Over the course of its first three seasons, Narcos has painted a less-than-hopeful picture of the war on drugs, to put it mildly.
For its fourth go-round, premiering Friday, Nov. 16, the Netflix hit has rebooted itself as Narcos: Mexico, an all-new series focused on the U.S.’s south-of-the-border neighbor, and the bleakness is now downright overwhelming. There’s almost nothing to feel good about in this installment of Carlo Bernard, Chris Brancato and Doug Miro’s show, as its portrait of the birth of the modern cartel system boasts no heroes, no honor, and—as its mysterious narrator makes clear—“no happy endings.” It’s a panorama of vice and powerlessness, and one with few answers regarding how to stop the plague that is the North American narcotics trade.
At the center of this based-on-real-events miasma are two men on opposites sides of the law, linked not only by their cat-and-mouse game but by their shared frustrations with their bureaucratic circumstances—and their transformations into individuals who place their work above all other concerns, to their own (and their loved ones’) detriment.
It’s the mid-1980s, and in order to jumpstart his career in the still-nascent DEA, agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena (Michael Peña) accepts a transfer to Guadalajara. Upon arrival, however, he discovers he’s been given an apparent dead-end post, since his coworkers—boss Jaime Kuykendall (Matt Letscher) and colleagues Butch Sears (Aaron Staton) and Roger Knappe (Lenny Jacobson)—mainly spend their time getting Mexican cops drunk so they can acquire tips to make petty arrests. Kiki bristles at this, and before long, he’s training his sights on the region’s criminal bigwigs.
As he soon learns, there’s none bigger than Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo (Diego Luna). A former Sinaloa police officer, Félix has moved into the drug business with his brother Rafael Caro Quintero (Tenoch Huerta), who grows the world’s finest seedless marijuana. With the Mexican government burning their fields, Félix hatches a two-pronged scheme that will forever change the industry. First, he, Rafa and cohort Ernesto “Don Neto” Fonseca (Joaquin Cosio) devise a means of sowing a historically large field of marijuana (so big, it’s visible from space) in the Guadalajara desert. Second, Félix decides to unite Guadalajara’s various drug chiefs (who run areas known as “plazas”) into a consortium that will have a virtual monopoly on the trade, thereby allowing them to set prices and maximize profits. It’s a daring gambit that requires some serious maneuvering on Félix’s part, as well as the assistance of law enforcement—not only local cops, but also the Dirección Federal de Seguridad (DFS), a hopelessly on-the-take Mexican intelligence agency, and high-ranking Mexico City politicians.
The result is corruption on a grand scale, with everyone on the take, and a system tacitly propped up by the U.S. Narcos: Mexico contends that, despite Nancy Reagan’s ongoing “Just Say No” campaign, the State Department had little interest in combating the burgeoning drug trade, since it wanted to maintain its cozy relationship with the Mexican government. While more archival footage (a Narcos staple) would have been welcome, the series details the fraudulence of America’s “eradication program,” and its unwillingness to affect real change, thus providing a macro view of geopolitical venality. And in doing so, it makes clear why so many Mexican drug bosses felt emboldened to expand into new markets—namely, cocaine.
As the ideal route for white china to infiltrate America (especially after Reagan policies helped negate the Bahamas as a viable channel), Mexico became a key strategic partner for Colombia. For Félix, a calculating businessman unwilling to let an opportunity pass him by, the Colombians are the key to creating a true empire. It’s also a prime excuse for Narcos: Mexico to revisit the most famous villains from its prior three seasons, via single-episode cameos that are both fan-service electric and designed to show the intertwined nature of drug trafficking. The fact that a young El Chapo (Alejandro Edda) also plays a supporting part in this sprawling drama (as one of Félix’s most prominent thugs) only further enhances the action’s notorious star wattage.
With such big names featured in Narcos: Mexico, it’s a shame Luna doesn’t establish Félix as an imposing larger-than-life kingpin on the order of Wagner Moura’s Pablo Escobar. Though his performance is solid, the series treats him as a rather straightforward sort of “godfather,” one whose ruthlessness is matched by his shrewdness. There’s little complexity to Félix, and more frustrating still, less specificity—his adultery, for example, is a crucial component of his personal story, and yet it’s so diligently kept off-screen that one feels as if they’re being told things about him rather than seeing them for ourselves. For a man who revolutionized (and ruled) the Mexican drug industry, he comes off as a somewhat slight figure, devoid of the force-of-personality charisma one might expect him to possess.
That’s true of Kiki too, who’s driven to do the right thing—at great cost—because he’s a fundamentally good guy. Like Luna, Peña is a terrific actor stuck with a two-dimensional (and frustratingly humor-light) role. Though his Kiki is likable, there’s no sense of the underlying reasons for his determination, or his inner struggles over the risky dilemmas he faced. Fortunately, Narcos: Mexico compensates for its lack of character-related depth with an enormous cast of colorful players, including resentful loose-cannon Rafa, blunt Don Neto, honorable Jaime, amoral DFS chief Nava (Ernesto Alterio), Kiki’s devoted wife Mika (Alyssa Diaz), and Félix’s sultry partner Isabella (Teresa Ruiz). And it thrives when diving into the logistical ways the cartel system was constructed—through violence, manipulation, bribery, and canny scheming and double-crosses—and the DEA’s resultant attempts to navigate an intrinsically-crooked environment.
Suffice it to say, Narcos: Mexico is far from a glowing celebration of its setting: Mexico is presented as a country drowning in immorality and evil. As with its predecessors, it’s a gripping—if, this time around, somewhat light-on-suspense—account of how narcotics gained the enormous foothold in North America that they still enjoy today. The identity of the aforementioned narrator is eventually revealed at series’ end, setting up further seasons of an even more despairing, kill-or-be-killed nature. It’s a promise that, after this compelling series restart, fans will undoubtedly want to see kept.