'The Trade' Season 2: TV Review | Sundance 2020

These stories deserve more depth.

The humanitarian crisis at the border gets an immersive, on-the-ground look on Showtime.

An early scene in the first season of The Trade, director Matthew Heineman's docuseries about cross-border crime and its consequences, sums up the voyeuristic appeal — and seediness — of its immersive approach. A young addict named Brittany buys heroin over the phone while telling the documentary crew in her motel room mid-tears that it's been a month since she's seen her children. "I need to stop the cycle now," she says, "I don't want my kids looking in a casket." When the drugs arrive, the camera zooms in, capturing her face scrunching up as the needle enters her arm. Hunched over the floor, Brittany nods off in position, soon oblivious to the other people in the room, who will transmit this moment of abjection all over the world.

The Trade's debut season told a familiar story — of America's opioid crisis and the Mexican cartels that help fuel it — through startlingly immediate images. But I can't say I needed to watch an addict shoot up in front of me to feel sympathy for the victims. My colleague Dan Fienberg called the disconcerting access that Heineman (A Private War, Cartel Land) coaxed from his subjects "both an unmistakable asset and an unavoidable distraction." Further diminished by the stubborn lack of contextualization for the topics at hand, the series came close to inadvertently making the director and his team its most compelling characters.

In that regard, The Trade's four-part follow-up season, about the humanitarian crisis at the border, is a substantial improvement. (The middle two episodes were screened at this year's Sundance; the season will debut on Showtime on March 6.) The show is still frustratingly stingy with the kinds of numbers and figures that would provide viewers with a fuller picture of this ongoing catastrophe, and Heineman digs into a moral binary that, at least in the first three installments, fails to resolve the contradictions within his narrative. But it's undoubtedly a more mature work that shines a light on lesser known but no less grievous injustices.

The border crisis is in fact only the nexus where several broken systems feed into one another, many (though hardly all) of which are represented in The Trade. The relentless gang violence that impels Central American asylum seekers toward the U.S. is typified by Magda, a widow fleeing her native Honduras with her toddler daughter and her brother-in-law after her husband is killed by MS-13. In the only mention of Trump's family separation policy, Magda says she's heard of it, but its cruelty makes her question its existence.

The other "characters" in The Trade's decentralized storylines include Victor, an undocumented immigrant in Colorado fighting his deportation to Guatemala after escaping the violence there years ago; a faceless female coyote who invites Heineman's camera into the "stash house" where she stows her customers; and Sochil, a survivor of alleged organized rape within the Mexican megachurch La Luz del Mundo (whose leader, Naasón Joaquín García, was charged with child rape, child pornography and sex trafficking last summer in Los Angeles). The Trade also follows law-enforcement officers in Texas as they attempt to flip low-level criminals against their bosses and wax earnest about the necessity of stopping smugglers and traffickers.

It's surely important work, as one anonymous young woman, speaking to a human rights activist named Marisa, can attest. The woman recalls being forced into prostitution by her MS-13 member boyfriend, then being gang raped by a group of men who, afterward, discussed beheading her. "What better prey for organized crime than migrants?" Marisa sighs. Unlike drugs, "You can sell a human being over and over again."

Nearly as perturbing is a little girl who tells Marisa, "I hope the police kill my father, because he will kill me, and then my mom." She shows the older woman where her father burned her, and her mother's resigned confirmation suggests that this wasn't an isolated incident. But Heineman's narrow MO doesn't allow for the even larger context behind this scene: the Trump administration's draconian hostility toward asylum seekers hoping to escape domestic violence.

The Trade frames coyotes as "the real criminals," but the investigators' searches for traffickers' "stash houses" — dramatized like a procedural, with sympathetic, fraternal cops — don't account for how the success of law-enforcement agents will likely send these desperate migrants back to the dire straits they were hoping to flee. Heineman gives his viewers more than enough grit. I'd happily exchange some for a little more depth.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Special Events)

Creator: Matthew Heineman

Showrunner: Pagan Harleman

Premieres Friday, March 6, at 9 p.m. (Showtime)