Synopsis – The rise of the Guadalajara Cartel as an American DEA agent learns the danger of targeting narcos in Mexico.
Episodes – S01E01 to S01e10
My Take – Back in 2015 when Netflix introduced us to Narcos, a show documenting the rise and fall of Colombian drug lord and narco-terrorist, Pablo Escobar in dramatic form, there was nothing like it, hereby taking the world by storm. While it contained quite a few familiar tropes of well-known gangster films, the production team and the writers pulled enough strings to ensure that this was a 10 hour binge worthy dramatization that was both thrilling and carefully plotted. Adding to the fact that all of its craziness was based on real historical events, it turned the show into as addictive as the products sold in it.
Anchored by exceptional performances from Wagner Moura, Boyd Holbrook and Pedro Pascal, the story of Escobar‘s rise and fall stretched over the first two seasons, but anyone who knew a bit of history knew his story had one inevitable conclusion. With season 2 culminating in Escobar’s rooftop execution, the third season turned to explore the men who rose to fill the vacuum created by his absence, a different type of drug cartel, the Cali, who operated more like a corporate and less culty personality, but nevertheless also ended up facing an abhorrent end.
With that story coming to a natural end, here, show runner Eric Newman has decided to take the show in a (slightly) new direction: by moving the action to Mexico, and by billing this one as reset, with a new cast of characters, a new story, and a new cartel. Or at least, the beginnings of one. Honestly I feared that the success of the ‘rise and fall’ structure of the series would unravel this time, showing its loyal fans that such storytelling traits have run their course. If you look closely all three previous seasons have had the same mechanics explored and with the Sicario films already out in theaters and being very good mainstream stories about Mexico’s war on drugs, this new installment felt quite unnecessary. Thankfully I was wrong.
While also taking a page out of history, we are very well versed to the fact that this new collision course is also heading towards a tragic end, yet there is plenty of action, intensity, and drama to be found along that path, buoyed by solid performances from the two leads and its excellent supporting cast members. Hereby reinstating the fact that Narcos continues to evolve to explore similar subject matter in new ways.
Set in Mexico, during the late 70s and early 80s, the story follows Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo (Diego Luna), a young cop and an ambitious marijuana entrepreneur based in Sinaloa, who convinces the local drug lords that it is time to make a move to the city of Guadalajara. As Sinaloa is a mostly rural, impoverished region, the military has been cracking down one too many times on the weed farmers, destroying their crop, hereby causing huge losses. However in a power center like Guadalajara, with the help of influence they could be untouchable. Fueling his idea of impending success is that his younger brother, Rafael Caro Quintero (Tenoch Huerta), a marijuana farmer, has a solution batches of the product that is far superior to anything in the market.
With the support of the initially cynical senior associate, Ernesto “Don Neto” Fonseca Carrillo (Joaquín Cosío), Félix uses his shrewd intelligence and willingness to take huge risks to form an alliance between a circus of violent, competing criminal fiefdoms into one one unified consortium, with himself as the boss, and Mexico’s intelligence agency DFS as his partners. Business booms, the money pours in big numbers.
However unknown to him, Kiki Camarena (Michael Peña), an ambitious agent in the newly formed DEA is on to him. Fed up of his low-level undercover work, not to mention his colleagues’ casual racism, with the final straw being his transfer rejection to Miami, Kiki just wants to build a name for himself in his department. But when his boss Joaquín Cosio (Matt Letscher) agrees to support him in everything within his reach, Kiki deliberately begins to makes moves on the cartel. As both men will stop at nothing to achieve their goals, it leads to sparks when the two collide as the wars both for and against drugs heat up.
The series’ mysterious new narrator (Scoot McNairy) begins by telling the viewer that this story doesn’t have a happy ending, as we see Camarena being kidnapped in Guadalajara. The plot is also guided by a narrator, who surprisingly adds a lot to the story with a mixture of sarcasm and information delivery that adds to the show rather than detracts. The narration fits tonally with the world of the show and adds to the viewer experience without being used too heavily. Historical spoiler alert: Camarena did meet a gruesome end, one that perceptive Narcos viewers might recall was recounted in the third episode of Season 1. The DEA agent was captured, tortured, and killed by Gallardo’s men, which forced the United States to take aggressive measures against the cartel in retaliation.
With its new setting and characters Narcos has now become a far different beast – a game of double (or triple or quadruple) crosses and timing, a thriller with comedic beats as opposed to a drama, and also faster in pace, despite the fan service and the promise of the comfortable familiar formula. The storytelling cycle that’s become a hallmark of Narcos—the rise of a drug lord, the plucky DEA agents with the considerable and arguably futile task of trying to stop them, the corruption and bribery eroding political systems, the soul-rotting excess of exorbitant wealth and power, is born out of the show’s loose devotion to charting the course of actual history.
The benefit of a tighter story this time is quite apparent and this season has far less filler than the previous ones. This mean every minute of screen time becomes that much more valuable and the outcome is a season that doesn’t have a bad apple of an episode – a weakness that most Netflix big ticket shows exude. There are in fact a couple of episodes you would want to revisit, particularly the fourth one titled ‘Rafa’ and the penultimate one that just goes berserk in raising the stakes for the fallback to occur in the finale.
But what makes the Netflix series so irresistible and capable of avoiding a feeling of staleness are its characters. By design or otherwise, the bad guys in Narcos make for far more intriguing protagonists than the good guys. This season is no different from the previous seasons in that sense. Just a little way into the story, and we already have a striking view of Miguel Ángel’s persona. He’s incredibly sharp, ambitious, and even though he seems like a decent man (you know, for a cartel boss) he is ruthless when it comes to protecting his business interests. Kiki Camarena, on the other hand, is interesting more because one is aware of the exceedingly horrendous fate that befell him. He’s dogged and persistent, and these qualities lead him to one of the biggest drug busts of American law enforcement (at the time) — but he pales in comparison to the man he’s hunting.
I liked the two parallel stories of the two men, and their main struggles pushing the story-lines forward. Particularly Gallardo’s and his struggles to manage a bunch of violent drug lords and trying to get them to not kill each other, and Camarena’s frustrated cop that wants to get the bad guys shtick. It’s the pathos of Camarena’s futility, and Gallardo’s increasingly lonely ascension—and most importantly, the show’s ability to compellingly capture both—that makes this one the most accomplished season of the series to date. The narrative never drags, even as it bounces between the perspectives of the DEA and the cartel. For the first time in the show’s history, Narcos achieves parity between the two sides of its story, and equally enticing halves make an undeniably satisfying whole. But knowing how Camarena’s story ends doesn’t neuter the tension of the series rather, it makes the ill-fated decisions both leading men make all the more excruciating to watch unfold, like a slow-motion car wreck.
The foresight of knowing that Camarena will be killed—and, through a cursory Wikipedia search, that Gallardo isn’t going to fare much better—makes it more excruciating to watch these men pursue empty gains. While Camarena and Gallardo are guided by, well, very different moral compasses, both men place their work above their families—compounding a sense of alienation that no amount of wealth or drug busts can ever satiate.
The season’s varied world is home to a wide collection of colorful supporting types. Huerta’s Rafa, credited with the creation of the cartel’s signature seedless weed (or Sensemilla)—is an electric creation, his obsession with developing and protecting his “babies” in their necessarily isolated desert fields seeing him desperately digging wells for promised water. When he intoxicatedly hurls a box of grenades into yet another dry hole, the resulting explosion of water finds him capering like Daniel Plainview. Also, his obsession with spoiled socialite Sofia (Tessa Ia) finds the besotted pair pulling a series of over-the-top jobs in order to keep their carnal Bonnie and Clyde fantasy alive, despite the inevitable consequences.
For fan service, the season also throws in several self-aware moments, for example we witness how characters from the previous seasons return for a short segment: Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela (Francisco Denis), Chepe Santacruz Londoño (Pêpê Rapazote), Pacho Herrera (Alberto Ammann), Blackie (Julián Díaz) and of course Escobar (Wagner Moura). The face-off between Miguel Ángel and Pablo is nicely done, allowing Diego Luna and Moura to exchange pithy retorts and match wits. There’s another meta-moment in the story when the camera focuses on one of Rafa’s many henchmen, a man called Joaquín Guzmán (Alejandro Edda), who the gang nicknames Chapo, because there are too many Joaquíns. El Chapo, among the most notorious of modern-day drug bosses, who is now on trial in the US for his crimes.
So if it isn’t clear enough already, this companion series is everything any Narcos fan could ask for. It tells a great contained story that perfectly fits into the series as a reboot that both fans and newcomers can enjoy. It packs a ton of fun moments, both pulpy and serious, often cleverly mixing the two just enough to sway you into submission. It’s hard to find any other show on streaming platforms that gives you the annual high that this one does, because Narcos isn’t so much a show as it is a drug delivery system in itself, one that contains all the secrets of a thriller rolled together in a fat joint.
However the season is not perfect as there are plot points that are clearly space-fillers, like Rafa’s Scarface-inspired romance, which seems like a deliberate attempt to insert a “softer” angle into the proceedings, and an adventure in Juarez that is perhaps meant to set up the next Narcos installment but feels unnecessary in the build-up to the climax. Apart from Rafa’s girlfriend, Sofia, the other women have little enough to do. Apart from looking gorgeous, or anxious, or angry, or upset. Kiki’s wife Mika (Alyssa Diaz), who at times seem to making more out of her characters supportive but hard-headed role ends up with nothing but being the wet-eyed house wife fretting about her man not coming home.
Even Félix’s partnership with wife Maria (Fernanda Urrejola) suffers in comparison, at least partly as a function of the show’s debilitating portrayal of its main antagonist. While initially it seems like Isabella Bautista (Teresa Ruiz) may have an important part to play in the latter half, she ends up never getting her due. Maybe this was an accurate reflection of the world the story is set in, or just a missed opportunity.
Strong performances come from both Diego Luna and Michael Peña who carry the series, as each man reflects the worst traits of the other. Peña’s greatest achievement here is to portray a character which almost entirely suppresses his infectious charisma, a usual trait seen in every film he stars in. But here he is more hardened being a man on a mission to do well. However, Diego Luna is much more compelling to watch, as he invests Miguel Ángel with all the shrewdness that made Gallardo the Mexican drug business’ ‘El Padrino’ (The Godfather).
Similarly, the supporting cast is great, with Joaquín Cosio, Tenoch Huerta and Matt Letscher being the obvious standouts. In other roles, José María Yazpik, Alejandro Edda, Aaron Staton, Ernesto Alterio, Teresa Ruiz, Clark Freeman, Alyssa Diaz, Ernesto Alterio, Alfonso Dosal, Tessa Ia, Gerardo Taracena, Fernanda Urrejola, Yul Vazquez and Julio Cesar Cedillo leave a mark. Jackie Earle Haley and Scoot McNairy are also effortlessly charismatic in their small roles. On the whole, ‘Narcos: Mexico’ bringing us yet another set of incredible characters and compelling story-lines by becoming a wonderful additional to an already excellent series.
Status – Season 1 (Completed)
Network – Netflix