Review: Netflix’s Narcos: Mexico Is a Different Beast & It’s Just As Good
When Narcos debuted on Netflix three years ago there was nothing like it on TV, let alone on streaming platforms. Even now, there still isn’t. One could argue that the original season with Pablo Escobar featured conventional elements that some other films and shows had rendered earlier, but no other show had pulled all of those things together into such a thrilling, carefully plotted, ten-hour movie like binge that Narcos ultimately became. You may have seen the smarmy Scarface like drug lords and their Icarus like rise and fall, but Narcos’ razor sharp plotting with its kaleidoscope of colourful characters, exotic locations, and the fact that all of its craziness was based on real historical events turned it into a show that was as addictive as the products sold in it.
In all seriousness, throughout this season of Narcos: Mexico, I quietly 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. All three previous seasons have had the same mechanics explored – the steely young man who is smarter than the other drug lords, his ascension to the big leagues, his first whiff of a power trip and ultimately being so drunk on power that he can’t see the feds storming towards his door, all because his friends have ratted him out to save their own businesses. And with the Sicario films already out in theaters and being very good mainstream stories about Mexico’s war on drugs, for the first time in Narcos history I felt it was time for its showrunners to drop the ball in some way.
It turns out that my fears were doggedly beaten.
Last season’s final episode introduced the notion of shifting the story from Colombia to somewhere closer to America and it’s turned out be exactly what the series needed – because the world of the show has opened up a new sandbox. The Mexican setting isn’t quite as iconic as the prison sequences with Escobar in the first season, but it is of a far grander scope than any episode the show has rendered before.
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.
So this time we’re in late 70’s and early 80’s Mexico, where the drug trade in the region was in its nascent stages, with no real kingpin controlling the business. Enter Felix Gallardo (Diego Luna), the young one who realizes the potential of setting fire to the industry with pure ambition and business like know how. On the other side is Kiki Camerena (Michael Pena) who is an equally ambitious DEA agent who deliberately moves into cartel heartland to take on a challenge and build a name for himself in his department. Both men stop at nothing to achieve their goals, leading to sparks when the two collide as the wars both for and against drugs heat up.
As a result this season is the first to deliver a faster paced and leaner story that expands the Narcos universe in some fresh ways, all the while drawing a parallel between the greed and supremacy of the villains and the unethical methods of the seemingly heroic cops.
Their dynamics are arguably the season’s best arc since the energy that emerges from the two clashing has a very satisfying conclusion at the end of the season. Don't expect their resolution to be cliché even though this is Narcos, but it all comes together quite nicely, making you remember characters, probably for the first time since Wagner Moura in the original season.
The choice of casting and tonal direction in Narcos Mexico is exciting – there is an undercurrent of humor throughout the season, revealing that even the most notorious and bloodthirsty humans on the planet could still be cartoon characters when it comes down to it.
There’s an uproarious exchange between two goons who marvel at the advent of CD players that seems straight out of a flash from Gangs of Wasseypur, and more such fun moments in a smorgasbord of the mafia movie check lists like parties at garish mansions, coke sniffs, someone being shot at during sex and so forth.
It’s easy to not classify these things as clichés because they do ultimately serve as an aesthetic backbone to the story.
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.
On the action side of things, there are standout sequences with motorcycles and bazookas to name a few, inviting you to suspend your disbelief as fact and fiction meld in an intoxicating blur. Acting wise, all the great performances that you have come to expect from the series and particularly from its movie star leads Pena and Luna are present. These two have some phenomenal chemistry on screen as they spend a great deal of time verbally and psychologically sparring with each other. Some of the newcomers to the show are also memorable – like Matt Letscher who plays the noble Camarena’s boss, Joaquín Cosio who plays Gallardo’s cranky partner, José María Yazpik as a pilot who is destined onto much bigger things, and Tenoch Huerta as Gallardo’s brother who turns out to be the chief architect of their bestselling product.
So if it isn’t clear enough already, Narcos: Mexico is everything anyone 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.