Matias Varela, Taliana Vargas (Photo: Juan Pablo Gutierrez/Netflix)

“I guess catching guys like me makes it all worth it.”

Narcos is never not going to miss Wagner Moura’s Pablo Escobar. The actor was simply too good, and Escobar’s towering villainy too sure-fire entertaining. But season three has gradually proven that there is dramatic life after Pablo. Perhaps even richer dramatic life.

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While it’s true that none of the four Gentlemen of Cali have the same riveting charisma, the de-centralized villainy of the Cali Cartel has allowed Narcos to examine the disastrous societal effects of the Colombian drug business beyond the influence of one, admittedly fascinating man. The same can be said of the law and order side of the equation as well, as the pair of young, rule-breaking American agents on the trail of the cartels now finds itself under the more measured wisdom of one who has been there. Indeed, the fact that Michael Stahl-David’s Feistl and Matt Whelan’s Van Ness are given less of a role in the story than original hotshots Murphy and Peña might seem like the series is short-changing the characters, if Peña’s ascendance as series main protagonist weren’t clearly the point. As the corruption in Colombia has deepened, cowboy tactics aren’t as effective as they used to be.

Mauricio Cujar, Pedro Pascal, Mauricio Mejía (Photo: Juan Pablo Gutierrez/Netflix)

Not that Peña isn’t a cowboy at heart, if his incursion into the jungle in a private militia helicopter alongside former foe Don Berna (Mauricio Cujar) and rabid anti-Communist warlords the Castaño brothers (Gustavo Angarita Jr., Mauricio Mejía) is any indication. After holding Miguel Rodriguez’s coded ledger over furious Defense Minister Botero in order to keep the DEA on the case after the failed mission last episode, Peña contacts Berna in order to effect the rescue of Christina Jurado. Turned over to the FARC guerillas by Navegante in the pre-credits sequence, the terrified Christina is being held as leverage herself, with the Cali Cartel using her to keep imprisoned husband Franklin from talking. (Especially since only he or the in-hiding Guillermo Pallomari can decode the ledger.) Peña’s voiceover gives us one of its periodic exposition dumps, here about how the cartels utilize FARC’s practiced hostage-taking skills to hold people of interest (and the horrific death toll the endless civil war has taken on the Colombian people), setting up Peña’s sacrifice in teaming up again with Berna.

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Pedro Pascal (Screenshot: Netflix)

And it is a sacrifice. This season has seen Peña eschewing his fast-and-loose reckless ways in pursuit of the cartels for the most part, with Pedro Pascal operating always through a cloud of guilt and teeth-grinding shame whenever anyone brings up his employment of the murderous Los Pepes to help bring Escobar down. Now, as he sits across from the still-unashamedly gross Berna, Berna reminds Peña of their former alliance, both by his very presence and by thrusting the fact into Peña’s face as he extorts a “get out of jail free” card in exchange for setting Peña up with expert FARC-hunters the Castaños. Asking what Berna’s help is going to cost, Peña greets Berna’s answer with a furiously helpless resignation. “Cheap,” says Berna between swallows of food and beer, “You just have to promise.”

Pedro Pascal (screenshot: Netflix)

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The most compelling narrative layer of this season has been how Narcos has made the inextricably intertwined fates of everyone involved a central fact of life. Peña knows that doing something worthwhile means choosing which sacrifices you can live with. In “Convivir,” he’s willing to go back to the same dark well to pluck victory against Miguel from seeming barren hopes. And, in the end, it works—until another piece snaps into place somewhere else and it all falls apart. Franklin Jurado, his tailored clothes swapped for a beige prison jumpsuit, is murdered on Gilberto’s orders in a guard-assisted phone room assassination. Waiting at the airport for her husband to be released, the rescued, sweatsuit-clad Christina Jurado exhaustedly berates Peña’s apology for everything the Jurados are going through, snapping tiredly, “You think you’re a hero because you executed a bunch of farmers to get me out so my husband would testify for you?” Peña, knowing full well the even-greater compromises he’s made to get to this point, can only stare ahead silently, his heavy conscience only loaded down with the later shock of a phone call telling him about Franklin’s murder. Walking along beside Christina and the police, his gait falters, falling back while the rest proceed, his hollow “Let me call you back” landing on Kerry Bishés Christina like a blow to the face. Every sacrifice either has made to get to this point is rendered meaningless in an instant.

Kerry Bishé (screenshot: Netflix)

Not so for Jorge Salcedo—at least for now. Forced to improvise following yet another botched DEA operation against Miguel, the security chief finds himself making up new steps under gunpoint, as he must keep the paranoid Miguel and the resentful, suspicious David Rodriguez from—rightly—blaming all their recent misfortunes on there being a rat in their midst. Matias Varela’s performance continues to make Jorge this season’s de facto antihero, his willful compartmentalization in working for a murderous cocaine empire ever more futilely maintained in the face of the things he’s forced to do to keep his beloved family from a grisly end. Stone by stone, the wall between who he imagines himself to be and the criminality he serves has fallen, until here, faced with an unforgivable choice tonight, he choses. He gives up right-hand man Enrique (Carrell Lasso) in order to save himself, finally blaming the raid on Miguel’s safe house on Enrique once he sees that David and Miguel have tortured his trusted associate into giving up the fact that Jorge has known about the DEA’s presence in Cali.

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Matias Varela (Screenshot: Netflix)

Throughout this uniformly gripping episode, Jorge has zipped around the city, attempting to, if not save Enrique, then to forestall the inevitable. Stashing Enrique in a hotel with orders not to contact anyone, Jorge reassures the young man, “Nobody is going to die, you hear me? But right now lets just get you to tomorrow.” He doesn’t, eventually using his quick hands to plant the DEA beeper he’s been carrying in his car trunk in the bloody Enrique’s pocket. Enrique, frantically protesting his innocence right up until he’s killed with a plastic bag over his head, is, like Jorge, in the employ of a drug cartel, but Jorge makes the choice that Enrique’s life is worth less than his own, and those of his family. And Varela must sell Jorge’s betrayal—this is no wincing near-miss. It’s a choice, and, at the end of it, Enrique is dead and Jorge Salcedo is alive.

During the course of his day of desperate improvising, Jorge was willing to lead Navegante to Pallomari’s safe house, only ruefully asking the hulking henchman what will happen if they find the accountant’s family home when they get there. (“Hope that we don’t,” shrugs Navegante.) But, bursting into his in-laws house despite Paola’s warning to stay away, he can only stand stammering and wide-eyed in front of his furious wife after watching Enrique murdered in front of him, until she recognizes that her husband’s choices have shaken him to bits. Taliana Vargas hasn’t had much to do this season (an unfortunate trait shared by all the female characters), but she’s outstanding here, not so much softening in her justifiable anger, but gradually acknowledging that the man she loves has a need for her that, for the moment, supersedes their conflict.

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Matias Varela, Arturo Castro (Screenshot: Netflix)

Not so for Miguel, whose transformation into the undisputed boss of the Cali Cartel sees him spurning the concern of Maria (which he’d accepted in private after his ordeal last episode), even yelling at her and her young son after the boy points out the drill-wound on his arm. As he snaps at his imprisoned brother on the phone later, Miguel is through being treated with disrespect, a determination to prove his worthiness that has him swimming out of the darkness in poor Enrique’s torture chamber like a Bond villain. Thwarted in yet another attempt to rein in his brother in hopes of salvaging the surrender deal, Gilberto deliberately muses aloud to son Nicolás that someone needs to do something about the loose ends (Pallomari and Franklin Jurado) that have been exposed by Miguel’s loss of the ledger. Nicolás, now fully embracing the family business his father had tried to keep him out of, picks up Gilberto’s hint. Jurado is killed, and Pallomari—the only in-play figure who could possibly translate the cartel’s ledger—evades Navegante’s bullet because his own paranoia sees him flee the safe house along with his family.

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

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Peña’s stone-faced shock at the news of Franklin Jurado’s murder reads “game over,” but Pallomari’s escape means there’s another move left to play. The same goes for Jorge Salcedo, who, calling Van Ness and Feistl from the same untraceable bakery pay phone he’d last used while Enrique bought them fritters on their stakeout, tells them to take Miguel, now. “This needs to happen now, or I’m dead,” he exclaims, having come from a filthy basement where’s he’s just chosen to let an innocent man take his place.

Stray observations

  • The Castaños’ raid on the FARC encampment succeeds partly thanks to the shiny new Desert Shield-surplus night vision goggles they’ve received from their secret allies in the CIA. “God bless America,” says one brother, as they move into position.
  • The ever-impassive Navegante has a date! In the sense that, as he tells Jorge, a woman who cheated on him eight years ago is returning from Japan tonight. And that he knows this because he’s been staking out her parents’ house that whole time. “She’s the love of my life,” he says dreamily. Good luck, lady.
  • “Nice look,” Peña deadpans at the sight of the cockily corpulent Berna in his fatigues.
  • Underlying his later decision, Jorge left a tape recorder running in his car, capturing David’s laughing plans to murder his family.
  • David, also captured on Jorge’s tape: “I kind of love how much this motherfucker hates me.”
  • “Listen to me Peña. You want the girl, there’s going to be a body count.”

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