Narcos Review: “There Will Be a Future”/ “Explosivos"

(Episodes 1.05 and 1.06)

TV Reviews Narcos
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<i>Narcos</i> Review: &#8220;There Will Be a Future&#8221;/ &#8220;Explosivos"

After a convoluted fourth episode, Narcos thankfully gets back on track with a more tightly focused and grounded midway chapter. Its title, “There Will Be a Future,” reflects the dogged (and perhaps naive) optimism of Luis Carlos Galán, a presidential candidate who is rallying the masses in Columbia with his impassioned speeches about extraditing Escobar to the United States. Galán’s confidants fret about the risks that lie in opposing the drug lord so publicly, but the candidate remains undeterred. One of the most worried members of his inner circle is César Gaviria, the speechwriter who penned Galán’s galvanizing words, and when he voices those concerns while driving with the candidate in his motorcade, he bravely declares “there will be a future,” before stepping out of the car and into the crosshairs of a sniper, who kills him instantly.

Slaying Galán is enough of a power play for Escobar to convince his men that Colombia is safe enough to reside in, despite the threat of extradition looming over them. Before that, they had been sitting restlessly in Panama, a self-imposed exile to stave off arrest at the hands of the Americans, and a safe haven where they could wait until the dust had settled from the Siege on the Palace of Justice. Those lackeys grumble about Panama’s bad food, boredom and overall homesickness. One, named Fabio, even confronts the boss about tucking tail and running to Panama because the Columbian elite wouldn’t let him in their club. Escobar lets all of that slide, but when he and his wife, Tata, dine in a drab restaurant that’s been cleared for them, she forlornly asks, “What’s the point of having so much money if you can’t go home?” This moves Escobar enough to hatch the assassination on Galán and rally his men to head back, and while they still seem pensive on the flight home, at least their defiance and descent has been somewhat quelled. It’s funny that Tata’s wishes hold so much sway with Escobar, despite his ongoing affair with the Black Widow-ish reporter Valeria.

Speaking of Valeria, Escobar dispatches her and another lackey to proposition, and faintly threaten, Gaviria. But let’s backtrack a bit first: while at Galán’s funeral, the late candidate’s son delivers a eulogy that suddenly turns into an endorsement of Gaviria. The former speechwriter is terrified at the thought of stepping into his boss’ shoes, but feels obliged and does so. He has yet to follow in his mentor’s footsteps though, remaining unsure about whether to publicly back extradition for fear of being assassinated himself. But when Valeria delivers Escobar’s ominous message, Gaviria kicks her out, a moment that both fills him with dread and spurs him to take up Galán’s cause. It’s a tricky performance to pull off, one that would have prompted a lesser actor to succumb to clichés of pure nobility, but veteran Mexican actor Raúl Méndez gives Gaviria the duality he deserves, appearing (understandably) cowardly at the thought of partaking in such a dangerous election campaign, yet seeming even more terrified of what would happen to his country if he fails to stand up to the narcos.

It’s very refreshing to see Narcos spending more time with some of these supporting characters. The series has a tendency to introduce these fascinating historical figures—each of whom appears able to support a series or TV movie of their own—before promptly killing them off. Galán was possibly the most glaring example of this excruciatingly intriguing trend, leaving the audience wondering what might have been (which may be the desired effect, helping us viewers connect a bit to the carnage and broken potential of this volatile period in Columbia’s history). So it’s fantastic to see this tendency reverse in episode five, as we become better acquainted with Gaviria.

In fact, the only notable scene centering on our protagonists in “There Will Be a Future,” comes when Murphy voices his concerns about harboring Elisa, the M-19 communist radical, as an informant in his home, ergo putting his wife in harm’s way. He also confronts Peña about his relationship with her, which he suavely downplays.

Aside from those brief moments with our hero, much of “There Will Be a Future,” is devoted to Gaviria and another equally strong supporting player—Col. Horacio Carrillo, played by burgeoning Cuban-American character actor Maurice Compte (known best as Gaff from Breaking Bad, along with guest spots on 24, CSI, Criminal Minds, and bit parts in films like A Walk Among the Tombstones and End of Watch). Compte perfectly evokes the character’s military background with his rigid posture and clipped cadence, a strong showing as this episode calls on him to do more than sit on the sidelines for the first time. In fact, he shows more bravery and tenacity than our leads in “There Will Be a Future,” as he taps Escobar’s phone lines and begins gathering copious amounts of evidence. However, there’s not much he can do with those findings because he can’t trust his men to not be bought off by the kingpin. That frustration finally prompts him to call Escobar himself, threatening the cartel lord and his family. It’s a brazen move conveyed convincingly by Compte’s sturdy performance, which is outshined by the ever dominant Wagner Moura, who vows to kill Carrillo’s family in return, sneering about his new enemy’s “mama” with a deadly purr, like a cheshire cat from hell.

Still, there’s really no one on the series who can go toe to toe with Moura’s astounding performance, in the same way that Escobar dominated Columbia’s criminal and political landscape. The supporting players still shine in their given moments on this episode though. And there’s one more fantastic example of that in “There Will Be a Future’s,” final scenes, as the paunchy, feisty henchman José Rodríguez Gacha (Guzmán) buys a bazooka in preparation for the coming war with the Narcos.

And while that scene with Gacha toting heavy artillery was a departure from episode five’s otherwise subtle, character and dialogue-driven plot, the subsequent chapter ratchets up the action enough for at least a handful of episodes. Fittingly titled “Explosivos,” this segment climaxes with a war zone style, machine gun laden battle between Gacha and Carrillo. It’s a thrilling finale to a tension-rife episode that is one of the series’ very best so far.

Before Carrillo confronts Gacha, the episode opens with another grisly confrontation—a shot of roundabout street set against Columbia’s Jenga block-esque architecture. A car circles around that street and is stopped by police officers. The driver turns out to be Poison, Escobar’s most perfectly nicknamed henchman, who doesn’t show the officers his liscence, but instead his Uzi, mowing them down. Smoke trails from the weapon’s magazine, giving the scene a brutal realism. The officers are clearly dead, but Poison makes a point of getting out and casually pumping more lead into them, swaying his weapon as if it were a garden hose and he were watering a dry lawn. It’s positively chilling, thanks to the seamless teaming of perfect camerawork, props, and the actors’ un-showy performances.

From there, Escobar’s phone rings with a report about Poison’s itchy trigger finger. Before he get the call though, he gently scolds his son about kicking a soccer ball near where his little sister is sleeping. The jealous elder brother tells his Dad that he wants his sister to die, and Escobar firmly tells him to “Never say that.” But what’s truly shocking about this moment is Escobar’s lack of rage. Instead he shows his son concerned compassion, as if he recognizes the boy’s selfish, unbridled id as his own. It’s another example of the little, but highly unexpected twists this brilliant series can take. And that finely written moment is surprisingly usurped by a henchman’s call about Poison’s killing of the officers. Pablo asks about the rank of the victims, then marks it in his ledger as if it were an everyday item in an inventory. Escobar’s son is in earshot this whole time, and when he asks his father what he was talking about, the narco answers that “It’s just business.” When the boy professes his desire to be a businessman just like his dad, Escobar draws him near and holds him tightly, and his guilt, heartache and worry is etched deeply in his face. It’s difficult to express just how fantastic Moura is in this role, but anyone else who watches this scene will understand fully.

All of this transpires before episode six’s opening credits. It’s another densely plotted chapter, but unlike episode four, this chapter’s numerous details never grow abundant enough to bog down the plot. The next scene involves another deft use of archival footage, as we learn what Escobar was jotting in his ledger and why Poison killed those cops: the kingpin had set up a bounty system for slaying policemen. The vintage documentary clips incorporated into this scene show, without any reservation, those officers who were slain in real life, gaping head wounds and all. It’s jarring, and it escalates the suspense for what’s to come.

Murphy explains all this with his ever-improving voiceover, exclaiming quite effectively that the police “had to build a special morgue just to hold the bodies.” He also quite aptly refreshes our memories about some of the most complex elements of the previous episodes, mainly that he and his wife are housing Elisa so that she can be he and Peña’s informant. She’s valuable because she can tie Escobar to the Palace of Justices siege but, because she’s a communist, their protecting her relegates them to traitors in the eyes of those others fighting Reagan’s war. Murphy and his wife plan to move Elisa to a safer locale, but when he gets in his car he sees the sloppy signs of someone having planted a bug in the dashboard. This moment showcases the strength of Narcos’ score— as Murphy realizes that someone broke into his vehicle, a bit of faint ratting Latin persuasion begins to play just abruptly enough to startle the audience and raise the tension and suspense.

It turns out that the bug was planted by the CIA officers who are supposed to be working alongside Murphy. They’re on to him harboring a communist, but Murphy distracts them by pretending to talk to Elisa and his wife, while, in actuality, they successfully flee for safety. These moments are meant to be white-knuckle tense, but they actually begin to drag a bit—after Murphy discovers the bug, it’s obvious that he is only speaking to himself, while his wife and Elisa escape with only a momentary army roadstop.

The next scene is far more subtle, and far more electrifying. Gaviria is comforting his wife and children, who have begrudgingly agreed to travel to the U.S. for their own safety. As his wife confesses how worried she is about leaving him behind, he insists that she needn’t worry, and that he will be fine. As they step outside they are cast in a glowing light that makes them look heavenly, and the proceedings seem too eerily quiet. The audience is left to wonder if Gaviria will be shot in this moment, just like Galán was when he presumptuously insisted that there would “be a future.” Or, even more chillingly, we begin to worry that Gaviria’s family might die in a car bombing as they climb into the backseat. This slowly unfolding scene brims with tension, but the family drives off safely, Gaviria steps back inside, and together we all breathe a sigh of relief, and also hope that this poor, ill-equipped man will live to see his relatives again.

Meanwhile, Escobar is plotting how to bring about Gaviria’s demise. He enlists the assistance of a Spanish terrorist, who methodically fuses an explosive inside a tape recorder in a fascinatingly detailed sequence, juxtaposed with more aptly selected archival footage of how the bomber turned his Prime Minister’s motorcade into a crater. Once again, we’re quickly introduced to another mysterious, highly intriguing character on Narcos, who is then quickly ushered to the sidelines. At least this Spanish terrorist hasn’t been killed, yet, so hopefully he’ll make a return for another of Escobar’s evil plans.

Speaking of evil plans: now that the bomb is in the tape recorder, Escobar tricks a wholesome, unsuspecting young man into becoming a martyr. His deceit of the naive, eager to please man leaves even more wrinkles of guilt on the drug lord’s face, especially when he meets the poor rube’s wife and baby. The moments also have a paternal undercurrent to them, with a wide eyed youngster looking up to monstrous criminal who is certain to put them in harms way.

The proceedings then switch to Gacha’s abode, as Peña and Carrillo are about to close in. Gacha’s son turns out to be even sleazier than his old man, as he makes piggish advances on a married maid, then kills her when she refuses him. Gacha’s paranoia helps him escape before the DEA agents can catch him, but Peña and Carrillo track him down again (in a way that isn’t made clear in this normally exposition rife series) to an island retreat. This is another impressively shot scene and proof that long gone are the days when TV production standards paled in comparison to that of the silver screen.

As Carrillo and his men close in, the aesthetic shifts from a Michael Bay-style montage to far more realistic footage—the guns blaze, and the blood sprays. Gacha unleashes his bazooka, in a moment that’s once again hilarious and terrifying all at once. The resulting explosion misses Carrillo, but just barely and leaves him dazed. Then Gacha and his swine of a son hop into a pickup truck and speed off. Just when it looks like they’ll escape, Peña hovers over the in a helicopter in one of the most unabashedly, kick-ass, gung-ho moments you’ll see on TV all year.

In the end of this glorious scene, Gacha goes down in a hail of bullets, and soon the cops discover why he was so confrontational—his brute of a son had already been killed by some of the chopper’s ricocheting bullets, just moments after Gacha had comforted him in surprisingly tender moment. But Peña and Carrillo have no regrets, walking off with machine guns in hand, knowing they just rid Columbia of one of its most ruthless narcos.

That climatic moment is followed by a less interesting, but even more consequential, endeavor by Murphy. After the American DEA agent wrestles some information out of Peña’s biggest informant, he begins to catch on to Escobar’s airplane bomb scheme. But he doesn’t have the information to prove it. He catches Gaviria at the airport in the nick of time, and convinces—in an unconvincing exchange—that the candidate should not get on that plane, because he knows it in his “gut.” The writers certainly could have come up with something more compelling than that, but Gaviria concedes for some odd reason, despite the fact that he may risk missing a key campaign event by not boarding that flight. The decision of course proved correct, and the unfortunate young fellow pushes record on the plane, thinking he will capture a crucial conversation between the men in the next seat, instead being engulfed in a white flash as the episode fades to black.

Stray observations:

Narcos has Luis Carlos Galán, the Spanish bomber, and a number of other fascinating supporting characters who are barely utilized after being introduced. At this point, the series has enough such characters to make a number of compelling spinoffs that are sure to be more enthralling than Better Call Saul.

Murphy: “Are you fucking her (Elisa)?”
Peña: “Sleeping with a communist? That would be downright un-American.”

“At the time, the only thing that was more dangerous than being a Columbian cop was being a Columbian presidential candidate.”

Nothing is more badass than seeing squat little Luis Guzmán firing a gargantuan bazooka. Nothing.

Peña and Carrillo come in second place in terms of badass-edness, especially when they walk off from Gacha’s bullet-strewn body with their machine guns in hand. Now that they have such effective firepower, and have used it successfully, time will only tell how Escobar plans to retaliate with even greater force.