Saturday, September 2, 2017

REVIEW: 'Narcos' - Peña Leads an Elaborate Raid to Disrupt the Cali Cartel's Plans in 'Checkmate'

Netflix's Narcos - Episode 3.04 "Checkmate"

Peña hatches a plan to try to capture Cali leader Gilberto Rodriguez. Amado proposes a business idea to Pacho.

Narcos ended its previous episode on a huge bombshell. Agents Feistl and Van Ness stumbled upon the safe house where Gilberto Rodriguez was currently staying. It was a huge discovery. The Cali Cartel prides itself on its surveillance capabilities. It believes its leaders are untouchable because they have a network of individuals who would alert them if any threat is coming. And if an arrest should happen, they have the confidence that none of the charges would stick for very long. They have their freedom now without the fear of spending a lifetime in prison for their actions. Gilberto has trust in his six-month surrender plan because it will allow him to retire comfortably. That's the life he wants. He no longer wants to be the narco running the biggest cartel in the world. But there is still six months left for this deal to go wrong. He has the confidence that the two sides will come to an agreement. He was so certain about the surrender that he announced it to the entire organization. That has left everyone spiraling a little bit. And now, it turns out to be false confidence. Two DEA agents surprisingly discovered where he was. And Peña and Colonel Martinez are more than happy to take down another kingpin in the drug trade. They wish to do things differently. They don't want the same bloodbath as Pablo Escobar. "Checkmate" is all about the careful and precise details that come from trying to arrest Gilberto Rodriguez.

This is a type of story that Narcos has told before. The first two seasons were all about the hunt for the leader of the largest cartel in the world. With Pablo Escobar, there were so many close calls. Escobar was protected by a city that loved him and a police force he had bought off. His popularity was a key ally for him. It allowed him to stay on the run for as long as he had. There were so many times where the show dramatized Peña and Murphy getting so close to catching him only to come up short. They eventually succeeded but weren't able to take him alive. It was a bittersweet victory for them. They are seen as heroes to the world around them. But with Peña, it's a burden that he doesn't particularly like. And now, the show is seemingly doing it all over again. It's teasing the audience with the threat of the pending arrest of one of the leaders of the cartel. Gilberto has always been positioned as the man in charge of this operation. He's the one calling the shots. He's the one who needs to be protected at all times. He's the top target. Taking him out would do severe damage to the cartel. It wouldn't completely destroy the operation but it would be a significant blow. That's the appeal of carrying out this arrest now. There's the potential to arrest him without needing to worry about the surrender in the future. Right now, the police can make a difference in the war on drugs. To Peña and his officers, it's a risk worth taking.

It's easy to get swept up into the emotion and action of the main story as well. Of course, the show needs to outline what Gilberto is feeling in this moment and the life he is currently living. It would be strange to see him in this house with three women. But the show explains that he had three wives with a carefully scheduled life that caters to each of them equally. That's a colorful detail to have that helps paint the picture of who this man really was. But it's also an expositional detail thrown out there to help explain some of the circumstances of this arrest. The story is much more compelling when it's in the grittiness of this master plan. There's a fake out right away. The audience is led to believe that the DEA has come up empty once more. Gilberto was alerted to their pending arrival and was able to clear out of his home quickly. There is nothing left for the agents to find. And yet, the audience is also aware that there is something more going on as well. This mission led by Peña, Feistl and Van Ness doesn't include Colonel Martinez at all. In fact, the teaser at the start of the episode reveals him in a chicken truck. That's a peculiar detail. That truck is even seen going in the opposite direction as the rest of the mission. So, it's clear that some trickery is going on. It's not long until the show confirms that it's all a ruse in order to fool the police officers loyal to the cartel - especially the captain who Feistl and Van Ness have been working with.

So instead, Colonel Martinez is manning the mission to strike the real target. The National Police are loyal to him. He has the influence to get officers to remember their duty as police officers. It's an admirable quality. This is a series about police corruption and how it was allowed to fester in this environment. But now, Martinez is a man willing to take down the leader of the cartel. He's passionate about it. He executes the warrant immediately so that Gilberto doesn't have the opportunity to escape. The narration of this story again highlights how lucky all of this actually was. Luck turns out to be a huge contributor to the success of these agents. It's important for the show to mention that. It's luck that led to this arrest. The system broke down enough so that Gilberto was vulnerable without even realizing it. But then, the narrative is also a fictional story where it's only rewarding if it's Peña who ultimately discovers Gilberto in his secret hideout. He's hidden underneath the steps in the bathroom. He's armed with a gun. It's a tense sequence. It seems likely that he'll be captured. But the show has forced the audience to always expect the unexpected. It's surprising that this moment is happening in the fourth episode of the season. And yet, it already feels so rewarding as well. Peña discovers the hideout and Gilberto quickly surrenders. It's another huge victory for Peña and the DEA.

This arrest is a huge shakeup for the cartel and the Colombian government. All of the work establishing the surrender agreement has now gone away. Everyone is facing an uncertain future. The cartel feels the urgency to free Gilberto from captivity before he gets on a plane to Bogotá. It's a thrilling car chase that reveals the National Police had a second chicken truck to evade capture. That's a reveal that the audience had no preparation for. It seemed likely that the protagonists would get out of this situation with their man in custody. But it was uncertain for a long time regarding how they would actually achieve that. Seeing them with this second truck feels convenient for the sake of the plot because it comes out of nowhere. And yet, it's still a thrilling and surprising moment. It means that Gilberto really is in custody. He gets on the plane and his picture is distributed throughout the world. He is no longer the ghost running the largest cartel in the world. Now, he has a face. Now, everyone realizes just how vulnerable the cartel really is. No one wanted to repeat the mistakes of the Escobar operation. Everyone wanted to do things differently. This is a surprising and sudden action. One that no one in the government was prepared to handle. But it also shows just how quickly things change in this world.

And yet, it's still an extremely bittersweet moment for Peña. He sprung into action because he needed to do something to stop the cartel. He couldn't just sit idly by for the next six months. He needs to be putting in the work to actually make a difference in the world. He was thrilled to get this lead. He's excited to execute the warrant. He's thrilled that Gilberto is in custody and that he'll be staying there. He has completely destroyed everyone's hard work on the surrender. That has created new enemies for him. Stechner was all for that plan and will have to adjust accordingly. The cartel has lost one of its leaders but will do its best to maintain its operations exactly as they always have. Pacho is staying in Mexico while Chepe is staying in New York. Only Miguel is in Cali. He's staying in Maria's apartment. That relationship is getting even more intimate now. He's relying on the support of his men in order to keep him out of jail as well. But this arrest sends a key message. The deal to surrender no longer means the same thing it did at the start of the season. And yet, the DEA loses a key ally as well. Colonel Martinez has to turn in his badge and gun because his name happened to appear on some documents from the previous raid alluding to officers who took bribes from the cartel. That leaves Peña with no one he can truly trust in the Colombian government. So, that just made everything more difficult for the future arrests.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Checkmate" was written by Andy Black and directed by Gabriel Ripstein.
  • Of course, Peña isn't really taking the time to celebrate either. He can't because he's first pulled into a meeting with the Colombian government. Then, he gets the news about Colonel Martinez. But then, he gets the conviction to start listening to the wire tap he has going on Christina. He's hoping that will be a sufficient lead for him to follow.
  • Jorge is conveniently out of range when all of this is going on with Gilberto. His absence is why the security isn't as good as it typically is. He's on a mission for Miguel. He's picking up Maria's daughter from the grandmother who is angry about the death of her son. It's a standoff that escalates quickly. Jorge doesn't use weapons. He's smart and can talk his way out of any situation. But words don't ultimately lead to a success here.
  • It's fascinating to see just how intimate Miguel and Maria have gotten in not a whole lot of time. It's basically Maria going into survival mode. She's simply doing this in order to see her son again and continue to stay alive. It's not really romantic yet. But there is definitely the potential for more. Miguel didn't want this at first but now he's giving into the desires.
  • David is increasingly coming across as a hot head who is quick to blame others without knowing what fully happening. He's judgmental of Jorge. He doesn't believe Jorge is committed to this organization because he wasn't there to prevent this arrest. That's a conflict that continues to stir and will more than likely turn lethal sooner or later.
  • Gilberto's son, Nicolás, is a lawyer. It's the life that Gilberto was able to provide for him because of the way he ran the cartel. And yet, he has deliberately kept his son from the cartel. He didn't want him to get caught up in this mess as well. But now, Nicolás is the only person who can see him in person and make it clear that this arrest won't be going away anytime soon.

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.