“Narcos” Explores the Post-Escobar Era in Season 3: A Review of Episodes 1 – 5

Created by: Carlo Bernard, Chris Brancato, Doug Miro
Cast: Pedro Pascal, Matias Varela, Damián Alcázar, Francisco Denis, Alberto Ammann, Pêpê Rapazote
Episodes: 1-5 (of 10)

Rating:
Pablo Escobar is dead at the start of the third season of Narcos, but the demand for cocaine is not. Stepping in to fill that demand is the Cali Cartel, composed of brothers Gilberto and Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela, Hélmer “Pacho” Herrera, their head of distribution, and José “Chepe” Santacruz-Londoño, who oversees the New York operation. They’ve negotiated a sweet deal for their surrender to the Colombian government and DEA agent Javier Peña (who was promoted for his role in taking down Escobar in season two), has been ordered to stay out of the negotiations—an order he, of course, eventually ignores.

Among the various subplots this season are those of Jorge Salcedo, a security coordinator for the cartel—who in the first episode is set to retire until he’s reminded that his bosses are the heads of a ruthless criminal empire who don’t accept attrition as a part of their business model; the cartel bosses’ sons, David and Nicolas Rodríguez; and Chris Feistl and Daniel Van Ness, DEA agents working under Peña.

There’s a distinct whiff of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather running through the season, as the Rodríguez brothers attempt to get out of the drug trade and go legitimate. Of course, their retirement is doomed, the drug trade is hardly impacted, and many people die before the players in this conflict are satisfied.

The closest we get to a protagonist in Narcos is Javier Peña, the one character whose perspective has been a central concern since season one. But, Javier is no hero, even if that’s how he is perceived by his peers.

The DEA, and by extension, the American government (and by even further extension, the American people) are complicit in the crimes committed by the cartel—the demand for cocaine coming primarily from the U.S. and the War on Drugs being a wholly American endeavor.

More to the point, Javier has done some awful things in his quest for justice, like teaming up with the Colombian paramilitary death squad known as Los Pepes, who ran roughshod through Colombia in their quest to take down Escobar. The weight of his decisions and their repercussions are evident in Javier (as portrayed by Game of Thrones’ Pedro Pascal) throughout the season.

The Cali Cartel, Escobar’s primary rivals from seasons one and two, take center stage in season three of Narcos. Los Caballeros de Cali, as they’re frequently known, hold an enormous gathering of Colombia’s drug bosses in the first episode of the season, during which they announce that they’ve negotiated a deal which will allow them to surrender themselves to the authorities in exchange for lenient prison sentences and the opportunity to keep their illicitly earned cash.

Delivering a speech on the merits of going legitimate, Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela, imagining himself an analogue to Joseph Kennedy Sr.—who is widely (although falsely) believed to have built his family’s fortune as a bootlegger during Prohibition—lays out the plan, following up with the gangsters in attendance by way of wiretaps.

We’re also introduced to Jorge Salcedo this season, second-in-command to the head of security for the Cali Cartel and the cartel’s master wiretapper. Jorge provides recordings detailing the extent to which the cartel’s associates are in support of the plan to surrender.

Pacho, meanwhile has a long-standing beef with a man named Claudío Salazar—one of those wiretapped associates—and when the man is caught speaking disrespectfully about the Cartel, Miguel seizes upon the opportunity to get rid of Pacho’s rival (with the added bonus of leaving Claudio’s wife, Maria—who caught Miguel’s eye at the party in episode one—a widow). Maria will become one of the most disappointing characters this season, her introduction promising a level of complexity that the series never seems to care to deliver for any of its female characters.

In episode two, we’re introduced to David (played by Arturo Castro, who some might recognize as the oddball Jaime from Broad City), the hot-headed gangster son of Miguel; and Nicolas, the clean-cut law school graduate son of Gilberto. We cut right to the point in this episode with the accidental killing of sleeping children before the opening credits roll.

As it turns out, the death of those sleeping children was a direct result of David’s botched attempt to smuggle cocaine in emptied canisters of chlorine gas. When news of the situation threatens to ruin the surrender negotiations, Jorge is dispatched to silence the inspector in charge of the case. We’re later introduced to David’s cousin, Nicolas (the young Michael Corleone of the Rodríguez family). Nicolas is a minor character this season, but the setup he’s given suggests he might factor in the plot of any potential future seasons.

Meanwhile, Chepe is in New York expanding the operation. When he discovers an upstart crew of Dominicans running an operation out of a beauty salon in Queens that threatens the cartel’s plans for expansion, he pays them a visit. Chepe kills the Dominicans and takes over their operation, all while sitting for a hair relaxer treatment.

Season three sees some personnel changes at the DEA, namely the deployment of agents Chris Feistl and Daniel Van Ness to Colombia. Introduced in the first episode as a set of inexperienced paper pushers making a big career move, they finally begin to make some headway in episode three when they find the cartel’s accountant’s office.

However, in the most unbelievable scene of the entire season, Feistl and Van Ness entirely miss a roomful of important documents and stacks of illicit cash hidden practically in plain sight. What they do collect is eventually proven useless as the police sergeant serving as their local guide is in the cartel’s pocket and keeps them from examining the documents more closely.

Later, Peña’s old CIA pal, Bill Stechner, takes a pair of U.S. Senators to visit the scene of an apparent guerilla massacre in the jungle. Peña notices the scene has been staged for the sake of securing funding for what Stechner calls “the next battle—the one that really counts.” By the end of the conversation, Peña appears to be experiencing a deepening sense of guilt over his involvement in the drug war.

The seams of the Cali Cartel surrender are starting to show at the start of episode four. Pacho expresses a glimmer of doubt about the plan while discussing with his Mexican smuggler colleague, Amado Carrillo Fuentes (another character given just enough screen time to make us believe he’ll factor into the plot of future seasons), the inextricable nature of their profession.

The DEA attempts to arrest Gilberto at one of his homes, but are foiled, yet again, by the dirty Sergeant Calderon. However, this won’t be their last attempt at apprehending Gilberto this episode. Midway through the episode, the DEA makes a successful second attempt, this time with the full knowledge that Calderon is on the take. Gilberto is finally delivered into the hands of the authorities after a tense standoff between the team who arrested him, including Peña and Colonel Martinez (who you might remember as the hardass who executed low-level dealers on the street back in season two), and a gang of crooked Cali cops.

Because Colombia is a nightmarish and deadly funhouse in which all the mirrors and traps are of American design, Gilberto’s arrest isn’t the obvious victory Peña believes it to be. While the arrest will mark the beginning of the end of the cartel’s surrender, it certainly doesn’t mean an end to the larger drug war. If there is a single overarching theme to Narcos, it is that the War on Drugs was never what it seemed to be.

Elsewhere, in Norte Valle—the location of a rival faction of the Cali Cartel—Jorge is sent on another errand, this time to collect Maria’s children from their shotgun-wielding grandmother, Gerda Salazar (the only woman in three seasons of Narcos to express anything more than helplessness or sex appeal).

We begin episode five with all the consequences of Gilberto’s arrest laid at the feet of Javier Peña. Colonel Martinez is forced to resign as a result of false evidence proving he’d accepted bribes from the cartel. A Colombian official later describes the situation succinctly as one that will be “very difficult and extremely dangerous,” now that the cartel, with their leader behind bars, will be “operating in a state of high alert.”

With the surrender they’d previously touted to their criminal associates as the way forward crumbling, the Cartel find themselves in a vulnerable position—specifically with the Norte Valle crew, who’ve been looking for a reason to settle their beef over the murder of Claudío Salazar. The arrest also leads agents Feistl and Van Ness to set up shop in Cali while Peña follows a lead with the wife of the cartel’s main money launderer, Franklin Jurado (played by Miguel Ángel Silvestre, AKA “Lito” from Netflix’s Sense8).

Meanwhile, Jorge Salcedo is finding it increasingly difficult to avoid the violent nature of his business. After walking through a Wu-Tang-soundtracked house of horrors—among which the sights include the murders of dirty Sergeant Calderon and cartel head of security Carlos Córdova and his wife—Jorge is offered a promotion as the new head of security.

With his father in prison and all of the cartel’s legitimate colleagues having distanced themselves, Nicolas Rodríguez steps up to represent Gilberto’s interests. At the end of episode five, the previously clean son is advised to have the cartel’s accountant, Guillermo Pallomari, “taken care of.”