Available on Netflix
Narcos was one of Netflix earliest surprises. A dramatised biography of the hunt for Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, it was hugely gripping period piece that mixed actors with real-life news footage, as well as a knowing and political narration, to tell its story convincingly. It also surprised by being almost entirely in Spanish, back when Netflix had barely touched the idea of “world television”.
Season two wasn’t quite as good, perhaps because the end of Escobar’s life was so ignominious. Nevertheless, it did realise that it had a definite asset in co-lead Pedro Pascal, so unsurprisingly, he became the focus of season three, despite his real-life counterpart never continuing the fight against Escobar’s successor, the Cali cartel.
That lack of reality was the biggest problem of an otherwise excellent season. The greater degree of fiction meant it just didn’t feel as relevant and it wasn’t as politically pointed.
Pascal bows out at the end of season three, so the question of what season four would have to offer was an obvious one. Surprise! There is no season four. Instead, we have what is officially a new series, Narcos: Mexico, which takes the show back to basics and is all the better for it.
Narcos: Mexico rewinds time even further than Narcos did, by taking us back to the very early 80s, when the DEA was just a couple of years old, no one had heard of it, and it was so ill thought of that its headquarters were above a strip club in Washington. Michael Peña (Ant-Man, Gracepoint, Eastbound and Down) is an overlooked DEA struggling to get promoted in the US, probably because of his ethnicity. When a clearly inferior agent gets promoted over him to Miami, he takes the first posting available – Guadalajara in Mexico.
That’s handy, because at the same time, changes are afoot in the Mexican drug trade. The government is cracking down in the relatively poor Sinaloa, which is part of the weed-growing ‘Mexican gold triangle’, and is burning fields and beating up the poor local farmers. Fortunately (for them at least), an ex-cop (Gabriel Luna) with a talented brother (Tenoch Huerta), has an idea that might save them. Why not relocate to the far richer Guadalajara, where that kind of brutality and violence would earn front-page headlines and opprobrium for the government? Sure, there are dealers already there, but maybe some kind of accommodation could be made, particularly if somehow, a far superior new crop could be grown in the desert…
Before you know it, Luna is setting up the most advanced drugs distribution network that Mexico has ever seen.
Back to basics
Narcos: Mexico remembers what was so good about the original first two seasons of Narcos. There’s excellent recreation of a time and place. There’s judicious use of documentary footage, to remind the viewer that a good proportion of what they’re seeing really did happen. There’s the knowing, highly political narration, this time delivered by an anonymous but semi-big star who remains off-screen until the final episode (spoiler: (spoiler alert) it’s Scoot McNairy, who’ll be a bigger, on-screen part of the second season). There’s sensible use of bilingualism, with people speaking Spanish or English precisely when they would use Spanish or English.
And above all, it’s gripping. Anyone can do anything and kill anyone at any point, for any reason, particularly the cops. Peña comes to Mexico and discovers not only that he has no powers of arrest, he has to rely on the local cops, who are – to a man – on the take, usually to drug dealers. His first encounter in a cop bar is with a cop who relates the story of how his uncle – also a cop – initiated him as a cop by giving him a bribe; his second is with the local commander in the toilets and notes: “You’ve got blood on your shoe.” Guess why – he’s running the drug operations.
Most of the Peña’s investigations in the first and second episode are consequently of the police themselves, not just the dealers, as he’s introduced to the crime-fighting environment he’s now working in. Local dealers give the police regular ‘tributes’ of easy raids with a token haul, with maybe a dead body or two for luck. The DEA know what’s going on, but can do nothing to change the situation, so accept it for what it is.
It’s also smart and depicts smart people. Luna’s strategies to get what he wants are never what you’d expect. Much of his plan involves geology and irrigation techniques, as well as negotiations and murder.
If you want to watch a top-tier, crime drama with a real backing in reality, the first two episodes at least suggest Narcos: Mexico is a show you should definitely watch. It’s great to see two top Spanish-speaking actors (Peña and Luna) front and centre, and I’m very much looking forward to the rest of the season.
Let me know if you like it, too!