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Tensions build as no one on Narcos likes where things are going

Pedro Pascal (Screenshot: Netflix)
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“Who’s running things here, man?” “They are.”

Narcos’ third season picks up the hunt for the Cali Cartel right when the cartel is on its way out. At least that’s Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela’s plan, a tentatively brokered deal with the Colombian government to pack up their multi-billion-dollar cocaine enterprise and retire from the life—while keeping everything that life brought them. (Gilberto, breaking the news to his seriously underwhelmed men last episode, smilingly assures them that any jail sentences will be minimal, impressing no one.) Dramatically, it’s a muddled point at which to re-enter the DEA-vs.-cartel procedural that is the heart of Narcos. There’s an inherent inevitability of failure to Gilberto’s plan that both undermines him as a worthy adversary and sets up some all-too-predictable conflicts for the season to come.


When Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela meets with the cartel’s accountant Guillermo to go over the astonishingly elaborate series of bribes being paid to keep things running smoothly, he asks, “What happens in six months when these people stop receiving money?” “No more friends,” responds the accountant, to which Miguel orders a copy of the record for insurance. After the two share a knowing look, Miguel states, “If you’re a pussy, they fuck you.” A crude summation of the situation, but, as anyone who’s read King Lear knows, giving away responsibility while expecting to retain your power is a fool’s action. (So to speak.)

Damian Alcazar (Screenshot: Netflix)

Along those lines, we see Gilberto reassuring a rival kingpin that the handover of power will run as smoothly as he has promised, boasting, “My organization has four partners, but only one leader.” His rival, nodding in recognition to the returning Pacho, smiles, again, knowingly. Knowing, too, is Pacho, who rebuffs Gilberto’s request that he check in with one of the cartel’s Mexican partners, revealing that they both know that Pacho’s very public murder of one of their employees last episode has made things more complicated.

Gilberto, with his carefully rehearsed speeches and his grand plans for a luxurious retirement, can’t control the ambition bred in men whose whole lives have witnessed the unthinkable rewards of power. Even with his sure-handed extermination of those cartel underlings who dared question his scheme, dissention brews everywhere, even in his own family. Nephew David (Broad City’s Arturo Castro, his wide-open face and guilty eyes screaming “Fredo” in every scene) botches a simple task (dumping canisters of chlorine set to be repurposed as cocaine-carriers), his careless sewer-disposal causing a deadly gas leak. “We’ll be seen as no different from Escobar,” he rages to Miguel, Arturo’s father, “killing women and children!” As Peña laid out in the first episode of the season, a post-Escobar Colombia has been willing to believe that the Gentlemen of Cali aren’t so bad in comparison. Gilberto’s actions opening this season seem to suggest that he’s operating under the same willful delusion.

Pêpê Rapazote (Photo: Nicole Rivelli/Netflix)

Nowhere is the weakness of Gilberto’s plan more evident than in the actions of Chepe in New York. On an outwardly placid phone call to his fellow “Gentleman of Cali,” Gilberto, while still expecting Chepe to up production, urges his friend to “Keep a low profile.” As we see, that’s not Chepe’s style. He might brush off Gilberto’s reassurance that, soon, he can “leave behind the hustle and shit of that city” with an appreciation for the fall leaves in Central Park, but Chepe is as addicted to being the man in NYC as any of his customers might be to his cocaine. Pressuring his ether supplier for the address of the new Dominican gang using the ingredient he needs to make his product, Chepe clearly enjoys toying with the young punks working out of the back room of a beauty parlor. (Chepe amusingly plays the scene with the hair relaxer cooking away at his scalp.) With a couple of Colombians in tow (and with all three foolishly allowed to keep their machine guns safely concealed under their barber ponchos), Chepe calmly attempts to talk the fronting, frightened young men out of the coke business (and his territory), telling them, “Part of being an adult is accepting things that you wish weren’t true.” That Chepe himself is not prepared to do that is evident in how ruthlessly he guns down the gang once they’ve unwisely rejected his advice, the resulting shootout the first of the season’s action set-pieces.

Pêpê Rapazote (Screenshot: Netflix)

That tension, between accepting compromise and yearning for satisfaction sums up Javier Peña’s life at the Embassy as well. Nominally in charge of the DEA unit chasing down the Cali Cartel, Javier is stymied in every direction. His own complicity in the horrific violence of Escobar’s end haunts him, especially since those around him in the know won’t stop throwing his guilt in his face. After being dressed down by the Colombian national police for the unauthorized (and blown) undercover operation seen last episode, the visas of the two DEA agents involved are pulled, leaving Javier to stew in his own impotence, and the agents’ contempt. He pulls aside former ally Colonel Martinez (Juan Pablo Shuk), only for the ever-upright Martinez to scorn him, too. “What did you expect when you sell your soul to the devil,” Martinez says, referring to Peña’s alliance with Cali and the vicious Los Pepes, “You’re not allowed to ask for it back.” The same goes for Carolina Alvarez (new addition Margarita Rosa de Francisco), a journalist investigating the chlorine poisoning, and convinced that the cartel will pressure the straightlaced government inspector (Alberto Cardeño) to proclaim it an accidental gas leak. Bumming a smoke from the frustrated Peña (her signature move, as it seems), she reveals that she knows every detail of Javier’s involvement with the Los Pepe death squads and leaves him smarting from her accusation that he won’t do anything about Cali.

Juan Pablo Shuk (Screenshot: Netflix)

And when gung-ho new agent, Chris Feistl (Michael Stahl-David) presents him with new intel on the cartel’s money-laundering operation, Peña can only tell him that the DEA no longer has any active operations in that area. “Nice office,” snarks Feistl contemptuously on his way out, and Peña can only glower. Having started out alongside Murphy as the rule-breaking hotshot cop, he’s now the one laying down the rules, his hands tied by the bureaucracy he’d skirted for so long. That Stahl-David recalls Murphy (right down to his mustache and “hockey-hair,” as Feistl’s uptight partner terms it) can only sting that much more.

Matias Varela (Screenshot: Netflix)

Caught, too, is Jorge, the cartel’s hyper-competent security chief. Pressured by Miguel to remain with the cartel until the six months are up, he’s left attempting to placate his angry wife, Paola (Taliana Vargas), and further pressured into service as the one to blackmail the inspector with the embarrassing proof of his wife’s ongoing affair. “The truth is, I’m a man of few words,” Jorge demurs, but, at David’s spiteful urging, he accepts Gilberto’s order to come out from behind his recording equipment and get his hands dirty. Sweating and stammering in the inspector’s office (“You bought-off monkey,” sneers the inspector, revealing that he already has an arrangement concerning his wife’s infidelity), Jorge indeed seems unequal to the task, until he steels himself to threaten the deeply religious man’s social standing with ruthless efficiency. As this season of Narcos begins, everyone is desperately attempting to hold onto an uneasy peace. But, as the actions of Jorge, Chepe, and Peña (who peremptorily orders Feistl and partner Van Ness to Cali at episode’s end) show, peace built on self-delusion and untenable compromise can’t stand for long.


Stray observations

Andrea Londo, Francisco Denis (Screenshot: Netflix)
  • Miguel summons the newly-widowed Maria Salazar to an empty restaurant (the stalwart and imposing thug Navegante ordering her into his car with an implacable nod), where he tells her to stop her investigation into her missing husband’s death. We still don’t know much about either character, but Andrea Londo and Francisco Denis make their confrontation here evenly matched enough to suggest some promise going forward.
  • We get another token of Gilberto’s all-USA management style, as he touts GE head Jack Welch’s management manual.
  • Unlike brother Miguel’s perpetual fuck-up son, David, Gilberto’s son is a successful lawyer, kept out of the family business. We’ll see how long that lasts.
  • Jorge has a hard-assed military father who doesn’t know Jorge works for criminals. We’ll see how long that lasts.
  • That David’s chlorine canisters are all helpfully and clearly stamped “CHLORINE” is a bit on the nose, especially when the police find an abandoned one and helpfully hold it up for Carolina (and us) to read.
  • Before her meeting with Miguel, Maria calls her husband’s mother for information, only for the old woman to scold her, “You’re the reason he seeks pleasure elsewhere.” Thanks, lady.
  • The inspector tells Jorge, regarding his arrangement with his wife, “Sometimes we make compromises to make a happy home.” But, to save his happy home, the inspector compromises his integrity. Parallels, anyone?
  • Denis’ Miguel offers just the merest, perplexed head-tilt at Maria’s tears when she finds out her husband’s fate, a move usually reserved in fiction for psychopaths and androids. No word on which way the wind’s blowing on that one.
  • The beauty shop shootout might devolve into some self-consciously cool action beats (rolling chair plus machine gun!), but Pêpê Rapazote’s twinkly menace as Chepe is undeniably cool, especially when he continues the Dominicans’ unwise “count backward from ten” counting ultimatum by barking out the next number.
  • “You’ve got a partner, right?” “Yeah, kinda.”

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About the author

Dennis Perkins

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