to surround the speeding chicken truck with Gilberto inside. A furious chase sees the truck stopped, but Feistl’s driving a decoy. It’s contingencies, backups, and improvisation, all presented as the chess game of the episode’s title. And when all seems lost, it’s up to Martinez to play the king, appealing to some frightened, weak-willed police to find their pride and act sanely in the midst of insanity. It’s a convincingly human, last-ditch gambit when all seems lost, and it works. Checkmate, indeed.
Only, in Narcos’ Colombia, the malignant corruption bred by the drug trade means that the honorable are playing at a disadvantage. The real checkmate comes when, sharing a drink in Peña’s office as Gilberto sits in a dirty jail cell, Martinez reveals that the Cartel has used those seized documents to add his name to the mammoth list of those officials on the take. Martinez is out, the case against Gilberto is endangered, and even this momentary triumph shatters in Peña’s hand. “Lo siento,” says the shocked Peña to his newly-reclaimed ally, Pedro Pascal’s heavy but sensitive visage expressing much more. “Men like me would give our lives to arrest a man like him. You did the right thing Peña,” says Martinez as he takes his ever-dignified leave, “but now you’re all alone.”
The first three episodes of this season have seen Peña, still wincing at every mention of his complicity with the bloodshed surrounding Pablo Escobar’s downfall, trying to reassert his contention that doing the right thing is still worth it, even in a place where narco dollars and utilitarian American meddling make it nearly impossible. Coming back to applause and tequila from his embassy staff, Peña is immediately dressed down by Brett Cullen’s Ambassador Crosby, who cuts off Peña’s explanation for his unauthorized raid with a curt order to change clothes for the coming bureaucratic shitstorm. Sitting in on the meeting between government ministers and Colombian President Ernesto Samper, Peña spots furious CIA chief Stechner glowering at him from across the room, as the politicians debate whether it’s better for the country to let Gilberto go and pursue the proposed amnesty deal or to back Martinez and Peñas play. “The trust of the people will be lost forever,” pronounces Samper at the recommendation release Gilberto, adding, “Colombia is a nation of laws, not concessions... let’s see where due process gets him.” “Fuckin’ A,” is Peña’s relieved aside, although he’s then confronted with Stechner’s scribbled “You broke it, you bought it, asshole” tucked into his briefing notes.
Stechner’s not wrong, at least about the chaos Peña’s actions have likely unleashed on Colombia. From top to bottom, we see the shattered faces of Cartel men blinking in disbelief that Gilberto Rodriguez could be arrested. Miguel (now accepting and accepted into Maria’s bed after she pronounces him a man of his word in sending Jorge and Navegante to retrieve her son), sees himself now in the unaccustomed position of giving marching orders to an army. Jorge, driving back to Cali after a narrow escape with Maria’s boy, calls in, only to hear his colleague, Cordova explain hollowly, “We got beat.” Pacho, already mulling defection with Fuentes in Mexico, is told by Miguel that “right now, we look out for ourselves,” to which he adds a prayerful, “Pacho, be smart.” Jorge returns to wife Paola, and the show is smart enough to let their mutual knowledge of just how much trouble they’re in express itself in a wordless embrace.
The one weakest link, dramatically, remains Gilberto himself. Peña’s narration told us early on that Gilberto was known as a master chess player when it comes to running his mammoth criminal empire, but we’ve never seen that side of him, and we don’t see it tonight. For all voiceover-Peña’s breathless admiration of Gilberto’s organizational and manipulative skills in both business and personal life (He has three wives! And they all come to his house to watch fútbol on Sundays!), Gilberto’s always come off as more of a blinkered CEO. Insulated by his unimaginable wealth and layers of protection, we see Gilberto greasing innumerable palms and laying out his grand retirement plan, but, when the shit comes down here, he is completely lost. Cornered in his sub-stairs hiding place with a pistol by Peña, he surrenders with a wheedling, “Don’t shoot. I am a man of peace.” Packed into a careening, filthy chicken truck or walked past other prisoners in a dingy jail, Damián Alcázar’s Gilberto is not so much affronted as uncomprehending. When lawyer son Nicolas visits him in custody, Gilberto rages, “I don’t get it! This is a mistake, a blunder. A gross overstep by a rogue American agent.” When Nicolas gently tries to tell his father, “This is real,” Gilberto snaps, “No, money is real!” That there’s a disconnect between Gilberto’s cultivated entitlement and his abruptly lowly circumstance makes sense. That Narcos suffers a similar disconnect between its presentation and the reality of one of its main antagonists remains a weakness.
Still, he’s off the board, at least for now, and Peña, alone at the end of the episode, ruefully takes out a marker and defaces Gilberto’s picture on his big board with a red ‘x.’ If Narcos is more than a police procedural or a historical drama, it’s a fable about those who take small but meaningful victories where they can in a world seemingly destined to undermine them. Landing to a crowd of press back in Bogota, Gilberto sneers to Peña, “You’re fucking with things much bigger than you are.” Peña, knowing full well the difficult path ahead, yet relishes in responding, “Smile, Gilberto. You’re about to be on TV.” At episode’s end, ordering his assistant to hand over the wiretapped recordings of Cali money launderer Franklin Jurado and wife Christina, Peña gets ready for the next move.
- Juan Sebastián Calero’s hulking Cali henchman Navegante continues to steal scenes. First questioning Jorge’s attempts to distance himself from the dirty work of the Cartel (like the child-abduction they’re on their way to perform), he teases his companion, winding up his needling with a series of little clicking sounds. And, once they’ve secured Maria’s son (after a little hostage-taking and then tossing the boy’s fearsome grandmother out of a moving car), he playfully pops the clip out of his pistol before handing it to the delighted boy to play with.
- An evocative moment during Gilberto’s ride in the chicken truck: He points out something (a spot, a rip?) on Van Ness’ shirt.
- Watching Peña’s press conference on TV, Van Ness gripes about not getting any credit—and about Feistl greedily eating some chicken.
- Miguel and Maria’s relationship might be born of complicated negotiations and compromise, but they, too, end the episode on a silent, knowing gesture, her gently laying a hand on his shoulder.
- Also, when Miguel, informed that the cartel’s homes are most likely under surveillance, announces he and his men will stay in the swanky apartment he’s given to Maria, he pauses momentarily for Maria to nod in assent.
- Fesitl carries a picture his kid drew as a good luck totem, which, in dramatic terms, is not a good luck token for the character.
- “The Jurado tapes.” “Well, we probably shouldn’t call them that. Because they’re not legal, per se.”