In the first season of Netflix’s Narcos spinoff, Narcos: Mexico, there were clear alliances and a clear endgame. On one side was an agent in the newly minted DEA, Kiki Camarena (Michael Peña), and on the other was a young Mexican upstart in the drug game, Félix Gallardo (Diego Luna). The two men both worked to raise the profile of their organizations, and in doing so, ran afoul of one another. But it was Félix who crossed a line when he conspired to capture, torture, and kill Kiki, a true-to-life crime that kicked off both the rise and fall of the expansive Guadalajara Cartel. Season 2 takes a more meandering, but no less engrossing path, as it explores that latter aspect in finer detail.
At the end of that first season, we met our narrator, Walt Breslin (Scoot McNairy), who had just arrived in Mexico to carry out Operation Leyenda. It was a new breed of international meddling by the U.S. that ignored traditional methods to achieve its goals; in the first episode of the new season, we see Walt and his fellow drug enforcement agents kidnapping a doctor in Mexico and smuggling him back to the United States to be tried and convicted for being part of Kiki’s murder. It sets the stage for what is essentially a U.S.-sanctioned vigilante group, as Walt continues to narrate and educate us on the political machinations in both America and Mexico that allowed for, encouraged, and profited from these operations.
Kiki’s shadow hangs over Season 2, because Félix’s actions—catching the attention of the Americans, essentially—doesn’t sit well with his newly-fortified federation. The whole point of Félix creating a federation of cartels was to end the violence that was tipping off law enforcement, leading to chaos in the various regions of Mexico’s drug trade. But the Americans’ interest in Félix is just one of many new issues the kingpin faces now. The rise and profitability of cocaine causes him to enter into a pissing contest with Colombia’s Cali cartel, who provide the product but need Mexico to move it into the United States. As that battle rages and Félix looks to consolidate his power at home, his plaza bosses begin in-fighting—particularly the Arellano Félix family of Tijuana and the Sinaloans, shadow-led by El Chapo (Alejandro Edda).
Like the first season, Luna’s portrayal of Félix remains the show’s most dynamic and compelling narrative. Fueled by his desire for expansion (“I just wanted more,” he often says), he ends up not only alienating himself from his family, but from his cartel partners. Though increasingly ruthless in his approach, Félix is always grounded by and made incredibly human by his lack of a poker face and his ongoing stomach ulcer issues. He’s often stressed, hurt, and upset, which Luna never hesitates to show us. He’s the brains behind an operation for which he should never have also been the brawn.
In its early episodes, Narcos: Mexico’s new season sprawls out across the Mexican territories to give us more individual stories of the plaza bosses who will, eventually, take back control of their areas (leading, ultimately, the the country’s drug violence today). Of all of these, the one that is by far the most interesting follows Amado Carrillo Fuentes (José María Yazpik). It’s not that him going to try and bring his rogue plaza partner Pablo Acosta (Gerardo Taracena) back from what is essentially a righteous side quest was itself particularly fascinating. But rather, Amado’s overall story is given the most Coen Brothers-esque mix of humor and violence. And frankly, he’s a badass—he always dresses in all black (“like a crow,” Acosta opines), with long wavy hair and aviators on. He will later become known as “the Lord of the Skies,” which is one of the best monikers I think any drug kingpin could ever have. But his exasperated cool guy, observer-type works well in contrast to the heated, machismo-driven turf wars elsewhere in the series. “The only thing that keeps order in this game is respect,” Acosta says, while acknowledging that is becoming the old way.
(Speaking of machismo, this is—and remains—a very masculine story from top to bottom. Still, Season 2 manages to create one interesting, if short-lived, consideration of the women in these families making their own power moves.)
Narcos: Mexico’s 80s setting is full of big gold jewelry and flowing blouses and oversized sunglasses, but it never feels cartoonish. It just augments the sense of a world that is both more colorful and more dangerous than most dare to tread. As such, the difference between spending time with the plaza bosses and being back in the U.S. is visually striking. When we’re with Walt, colors become dull, interiors are dark, and Scott McNairy has never looked wearier. And yet, that cartel lifestyle is not glorified; it haunts and hurts its players. We remain on Walt’s side; its his dogged pursuit of getting justice for Kiki, and what happened in that house when Félix made the fateful decision to torture and kill him, that makes him heroic. He knows that the game is rigged, but he tries his damnedest to make it all matter anyway.
Though it wanders in its middle episodes, Narcos: Mexico remains a finely written drama that loves to wow us with facts and maps even more than twists born from violent turns (which are, nevertheless, exceptionally effective). It’s smart, dense, and has a flare for the dramatic that keeps each episode interesting (and will have you, once again, running to Wikipedia to compare characters and events to their real-life counterparts). Félix’s machinations are truly brilliant, surprising his friends and enemies alike, and the show’s chronicling of these moves is extremely elegant and engrossing. But he’s always chasing a peace that cannot exist. Walt, like viewers, is both fascinated and reviled by what Félix achieved, or attempted to; his closest TV analog is surely The Wire’s Stringer Bell. They’re both men who wanted to tame a dangerous trade and turn it into a business. Both ultimately failed. “The madness has begun, and no one can stop it. You’ll be drowning in blood, chaos,” Felix says to Walt about Mexico’s future. “You’re going to miss me.”
Narcos: Mexico Season 2 premieres Thursday, February 13th on Netflix.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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