Boxset Monday: Narcos – Mexico (season two) (Netflix)

Trying but ultimately rewarding

In the UK: Available on Netflix

There is a theory that only the even-numbered Star Trek movies are the good ones. I’m proposing a similar theory for Narcos and its spin-off Narcos – Mexico: only the odd-numbered seasons are the good ones.

I won’t recap all the reasons why this is true for Narcos and Narcos – Mexico, since I touched on most of them when I was reviewing the first couple of episodes of Narcos – Mexico. But now we have the second season, which seems to be the clinching evidence that proves the case.

Mexican stand-off

But not completely. This second season’s biggest failings are that it’s about three episodes too long, it’s a bit self-indulgent and for the first half, at least, it’s actually surprisingly dull and forgets (once again) all the things that made the show’s odd-numbered seasons so good.

To be fair, I can’t imagine there’s a lot of archive footage of Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo in the heyday of his drug-dealing years. But all the same, this is a relatively flat, vanilla retelling/imagining of the DEA’s continuing investigations into his activities in the late 80s.

It picks up from where the first season left off: Scoot McNairy’s DEA agent organising the agency’s attempts to bring to justice the man who killed one of their own in the first season – that man, of course, was Gallardo.

Trouble is, despite the show’s promises in the first season, he’s just not very good at it. Minor spoilers after the trailer and the jump.

Narcos – Mexico

History’s dull

As with Narcos second season, Narcos – Mexico‘s biggest problem is that history usually isn’t that dramatic and doesn’t do things the way a dramatist would want it to. The result is that largely for the first few episodes, we have a lot of people sitting around in rooms bickering and posturing, but nothing actually happening.

To a certain extent, that wouldn’t be a problem if the show weren’t 10 episodes and the producers could have tightened the season up. However, with that run-time, we instead have some increasingly dull soapy relationship concerns that are actually of no real concern to anyone and often just retread the first season.

Perhaps also, we’ve become inured to scenes of torture et al, because when the producers try to pepper up the narrative with a bit of ultraviolence, we’ve already been there, seen that, so it doesn’t really do what they want it to. OMG, the DEA torturing suspects. I can’t believe it! Oh wait. Yes, I can. I mean, wasn’t that the point of the narrative at the end of season one about how the DEA was going to be fighting back?

Narcos who?

However, history’s determination not to be easily plotted does at least work both ways and the second half of the season is where the show starts to shine again. As well as an increasing number of cameos from Narcos‘ first three seasons, we get the reintroduction of archive footage. The show doesn’t pull punches here, naming corrupt politicians and more. On top of that, we also get surprises, such as precisely how Gallardo manages to play the CIA against the DEA.

Narcossecond season faced the problem that most people knew what happened to Pablo Escobar and that after the first season of Narcos detailed his rise to power, everyone knew it was just a matter of time before it had to detail his ignominious and not especially dramatic fall.

Here, however, unless you’re a student of the Mexican drug trade in the late 80s and 90s – or have simply been googling – you probably have no idea what happened to Gallardo. That also works both ways.

Yes, you’ll be surprised by the show, which keeps you guessing whether it’s going to be about how Gallardo fell from power or how he managed to unify the whole of the Mexican drug trade. On the other hand, for the first half of the season, you’ve literally no idea what the story is going to be and why you should be watching. Largely, those early episodes are of Gallardo scrabbling around, desperately trying to keep the plates spinning of his federation, the Columbians, the DEA, Mexican politicians and anyone else who happens to be around.

Combined with the fact McNairy is just going around finding out very little and being told very little other than “You don’t know anything”, that makes the first half a very testing and frequently boring experience.

Back in business

The second half then is a firm regrouping of the show that’s tense, frequently exciting and politically interesting. It will make you gasp at the sums of money involved, the audacity of the drug trade – (spoiler alert) they actually buy an entire defunct airline’s fleet of passenger jets – and the DEA manages to get a clue at last.

It’s also a firm foundation for a third, more exciting season, since it spells out the future – the cartels are coming and there’s nothing that can be done to stop them.

So maybe my theory needs modifying: the odd-numbered seasons are all great, the even-numbered seasons are… variable.

If you’ve already watched the preceding seasons of Narcos and Narcos – Mexico, this second one will test your patience, but will reward you in the end.

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