'Narcos: Mexico': TV Review

Still addictive.
11/16/2018

Netflix's drug-war drama moves the action to Mexico and resets its cat-and-mouse game with Diego Luna and Michael Peña as leads, while maintaining its structure and intensity.

Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of America's drug war is how repetitious it has become over the past three or four decades. One geographical front replaces the next. The overthrow of one cartel or ruling junta only makes way for another. Marijuana becomes cocaine becomes opioids with only the slightest pause. Through it all, law enforcement remains corruptible, governments remain impotent or worse and American authorities keep taking sides and making choices that never wholly stop the flow of drugs across the border.

This, in contrast, has proved to be a tremendous boon for Netflix's Narcos, a series that has become more and more impressive to me with each passing season, not necessarily by improving, but by continuing to embrace the unique blend of variation and repetition in its chosen conflict.

After two seasons dominated by Wagner Moura's Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel in Colombia, Narcos followed a historical blueprint and let Escobar be killed off, left Boyd Holbrook's Steve Murphy behind and smoothly shifted focus to Pedro Pascal's Javier Peña, now trying to bring down the so-called Gentlemen of Cali. And after a third season that was, in many ways, more satisfying than the seasons that came before, the Narcos team recognized that there was no purpose in putting Peña, a real-life DEA agent, into more circumstances the man himself wasn't a part of and the fourth season, given the expanded title Narcos: Mexico, gets what amounts to a total surface reboot. The action may move to Mexico and the specific law enforcement and criminal figures may be new, but the conflicts and structure and overall feel are of a piece. The result is a season that, through its first five episodes, makes enough of its fresh faces and characters to avoid boredom and yet is still resolutely and successfully Narcos in its DNA.

Our action picks up briefly in Guadalajara in 1985 with the abduction of undercover DEA agent Kiki Camarena (Michael Peña), before going back to show how Kiki ended up in Mexico doing what was basically powerless surveillance work for the fledgling DEA. We follow Kiki's jurisdictional concerns and his early interactions with equally hamstrung, but more initially resigned, co-workers including Jamie (Matt Letscher, working a committed Southern accent), Knapp (Lenny Jacobson, working a committed mustache) and Butch (Aaron Staton, not instantly invested with a key trait). Kiki is driven and just wants to make a difference, seeing opportunity in the rise of a new type of crime organization in Mexico.

That rise is, in recognizable Narcos fashion, paralleled with the DEA storyline as we meet Diego Luna's Felix Gallardo, as he progresses from a low-level Sinaloa weed entrepreneur with the help of brilliant young marijuana cultivator Rafa (Tenoch Huerta) and old-school heavy Don Neto (the superb Joaquin Cosio). Felix is a man of vision, dreaming of uniting Mexico's separated criminal "plazas" into a vast and collaborative network producing, processing and transporting drugs through Mexico and up to the United States. It's the sort of well-organized enterprise that condescending gringos think the Mexicans are incapable of and Felix is the perfect man to capitalize on that ignorance.

There's a lot of continuity in the Narcos creative team, with early episodes hailing from veteran writers including Eric Newman, Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard, plus returning directors like Josef Kubota Wladyka and Andres Baiz. That means that even as the Mexican locations offer a somewhat different visual template, especially in Guadalajara itself, the show's rhythms are intact. The show is still heavily steered by voiceover and documentary-style asides, and still develops its greatest tension through relentless intercutting. You've seen the high-wire surveillance operations before, the army raids and firefights, the payoffs and ultimatums, the abrupt shifts to bloody violence, the outsize excesses enjoyed by new-money kingpins, the head-against-the-wall frustrations of American agents forced to discover that, as strangers in an unfamiliar land, they don't have the clout they expect to. These beats play well because they're executed well, not because they break convention. The satisfaction is in the fulfillment of a genre and historical promise — Kiki's fate is telegraphed in both the opening scene and in the new opening credits — not in unexpected shock. I like that about Narcos. It's not a show that disingenuously pretends like our heroes are white hats destined for victory.

This genre awareness also helps Narcos: Mexico introduce its new characters with much more efficiency than it has ever done in the past. Luna plays Felix as a man who's always thinking, a polished mastermind set up with a perfect contrast in Cosio's Don Neto. He's more controlled than Maura's Escobar, more of a visionary than the very different figures who topped the Cali Cartel. That Felix's nickname was El Padrino, "The Godfather," allows the Narcos team to steer toward The Godfather as this installment's primary influence, not that Goodfellas and Scarface are ever far from mind.

Working in earnest mode, Peña gives Kiki a committed drive, without unrealistic boy-scout purity. He's got a good assortment of scruffy sidekicks and foils, even in small roles. I especially enjoyed the uncanny casting of Yul Vazquez as actor John Gavin, who was Reagan's Ambassador to Mexico in this period. The five episodes sent to critics have yet to feature Jackie Earle Haley, a disappointment since he's included in trailers for the new season and the actor almost always makes things better. The series has always had trouble making the American side of this cat-and-mouse game as rich as the Mexican side, but this may be the closest it has ever come to parity.

Another frequent Narcos difficulty has been finding a way to craft anything resembling a three-dimensional female character. Last season came close, with Kerry Bishe as the wife of a cartel launderer. So far, these new episodes are a big step back. Alyssa Diaz and Fernanda Urrejola, as spouses to Kiki and Felix, are dull variations on The Most Tolerant Wife in the World. As the vivacious woman who wants to connect Felix to a broader world of illegal money, Teresa Ruiz may offer the season's best female performance if she's given the chance to be more than just the woman whose curves everybody praises.

Though Netflix is positioning Narcos: Mexico as more of a spinoff than a direct continuation of the series, its time frame is lined up next to what we saw in previous seasons and later episodes connect the dots in direct and pleasing ways. It's also quite forward-looking, setting this season as Kiki and Felix's story, at the same time as it finds frequent amusement in the presence of a low-level cartel operative everybody just calls "Chapo." Alejandro Edda has yet to do anything as Jaquin "El Chapo" Guzman that makes me yearn for a full season with this soon-to-be-notorious figure, but it speaks to the series' growing confidence that Narcos is already thinking of future cycles of the Drug War that it can chronicle, cycles I'll be looking forward to much more than I'd have expected back when the series first launched.

Cast: Diego Luna, Michael Pena, Aaron Staton, Matt Letscher, Alyssa Diaz, Fermin Martinez, Ernesto Alterio, Fernanda Urrejola, Lenny Jacobson, Joaquin Cosio
Showrunner: Eric Newman
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)