“Cambalache” is bookended by a pair of horrifically violent scenes, set to the same deceptively upbeat song. Sung both times here in a famous version by Julio Sosa, “Cambalache” is a tango. Sosa’s boisterous rendition is just right as something Pablo Escobar would belt out in the shower, and would dance to with wife Tata, its cheery-sounding rhythm irresistible and playful. That both these sequences alternate innocuous domestic scenes with horrific violence away from the Escobar home makes sense once you look at the lyrics, however. Written as a protest against the rampant government corruption and violence in 1930s Argentina, the song (whose title translates to “Junk Shop”) is a fatalistic cry of disgust and moral relativism, its bouncy beat obscuring the sentiment that there is no good in the world, and, in order to survive, you must abandon the idea that there is.
In the opening scene, Pablo croons, confidently off-key, while Quica and his men (driven by a horrified Limon) brutally gun down the prostitutes they suspect gave up Quica’s location to the DEA. One desperate, doomed woman pleads for her life by telling Quica it must have been Limon’s innocent friend Maritza who snitched, before Quica shoots her in the head. (Diego Cataño continues to make Quica absolutely terrifying in his utter indifference to human life, although he does take a moment to psych himself up before killing this woman who, we saw last episode, he’s been sleeping with regularly.)
In the final scene, Pablo—having set out to avenge both President Gaviria’s unwillingness to negotiate Pablo’s return to La Catedral and the government’s recent raid on Pablo’s family—wakes Tata and beckons his wife to dance. They tango to “Cambalache” in their new home while his men carry out a defiantly bloody massacre of the police who’ve been scouring Medellín in order to capture him. In the first scene, there was a hint of conflict in Pablo’s demeanor—after exiting the shower and lighting up his first joint of the day, he glowers moodily while his murderous intentions are carried out. In this second scene, he is as loose and playfully sexy as we’ve ever seen him, pulling Tata in close and sharing a loving, seemingly carefree moment while the bodies pile up in the streets below.
Others have pointed out that there are echoes of the famous The Godfather baptism scene in these sequences, and they’re not wrong, the lovely music and Pablo’s domestic routine clashing with shots of his murderous will being enacted by his minions. But, as has been the case throughout Narcos, there’s less conflict in Pablo Escobar than in Michael Corleone. For Michael, the murder of his enemies—carried out during his nephew’s baptism, for maximum irony—was him irrevocably conceding his soul. For Narcos’ Pablo Escobar, these are just two more days in a life where that decision was made long ago. Or one where there was never a choice made at all.
“Cambalache” points up again how building a series around a monster has its limitations. Wagner Moura is rightly praised for his performance as Pablo Escobar. When the lists are drawn, he deserves a place alongside the likes of Tony Soprano, Walter White, and the rest of the most compelling TV antiheroes of all time. Perhaps hampered by the need to retain verisimilitude to the truly terrifying rap sheet of the real Escobar, there’s only so far Narcos can go to make its main character (apologies to Boyd Holbrook, whose Steve Murphy remains a wan and distant second place) into a relatable human being.
Perhaps the song that forms this episode’s title is the key. In Narcos’ Colombia, and in the world of “Cambalache”’s lyrics (in translation):
Yes, our age is like a junk shop,
Hectic, without any rules…
Those who don’t squeak get no grease and
Those who will not steal are fools.
Apart from his fierce love for his family and undeniable courage, the one thing that offers a glimpse at what makes Pablo Escobar tick is his towering rage at injustice, as he defines it. I think back to the scene in season one where Pablo, having just (crookedly) won election to Colombia’s congress, stands alone in a field. A gray sky sends rain spattering down as he smokes a joint and, unseen by all, laughs in something like undisguised joy. Pablo has built up his image as a man of the people for his own benefit, certainly, but Moura always lets slip hints of how much of Pablo’s endless need for power and respect stems from how little of it he—and the impoverished of Colombia—have ever been shown of either.
That being said, Moura’s Escobar is kept increasingly at a distance as his deeds, improbably, become more and more reprehensible. Tonight, apart from ordering the two massacres that begin and end the episode, he pulls the still-reluctant Limon aside and, putting his arm around his new sicario’s shoulder with avuncular kindness, gets the young man to agree, “There is nothing lower than a rat.” This, we discover once Quica and Limon arrive at their destination, is prelude to their mission to murder Limon’s lifelong friend Maritza for her supposed crime. That Limon can’t bring himself to betray her hiding place under her bed—freeing her to flee to the countryside and her infant child—is, one suspects, the last moment of decency poor Limon will be afforded. At the police massacre later, Quica finds that Limon has only pretended to shoot down his target, and forces his friend to blow a pleading policeman’s brains out.
On the other side of the law, “Cambalanche” sees the Americans—on orders from President Bush—bringing in new blood in the form of a new ambassador, CIA chief, and steely Florencia Lozano as Murphy and Peña’s DEA boss, Claudia Messina. Snapping into crisp action, this new group continues Narcos’ queasy approach to how the “good guys” employ questionable (often downright evil) methods, but the episode reveals again how Pablo’s stranglehold on the popular imagination hampers even their most brutal efforts.
Murphy’s narration is sparser this season, although still both oversimplified and sort of insulting to viewers’ intelligence. Saying that getting the people of Medellín to turn in Pablo is “like asking Chicago to rat out Michael Jordan” might be an apt comparison for the time period, but, in Holbrook’s ever-smug voiceover, Narcos continually dumbs itself down, presumably so no viewer is left behind. It’s another central weakness of the series. If the show were truly committed to the idea of making Murphy a blinkered, unreliable narrator, then that would be interesting. There’s some criticism of the Americans’ policies throughout, but Murphy as a character is simply too much of a drip to carry such resonances very far. (Forget his histrionic lashing out of late, the scene where he smirks and shrugs his way through an interview with the unimpressed Messina is Murphy at his most repellant.)
Still, the central cat-and-mouse game between Escobar and the police continues to provide some intense set pieces. The first raid here, with Peña and Murphy busting in the door of a supposed Escobar safehouse, ends in a deflating laugh. (Demoted to manning an Escobar tip line, they’re constantly being set up—although this time just for a creatively defaced effigy of the American leader.) The second, with Peña and Murphy’s nimble detective work (concerning the purchase of a luxury toilet, no less) sees Pablo and his family escaping their latest refuge by mere seconds, a capably staged indication of how, for all his legendary will, Pablo Escobar’s life is being walled in bit by bit. Here too, though, the show still has Murphy explain that Pablo’s made a career of staying ahead of the cops and that all of his hideouts come equipped with escape tunnels. This when the whole series has been about Pablo staying one step ahead of his enemies, and we’ve just seen Pablo use an escape tunnel. We get it.
For all its weaknesses, however, Narcos has Wagner Moura. The series may not be able to delve particularly deep into Pablo Escobar, but, as embodied by Moura, Pablo is never less than riveting. Inviting an intrepid journalist to interview him at his latest refuge as a PR move, Moura sees Pablo respond to the man’s direct question as to whether he’d ever ordered someone’s death with a look so menacingly opaque that it’s thrilling.
When he does answer the understandably edgy reporter, it’s with the measured and equally unreadable, “That answer, one could only give to a priest. In a confessional.” We may never know what makes Pablo Escobar tick. But in Wagner Moura’s performance, Narcos holds the key to keeping us willing to try to figure him out.
- One casualty of the show’s over-reliance on Murphy as viewers’ interpreter is the Colombian government storyline. Here, the introduction of the stubborn and autonomous Attorney General Gustavo de Greiff, who is willing to reopen negotiations with Escobar in defiance of President Gaviria, suggests a more complex examination of Narcos from the Colombian point of view than the show generally presents.
- In the tradition of cowboy cops everywhere, Peña warns his partner, “One more fuckup, Murphy…”
- While Tata’s complaints about being perpetually on the run smack of stereotypical wifely motivations, Paulina Gaitan continues to make Tata’s backbone formidably apparent. Here, she even silences Pablo’s mother, snapping “Was I talking to you? I was talking to my husband.”
- Asked by the reporter how he thinks his story will end, Pablo takes a moment before replying, “I would like to die on my own two feet. In the year 3047.”