As I write this, voir dire is underway in the trial of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loero. Some jurors are asking to be excused for the usual reasons; it’ll likely be a long trial, and few of us are able to miss that much work. Others are less afraid of losing a paycheck and more afraid of losing their lives. Yesterday the court released a prospective juror who worked as a Michael Jackson impersonator. He was too easily identified and likely to be targeted by the cartel.
As Paste’s faithful chronicler of all things narcotraficantes, I was of course looking forward to Narcos: Mexico and its felicitously timed release at the start of the trial of a storied kingpin. Narcos is, like the war on drugs itself, kind of formulaic and predictable, in ways that are probably good and ways that are arguably drawbacks. That has not changed now that we’ve landed in Guadalajara to follow Kiki Camarena (Michael Peña) and Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo (Diego Luna) into the heart of the early 1980s pot trade. The themes are constant: The “war” is manufactured every bit as much as the drugs, marketed every bit as much as the drugs, sold to people every bit as much as the drugs. Institutions such as governments and law enforcement agencies collude and everyone knows it. Any time a cartel boss goes down, a power vacuum opens and violent chaos erupts.
In the Sinaloan desert, a cannabis horticulture milestone has been achieved: the breeding of “sinsemilla,” or seedless, weed. Gallardo has a plan to consolidate the “plaza system” of local drug dealers into a larger organization. Or, as the strangely Big Lebowski-esque voiceover notes, “getting the scariest dudes in Mexico to work together.”
Strengths: Matter-of-fact emphasis on corruption and violence begetting violence. Bleary, faded, 1980-style visual sensibility. Excellent performances by Peña and Luna. Ponderous sense of inevitability—even if you don’t already know this story, which is told with a certain amount of dramatic license but which certainly happened, you know there is no way Camarena is going to win. Well-rendered sense of the futility of trying to bring down a hideously dirty system being parasitized by absolutely everyone. Not “everyone except the noble agents of American government.” Everyone everyone.
Weaknesses: The script, especially that voiceover, which I almost thought was a joke at first. (I seriously thought, “Oh. Narcos is doing some kind of new dark-comedy version of itself; interesting.” Then I realized you were supposed to take it seriously and got very confused.) And some of the things that are also strengths, to be honest. That heavy thunderhead of inevitability can also come across as “predictability” or “sameness” or “huh, this thing again.” And the plain fact that violent psychopaths are not generally all that interesting, as much as Hollywood would like to convince you they are. Honestly, people who solve problems by shooting everyone in the room are limited. Like, really limited. Every once in a while you do get a mass-murdering wackjob who is oddly anti-charismatic, or so perplexing in his pathology that it generates a seemingly endless skein of stories. For us, these people are apparently often gangsters, and while that is the stuff of many sociology dissertations, it’s as tedious as having to read all those dissertations.
I was recently in Mexico City and got an email from a relative who’d heard on the news that gun violence had erupted in a heavily touristed area downtown and wanted to make sure I was somewhere far away. I was not far away, as it turned out, but nonetheless we all heard about the shooting from colleagues and family members in the States before we heard about it on the ground a couple of kilometers from where it happened. Yes, it was cartel-related. Yes, it was terrorism (the assailants infiltrated the area disguised as mariachis and opened fire at random on a big mixed Independence Day crowd). And yes, it happened even though (in fact likely because) Joaquin Guzman Loero was under lock and key across the border. The bad script makes a good point in the opening episode of Narcos: Mexico: “This story doesn’t have a happy ending. It might not have an ending at all.”
Humans are pattern-oriented animals, and human institutions reflect that reality. Our systems and institutions follow predictable, traceable, logical patterns. There are just enough variations to make the patterns discernable. One of them has to do with greed and corruption, and when that butts against the deep human craving to Feel Better, things can get seriously nasty. The “war” on “drugs” imposes a rational and righteous-sounding infrastructure on the underlying reality that it isn’t in anyone’s interest to achieve an armistice. Too many people make too much money off the conflict.
At a certain point that stops being totally interesting while continuing to be extraordinarily depressing, so if you’re close to your war on drugs tipping point, be warned that this show isn’t going to make you feel better. Crusades against corruption in law enforcement are a trope we continue to love in scripted film and TV, and in documentary form, too, especially when those crusades actually succeed. As a trial begins that might end up incarcerating El Chapo for life, we already know that this story, the story of his own mentor, Felix Gallardo, doesn’t have one of those justice-served endings. It’s a moderately fictionalized account of a real-life shit-show with a real-life body count, and it’s a story that continues to play on and on. It’s dreary and occasionally punches the “what’s the point?” button really hard. And that’s both the best and the worst thing about it.
Narcos: Mexico premieres Friday, Nov. 16 on Netflix.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.