‘Narcos: Mexico’ Is Back and More Bloody, Druggy, and Chaotic Than Ever
The second season of “Narcos: Mexico” sees the DEA attempt to take down cartel lord Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo (Diego Luna) and an up-and-comer by the name of El Chapo.
The players may change but the narcotics industry never truly changes, and thus neither does Narcos: Mexico, whose second go-round—this after rebooting itself following three Colombia-centric seasons—is another saga of ruthlessness, greed, treachery, and catastrophe. Fatalism courses through the coked-up veins of Netflix’s long-running drug-trade saga, which remains as reliably efficient and engaging as anything on the streaming platform, even as it continues telling the same basic story in slightly different ways. “The past is the past,” says someone early on in its latest run, yet that’s not really true here; far more apt is the concluding assessment of cartel bigwig Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo (Diego Luna) that “rats will always be rats.”
There are plenty of venomous creatures scurrying about in Narcos: Mexico (premiering Feb. 13), most of them at the behest of Gallardo. Having successfully united the various regional drug gangs (known as “plazas”) into a cartel, he sits atop a 1980s narcotics throne second only to the one run by the Colombians. Moreover, as the Colombians’ only trade route option for getting their product into the United States, Gallardo finds himself with prime leverage over his partners; or so he thinks, as much of the show (from Eric Newman) focuses on the Mexican godfather’s attempts to use his prime position to force the Colombians to pay him half of his fees in drugs, so that he can then become a coke dealer as well as a transporter. Not content with just working as a middleman, Gallardo wants it all.
Everyone covets something in Narcos: Mexico, and that goes for the DEA as well. In the wake of Gallardo torturing and assassinating undercover agent Kiki Camarena (Michael Peña) at the end of Season 3, Walt Breslin (Scoot McNairy) assembles a squad of American and Mexican agents to exact revenge for their compatriot’s slaying. To do that means starting at the bottom, with low-level Gallardo associates who were involved with Kiki’s demise, and who can provide names that will lead the DEA to evidence that Gallardo himself was directly responsible for—and even present at—their comrade’s murder. It’s the sort of business that can only lead to ugliness, and that proves to be something of an impediment for Breslin, who for all his threats and roundhouse punches, is rightly informed by a captured torturer that he doesn’t have it in him to go far enough to get the job done.
The tension between Breslin’s bedrock sense of right and wrong, and his troubling realization that he must stoop to the cartels’ unfathomably immoral levels to accomplish his mission, is the beating heart of Narcos: Mexico. His grizzled fury and determination colored by exhaustion and despondence, Breslin is a magnetic center of attention. McNairy’s participation enlivens the action even when it spins its wheels in familiar conflicts and dilemmas; with a minimum of fuss, the actor brings Breslin’s inner struggle—which he shares with all noble law-enforcement figures, on both sides of the border—to gritty, sweaty life. As with his Narcos predecessors, he’s a protagonist cut from a film-noir mold, eager to do right and yet doomed to discover that Juarez, Tijuana and every other Mexican cartel stronghold is a figurative Chinatown where the good fall short and evil persists.
Breslin’s quest for justice consequently carries with it a scent of failure from the start. When that inescapable disappointment materializes, he begins putting together alternative plans to take down Gallardo (embodied by Luna with more gravity than in his prior outing). Narcos: Mexico embellishes its material with its usual flourishes—primarily, non-fiction footage of the real cartel bosses and operations, set to acerbic narration—while focusing on a wide array of intersecting criminal figures caught up in messes both of their own making and out of their control. The Iran-Contra scandal and election rigging are the most high-profile ‘80s historical events featured in this season, yet the prime fixation of its 10 episodes is inter-plaza hostilities, as Gallardo’s ability to keep his cohorts in line proves difficult thanks to a problem with payments—the Colombians are woefully late on ponying up for Gallardo’s services, and in no rush to rectify that situation—and, more fundamental still, the invariable desire by all of these men and women to be the biggest crook on the block.
There are upwards of 20 main characters in Narcos: Mexico, and it’s a credit to showrunner Eric Newman—and his team of capable screenwriters and directors—that they all turn out to be distinctive and compelling. No matter how many moving parts it throws into the mix, the series is consistently lucid and propulsive, and marked by a raft of excellent small-scale details that lend the proceedings a welcome measure of authenticity and personality, such as Ramon Felix (Manuel Masalva), second-in-command to his brother Benjamin (Alfonso Dosal), going to a park and, in front of barbecuing families and laughing children, stringing fish from a tree branch for machine-gun target practice. Its Mexico is a Wild West of fiendish desperadoes, cutthroat schemers, well-intentioned do-gooders, and unhinged psychopaths—not to mention cunning women led by Ramon’s sister Enedina (Mayra Hermosillo), who considers betraying her clan to join forces with rogue Gallardo adversary Isabella Bautista (Teresa Ruiz).
From a suspenseful DEA sting aimed at ruining Gallardo as he imports 70 tons (!) of cocaine—a move that will either make or break him with the Colombians—to an ambitious El Chapo (Alejandro Edda) pioneering the under-the-border tunneling that would become the cartels’ bread and butter, Narcos: Mexico is part-thriller, part-historical exposé. It may be merely one chapter of an ongoing story in which young cretins eventually take up the murdering-and- backstabbing mantles of their predecessors (or simply stay in power, like Enedina, who still rules Tijuana today). However, even if the series’ action is similar to that which came before it, such repetitiveness captures the hopeless futility of a war on drugs whose conclusion has yet to arrive.