Friday, September 1, 2017

REVIEW: 'Narcos' - Gilberto Makes an Announcement That Will Change Everything for the Cali Cartel in 'The Kingpin Strategy'

Netflix's Narcos - Episode 3.01 "The Kingpin Strategy"

The Gentlemen of Cali gather their associates together for a big surprise announcement about the future of their business.

There is a fair amount of compare and context to the opening episode of Narcos' third season. That's not completely surprising and is probably very necessary for the audience's understanding for the season to come. The show is pivoting from the story it told in its first two seasons to something completely different. It's not a hard reboot. The main protagonist is still Javier Peña. The new antagonists are the Cali Cartel who played a central role in the Season 2 story to take down Pablo Escobar. But now, Escobar is dead. The world at large knows the role that Peña played in it. But the cocaine industry hasn't stopped. In fact, it has only grown significantly largely. So, it's still a pandemic that needs immediate attention. "The Kingpin Strategy" introduces the audience to how the Cali Cartel did things differently than Pablo did. Pablo was all about fame and popularity. He wanted the community around him to love and praise him. But the leaders of Cali operate in secret. They run their operation as a business and enjoy the privacy they have. There's a certain amount of anonymity to the story. The audience for this show knew the name "Pablo Escobar." But the story of the Cali Cartel is less famous. As such, the show probably has more it will need to explain to the audience. It helps to already have some sense of the backstory to the proceedings from the first two seasons. But the world is changing. The characters and the audience need to adapt to it. It's an exciting time for the show. It just leads to a very necessarily expositional premiere.

The opening sequence is largely about Peña making the decision to go back to Colombia because the job isn't quite done yet. That's such a fascinating scene because it plays as a soldier returning home from war as a changed person who just wants to go back to the war zone. It introduces this whole life waiting for Peña back him in Texas. He could be the family man going to weddings and having fun with his friends. He succeeded at the job he went away to do. And now, everyone sees him as a hero. But he doesn't see himself that way. Yes, he helped take down the most infamous cartel leader in the world. But the actions he took to get to that rooftop were very morally compromising. He had to do things for the job that fundamentally changed him as a person. He was thrown into a world of death that got even more lethal before it was all over. And now, he's suppose to accept the moniker of "hero" and enjoy the praise from his community. His father understands that it's difficult for him. He knows that if he returns to Colombia to take on Cali he will change as a person even more. And yet, it's still something that Peña believes he needs to do because he understands that world of crime and government bureaucracy much better than the world back home. It's tragic but it's the situation he currently finds himself in.

However, the world of Colombia isn't exactly as he left it. Pablo's absence didn't create a huge void in the drug trafficking operations of the world. Cali has mostly stepped up and conquered all of his territories. But things are completely different at the DEA headquarters for Peña. He no longer has Murphy by his side. Peña is now the character narrating events to the audience. That's a creative decision that works because Peña is both interesting as a character and narrator while Murphy was always better as a narrator. He's also the older, more experienced agent whom the new recruits look up to. He was the jaded veteran in the very first episode of the series as well. He was the one showing Murphy around the town. But now, there's a tinge of sadness to his return. The procedures of this office have changed. He's used to doing things a certain way. And now, things are in transition. The ambassador is expecting things to be run more by-the-book because of the upcoming change in presidential administrations. The way Pablo was taken down is played as a huge victory. Peña is famous because of his involvement in it. But that can't be the same fate for the Cali Cartel. There needs to be a new strategy. Peña gets briefed on that which makes him realize that he may not be all that essential down here like he believed he would be.

This premiere does a strong job laying out why it may not be necessary to do a bunch of spycraft in order to expose and stop the Cali Cartel. Gilberto is one of the leaders of the cartel. He has assembled the entire organization for a massive party. It's a kind of meeting that he has never done before for the obvious reason of not wanting everyone to get caught and arrested at the same time. He's called this meeting to announce that in six months the cartel will surrender to the proper authorities. It's an arrangement that has already been settled and agreed upon. So everyone just has six more months to collect as much money as possible. At the end of that time, the organization will stop with only the bare minimum time being applied to their various jail sentences. It's a strategy that everyone agrees to because it will have the best possible outcome. The leaders of Cali won't be punished for long and will be able to celebrate their wealth while the United States will be able to rid the world of the largest supplier of cocaine without any more bloodshed. It seems like too simple a solution. It almost plays as irony though because the audience has the awareness that it won't ultimately go to plan. If things went that smoothly, then there would be no story to tell in a season of television. So, the show is simply setting up the characters currently caught up in this mess whose lives will be completely destroyed because of this decision.

Jorge is a surveillance expert for the Cali Cartel. He is planing on retiring from this business to start his own security firm in just a couple of days. He's only staying on because of the importance of this grand meeting. When the news comes out, he is pressured into staying. It's the familiar trope of a character believing he could get out of a morally compromising situation only to get pulled back in. That decision is bound to carry destructive consequences for him. His skill set is proven to be very necessary as well. This hour does a terrific job in revealing just how slick this operation was in terms of surveillance. The DEA thought they had a promising lead by getting a man on the inside during this operation. They blackmailed him into cooperation because they have his brother as a prisoner in the states. But the action reveals that the Cali Cartel knew about this arrangement the moment the phone called to deliver the initial threat. The surveillance began immediately. That makes this operation seem very well organized. It's going to have a huge impact on this story. Of course, it also sets up the expectation that none of the characters will be misinformed about a situation just in order for a convenient plot twist to occur. That establishes this season as a very smart and deliberate story. One that is already having lethal consequences as well.

The party isn't even over for long when the leaders of the cartel start getting the reports back about who is upset about this deal and who plans to do something about it. A network of surveillance operatives bring back the reports. The leaders systematically listen to each one and determine who will take out each new threat. The show only follows one of these actually being carried out - though it's clear more bodies accumulate during the night. But that's the most interesting scene of the premiere. Pacho has been a recurring character throughout the first two seasons. He's one of the leaders of the Cali Cartel. But now, his story is becoming much more personal and nuanced because he's at the forefront of the narrative. It makes him a human being with desires in this world while also having the cruelty to kill people very easily. The audience is able to see his big, romantic moment on the dance floor with another man for a long time and be moved by it. It's a grand display of emotion that is very intimate and passionate. In the time period though, it's a foreign concept that most everyone else in the room is deeply disturbed by. Yes, it could run into the problematic stereotype of LGBT characters also being evil. But Pacho's sexuality has little to do with why he kills the threat to the cartel. Both are simply characteristics of his personality. They combine to reveal a fully realized character. That's compelling. It makes the audience have conflicted feelings towards him. He's still the leader of this cartel who kills a man and dumps his body into the river. But he's also a man pursuing passion and love no matter the consequences which is very relatable.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Kingpin Strategy" was written by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro & Eric Newman and directed by Andi Baiz.
  • Peña and CIA station chief Bill Stechner didn't have a great relationship in the second season. In fact, Stechner often compromised the mission for Peña and Murphy. And yet, Stechner really isn't a character the audience knows all that well. He's still a thorn in Peña's side he has to deal with. But now, he's pitching a story about caring for American lives when Peña knows he doesn't actually believe it.
  • The younger agents are so desperate to suck up to Peña. They want to drive him around the city or buy him a beer. He doesn't need any of that though. He doesn't have time for them and their new procedures. But upon learning what Stechner has done, he once again falls into the pattern of sleeping with a stranger and smoking a cigarette. Peña is back to being the same guy - though that may not be a good thing.
  • It's so deeply unsettling and precarious to watch as the two DEA agents become aware that something is wrong with their agent but answer the door anyway. The audience knows that things haven't gone according to plan. And now, everyone realizes just how powerful and widespread this cartel is. These agents were being watched and didn't even know it.
  • Jorge's wife knows immediately that it won't be good for him to stay around this business for another six months. She's accusing him of not really wanting to get out of it either. She's believed they've worked hard to achieve their dream. And now that it's becoming a reality, he's willing to delay it once more for this criminal operation.
  • Sense8's Miguel Angel Silvestre and Halt and Catch Fire's Kerry Bishé are on the show this year. They have blink-and-you-miss-it cameos in this episode as two of the people being photographed at the party. Their importance will likely be revealed shortly. Those are two great actors who'll probably bring wonderful performances to this season.

As noted in previous reviews from this show, every episodic review was written without having seen any succeeding episodes. Similarly, it would be much appreciated if in the comments, the conversation would only revolve around the show up to this point in its run.