In Narcos’ season finale, victory and defeat each include resignation

Pedro Pascal as Javier Peña (Screenshot: Netflix)
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“Dad, I’ve executed sufficient. I’m by way of.”

Narcos was all the time Javier Peña’s story, so it’s becoming that his retirement from the DEA, the drug warfare, and the entire insoluble mess that’s U.S. overseas coverage in Colombia sees the stalwart agent, serving to his taciturn father (Edward James Olmos) mend storm-battered fences again at his father’s ranch on the Texas-Mexico border. After one final collection of heroics alongside younger DEA brokers Feistl and Van Ness and Cali Cartel informant Jorge Salcedo that secured cartel accountant Guillermo Pallomari, Peña quits. However not earlier than buying and selling in his gun for reporter Carolina Alvarez’s tape recorder with a purpose to do what he discovers—with a lot much less shock this time—the American and Colombian authorities will not.

“The DOJ is not going to topple a government,” explains Brett Cullen’s Ambassador Crosby after Peña makes his report of his latest, semi-legal move in bringing in the one man who can tie the Cali Cartel to the election of Colombian President Ernesto Samper. Peña knows that, although, in his exhausted answer he states that “Some part of me was holding out hope, I guess.” Crosby, leaving the office with enough evidence to not only topple a government elected and sustained with drug cartels’ influence, but to show how that corruption is countenanced by the U.S. government for its own ends, sneers, “You should tell that part to grow the fuck up.” Javier Peña chooses not to do so.

Pedro Pascal (Screenshot: Netflix)

Peña’s war is Narcos’ war. A historical police procedural, the series always maintained a tension between the daily cop-show heroism of Peña and Steve Murphy (then Peña, Chris Feistl and Daniel Van Ness) and the wider portrait of a world where narcodollars and political expediency ultimately rendered that heroism (and anti-heroism in the case of people like Jorge Salcedo), if not irrelevant, then, as Peña discovers in the end, incompatible. After telling Alvarez everything he knows—and it’s a great deal—he’s called into a furious Crosby’s office once more. Telling the silent Peña, “Any aspirations you have for your career just got dragged behind the barn and shot,” the ambassador can only stare in disbelief when Peña tells him evenly, “I resigned from the DEA this morning.” When Javier Peña leaves the office, Pedro Pascal coveys in his looser gait that, for all the sacrifices he’s making, Peña has made the right decision for himself. For Javier Peña, the war is over. He truly has done enough.

As he pauses in his sweaty work on his father’s ranch at the end of the episode, he watches a boat loaded with drugs and young, gun-toting men cruise past on the nearby river, unmolested, carrying the promise of poisoned lives and bloody violence with them into a beautiful, sunny day. Peña looks after them with an impassive face, although the firm set of his jaw indicates the conflict that will always reside in his lawman’s heart. And then he gets back to work, helping his father mend his fence. Being debriefed at DEA headquarters, he’d paused in front of the wall of honor there, musing over the agents killed fighting the cartels. Another agent braces him over his decision, enthusiastic that the days of the “super-cartels” like Medellín and Cali are finished, thanks in part to Peña, and that the DEA’s mission is moving on to operations in Mexico, “the real enemy.” “The real enemy?,” repeats Peña, silently brushing off the gung-ho sloganeering with unconcealed contempt.

(Screenshot: Netflix)

Narcos has focused on the players in the drug war, almost to the exclusion of the reasons for the war entirely. Peña’s fatalism about ever stopping the trafficking of drugs, similarly, focused always on the men he was chasing and, as his understanding of their world deepened, the state apparatuses that enabled and even encouraged them. In the three season of Narcos thus far, have we seen a drug addict not directly involved in the drug war as anything but background? I honestly can’t recall, but I don’t think so. That’s not a criticism, but, with Peña’s two-fold resignation closing out this third season, the fact resonates. Moving forward, presumably without Peña, there’s going to be a vacuum as big or bigger than there was when Wagner Moura’s Pablo Escobar died on that rooftop. Van Ness and Feistl were both capable and low-key charismatic new DEA characters this season, but, after their mission to secure Pallomari here, they’re never seen or mentioned again in Peña’s rather rushed and ubiquitous voiceover wrap up of all the various characters’ fates. Going forward, what’s gone unspoken about the yawning, insatiable worldwide need for the things that power Narcos’ very existence is the one aspect of its world that the series must necessarily address.

Pedro Pascal (Screenshot: Netflix)

Mainly because, as Peña’s long journey shows, the fix is in. The narration on Narcos is the weakest aspect of the show, a carryover from the first-season jitters where show creators apparently thought Netflix audiences of a foreign-set, half-subtitled, history-heavy cop show needed Steve Murphy’s laconic, McConaughey-esque drawl as an entry point. This season, while the voiceover remains a narrative crutch that intermittently deadens the story by telling what could be more evocatively shown, it’s also rung with an appropriately film noir quality at times. As Peña discovers more and more how far the corruption in his world goes, it’s not difficult to catch echoes of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe in the deepening world-weariness of Peña’s sometimes perfunctory narration. Tonight, taking Jorge, Van Ness, and Feistl on an unauthorized mission to find Pallomari, Peña’s solemn, warning smacks of uncharacteristic, fatalistic poetry. “Once we step off this plane, everything that goes down is on me. We’re way off the well-lit path.” And, of his decision to spill two governments’ dirty secrets, he intones:

Another deal. A compromise. A charade. A way for governments that don’t give a shit about the war they’re fighting to pretend they’re winning it. But it can’t be won. It’ll never be won. Not until people see it for what it is. Not until they know the truth.

Once they are off both plane and path, the resulting raid plays out entertainingly enough, especially thanks to Javier Cámara’s performance as the self-regarding Pallomari. Balding, cuckolded, and in fear for his life, Pallomari yet seizes on the merest glimpse of leverage to start making demands of the agents (“My family requires a certain amount of square footage”), imagining, as ever, himself to be a bigger man than he is. Once he’s greedily accepted a new life in the States, we see him lording over the various trials at which he’s star witness, demanding the judge correct the pronunciation of his name in the record and stressing his lofty position as “chief accountant” to a murderous drug cartel. Also, Jorge—pulled back into the fray one last time to help Peña secure testimony that might actually keep the Gentlemen of Cali in prison—has a final confrontation with the cartel in the form of hulking oddball henchman Navegante. Juan Sebastián Calero’s performance fits right in with those supporting tough guys whose tics and eccentricities suggest an unfathomable inner life, here seemingly sincerely regretting the need to deliver Jorge to Miguel for execution and, again sincerely, grateful that he doesn’t have to kill the terrified Jorge himself so, “our friendship will remain intact.” One last shoot-out later, Navegante is dead thanks to Jorge finally using a hidden gun, the Pallomari’s are safe, and Peña’s chase of the Cali Cartel is finally over.

Arturo Castro (Screenshot: Netflix)

Real life is often not conducive to tight dramatic conclusions, and Peña—pressed into voiceover duty more than ever to fill in the gaps—has to rush to lay out the various fates of everyone involved. We do see Artur Castro’s memorably villainous David gunned down anticlimactically by his North Valley rivals on his way to intercept Peña and company at the airfield, but the Gentlemen of Cali themselves are reeled off in order via montage. Chepe engineers his release from prison and teams up with the Castaños brothers to form a new cartel, but is graphically murdered when his more mercenary ways clash with the rabid communist-hunters’ agenda. Pacho is shivved by old enemies in the prison yard. And Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez, thanks to Peña’s exposé blowing their deal with Samper out of the water, are extradited to the United States (extradition being the face-saving policy reinstated by both governments after the scandal), and are currently living out their lives in U.S. prisons. Jorge Salcedo, who, in Matias Varela’s nimbly affecting performance, became this season’s anti-heroic co-lead character alongside Peña, was perhaps most instrumental in bringing his employers’ world crashing down. He winds up under an assumed name in America, seen working in an auto garage and waiting for fast food. Jorge’s fate puts him in the sort of moral limbo his actions seem to have warranted, his last appeal to long-suffering wife Paola summing up his, and Narcos’, slippery morality. “I’m a good man!,” he protests, but, seeing Paola’s impassive reaction, he can only repeat, more softly, “I was a good man.”

Stray observations

  • Apart from a few glimpses of strength and agency from Taliana Vargas’ Paola, the women of Narcos, season 3 have been deeply disappointing characters. Kerry Bishé’s role largely wasted her formidable presence, and, while Andrea Londo’s Maria Salazar shows a survivor’s determination in giving herself to odious North Valley boss Henao as she did to Miguel, that’s a pretty one-note portrayal, too. Here, Pallomari’s wife Patricía (Line Castrillón) is just a disaster, her affair with a purple-shirted lothario dummy at her office causing her to delay her family’s life-saving escape with “womanly” dithering.
  • Narcos leaves us with one gratuitous strip club scene, as Van Ness gets the phone company boss out of the way while Jorge traces Pallomari’s location.
  • Pallomari, attempting to take charge of the negotiations with Peña: “Are we speaking English or Spanish? I don’t give a shit.”
  • Javier Cámara makes Pallomari’s Napoleon complex deeply funny all episode. Finding out that Peña’s tenuously legal operation means he has to pay a token fee for his own flight to Bogota, Pallomari muses, “Well, if it’s just a technicality,” before grabbing back all but one of the bills Peña had handed to the pilot.
  • As for purple-shirt (David Valencia), his smarmy, foolish attempt to blackmail David with Guillermo’s location recalls no one so much as Hart Bochner’s office sleazeball in Die Hard trying to charm Hans Gruber into letting him go. It goes about as well, if more protractedly, thanks to David’s use of a handy restaurant meat tenderizer.
  • With all the wrapping up necessary, Pacho’s revenge against the Salazars for his brother’s injury is dispatched in the drolly violent pre-credits sequence.
  • And that’s season three of Narcos, everyone. Considering the transition necessary after the loss of Wagner Moura and Pablo Escobar, I think this turned out to be a truly impressive season of television by creators Chris Brancato, Carlo Bernard, and Doug Miro. Thanks for reading.

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