Wagner Moura, Paulina Gaitán (Screenshot: Netflix)

Back in season one of Narcos, there’s a scene between Pablo Escobar and kidnapped journalist Diana Turbay. Turbay, strikingly portrayed by Gabriela de la Garza, sits across from her abductor, listens to Ecobar’s self-serving rationalization for his actions, and delivers a dissection of his words that cuts right to the heart of Narcos’ depiction of the larger-than-life Pablo Escobar. “You had respect when you built homes for the poor. But when you didn’t get that respect from a herd of egocentric bureaucrats, you threw a tantrum.”

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Wagner Moura (Screenshot: Netflix)

For all his bluster about being a champion of Colombia’s powerless, and all his rage at the government he holds responsible, Narcos’ Pablo Escobar is, at heart, turning his country into a graveyard in pursuit of what he feels it owes him. In Wagner Moura’s performance, there are shades to this pursuit that help fill out this portrait of the country boy who seized everything that was denied him. But, at heart, Narcos’ Pablo is in pursuit of one thing—that everything and everyone bend to his will. Unlike an analogous (if more purely fictional) TV antihero, this Pablo isn’t shown taking Tony Soprano-like joy in the fruits of his labors. For all his untold wealth, private zoos, dalliances with the likes of duplicitous reporter Valeria Vélez, and other luxuries, Moura crafts Pablo as a man constantly driven by the need for respect and recognition above all else. After shooting Judy Moncada’s brother earlier this season for betraying him, Pablo rages, “Pablo Escobar is to be respected, son of a bitch!,” lecturing the dead man, the man’s cowering employees, an his own sicarios with the one, immutable fact he cannot bear to be challenged.

That fact is challenged with increasing frequency this season, as Pablo—subjected to the indignity of being hunted—sees his will belittled and thwarted again and again. The Los Pepes of “Los Pepes” are the boldest and most humiliating opponents yet, as they (simply a populist PR rebranding by the right-wing Castaños forces) start leaving the bodies of Escobar’s closest sicarios all over Medellín, their mutilated, tortured corpses draped with insulting messages against Pablo himself. This season of Narcos has been leading up to the moment when Pablo Escobar is at his most trapped, his most desperate. What’s made the show’s Pablo so magnetic—along with Moura’s consistently riveting work—is his implacable will. Now, when that will is thwarted most publicly, he reverts again to the terrifying infant Diana Turbay accused him of being.

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If the key word in last episode’s narrative was “worried,” then, in “Los Pepes” it’s “stubborn.” Narcos isn’t the most subtle show, and the episode opens with a flashback to Pablo losing an auto race to Juan Pablo Raba’s Gustavo because, as Gustavo taunts his cousin, “You’re a smart guy, but you’re too stubborn.” The word pops up several times in the episode after that—Blackie admonishes his pregnant girlfriend for being too stubborn to accept his ill-gotten money—but the escalation of Pablo Escobar’s war against his enemies is marked overall by the horrific consequences of men who decide that public disrespect means all rational considerations become irrelevant.

Pablo, surveying the burnt-out garage where those race cars are stored, overrules Carlos’ call for caution, laying the blame on the Cali Cartel and spitting, “I will personally burn that fucking city to the ground.” Carlos tries again later, urging, “Now is not the time to take on more problems, brother,” but Pablo responds to the death of trusted sicario Jairo by ordering the bombing of the luxurious wedding of Cali head Gilberto Rodriguez’s daughter. In response, Rodriguez (Damian Alcazar), clothes still smoking from the blast, calls Pablo “a crazed animal,” but then launches into an uncompromising rant of his own.

Kill them all. I don’t want you to kill just his lawyers, accountants, and bankers. I want you to kill his secretaries. Anyone who lifted a finger to help that man. I want to see them dead. Anyone who has ever licked a postage stamp and put it on an envelope in his name, I want to see them dead! And then I want you to find anyone who ever shook his hand and kill them too!

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Later, after Gilberto makes good on his threats, forcing Pablo and his family to take refuge in a tiny, dingy safe house (possibly Pablo’s childhood home, from the way his mother seats herself at an ancient sewing machine) Pablo echoes Rodriguez’s rant, amplifying his enemies threats with a towering rage that seeks to make the whole world recognize his dominance.

Los Pepes, the Cali Cartel, Judy Moncada, the Castaños, the government, the gringos. Let the bastards come. We’ll be ready for a war, a fucking bloodbath. We will fight like we have never fought before in our lives.

Except that, in the aftermath of the commando assault he’s barely escaped from, he’s delivering his malediction to Quica, Limon, Tata, his mother, and his traumatized children. Pulling stacks of cash hidden behind a panel in the tiny living room, he orders Quica to go out and buy food and firewood, but, when his daughter complains about the cold, he grabs another armload of money—and burns it in the fireplace to keep her warm. It’s a potent image for the episode to conclude on, the rewards of all Pablo’s crimes good only for a few moment’s fleeting warmth. As his world shrinks, Pablo Escobar’s defiant, stubborn pride swells inside it, presaging the inevitable explosion.

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For the rest of the world held hostage by Pablo Escobar’s iron will, such uncompromising action isn’t possible. Peña seeks to keep playing both sides, supplying Pablo’s enemies with purloined police intelligence while rationalizing his actions to himself (and now Murphy) the best he can. Pedro Pascal makes Peña’s self-awareness subtly heartbreaking. When he tells the disapproving Murphy, “They’re gonna do what they’re gonna do with or without me, right?” he knows the lie he’s telling himself, even as his sneered, “Who are the good guys Steve? That’s us?” expresses just what an impossible position he’s in. Search Bloc leader Martinez still insists on going by the book, saying of Los Pepes’ vigilantism, “There must and will be a clear line between them and us.” But when Murphy later comes to him with DEA intel about Blackie’s whereabouts, he breaks his own rules to try to capture him. DEA boss Messina approaches smugly slimy CIA man Bill Stechner for information about CIA involvement with the Cali Cartel before storming off after the smiling Stechner refuses. Says the US ambassador to her about her frustration, “You’re not wrong, but you’re thinking about this too logically.” The ambassador and President Gaviria talk around the idea of allowing Los Pepes to continue their bloody campaign against Escobar while never acknowledging that that’s what they’re doing. The “good guys” are all compromised, certainly. But Narcos continues to suggest that, unlike Pablo, they at least still have the ability to recognize it.

While dialogue scenes have never been Narcos’ strongest suit—as ever, the episode choppily moves from scene to scene on the back of Murphy’s narration—a pair of action sequences tonight grippingly illustrate characters’ consequences. For Peña, that means a high-wire act, defusing an armed standoff between the Castaños and the Search Bloc cops (led by Colonel Martinez’s overmatched son). Peña feeds Los Pepes information about Blackie’s visit to his girlfriend, then sees Martinez take Murphy’s suggestion to set up a perimeter around the location. With Murphy relying on the three or so Spanish phrases he’s still only managed to master (“Traquilo! Disarma!”), it’s up to Peña to prevent a bloodbath by allowing the Castaños to escape. Pascal’s great here, Peña expertly judging the combatants’ temperatures and essentially smooth-talking fingers off triggers. (His mocking “Okay tough guys, bravo!” finds just the right cajoling tone.)

But the assault on Pablo’s house is the sequence everyone will remember, a four-minute tracking shot from director Josef Wladyka that’s a little masterpiece of visual storytelling and staging. Long tracking shots like this (think True Detective) get lots of attention for their audacity, but here at least, the stunt serves to underline the situation Pablo and his family are in. After Hermilda stubbornly (or with narrative clumsiness) ventures out to attend Christmas mass, the scene picks up with Pablo, Tata, and a handful of sicarios in the front room. A shot sounds in the distance and everyone freezes before a fusillade of automatic gunfire bursts through the window. In the unbroken shot that follows, Pablo first hands off the scene to Limon, telling him to keep his family safe. Limon leads them through the house to a waiting car, then passes the scene to Hermilda’s terrified driver who circles around the outside of the house to the front, where he’s summarily shot from offscreen. The masked shooter lurches into frame, taking the driver’s place, and carries the scene back inside the house and up the stairs to that front room, where Pablo shoots him. Pablo, Carlos, and his dwindling men follow Limon’s original path out to the car, where, after the scene finally cuts to the screaming Tata, Carlos is gunned down before Pablo piles into the car and they speed away.

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It’s as exciting a scene as Narcos has ever attempted, and Wladyka pulls it off with aplomb, especially since its frenzied circular course terrifyingly underscores how penned in Escobar and his family have become. Pablo once defied the idea that he’s being trapped in like a rat in a cage, but here that’s exactly what he is. And the maze he’s running is getting smaller all the time.

Stray observations

  • Tata, too, is stubbornly holding course. When Carlos, unsettled by Pablo’s unwillingness to consider fleeing Colombia, urges his sister to take the children and do just that, she responds, “I’ve had a good life. Did you ever imagine we’d have all this?”
  • Both the wedding reception and Hermilda’s church show that early-90s Colombia was heavily into neon.
  • Eric Lange continues to make the shaggy, amiable Stechner the creepy soul of US foreign policy pragmatism. When Messina asks about his past in Afghanistan, the spook smilingly trails off, “Well I could tell you that, but then I’d have to…”
  • When his little daughter asks how Santa will find her in their new hideout, Pablo’s tearful “Santa will always find your good and kind heart, wherever you are in the world” carries an ominous undertone.

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