“What I’m interested in… is building an empire.”
What began as a fourth season but is now a series of its own, Narcos: Mexico finds Netflix delivering a detailed and refreshing look at the Mexico marijuana and cocaine trafficking into the United States. It’s all under Miguel Félix Gallardo (Diego Luna), a man on the rise as he greases the pockets of every law and government official he can get close to. But on his heels is Kiki Camarena (Michael Peña), transferred to Guadalajara looking to disrupt the corruption and flow of drugs with his team.
The season is ripe with classic cartel good guy/bad guy back and forth: at its center is a gangster growing from nothing while a man of the law frustratingly tries to find a way to take it all down. But with ten episodes, Narcos: Mexico manages to settle in and takes its time, finding the nuance and human element, looking for what makes these people tick and what makes them want more than what they already have.
One thing for Félix is certain: he hates being reminded of who he was and not of whom he has become. There are several of these moments, and Luna plays it with stoic heartache as the shame and anger of his past life is thrown in his face even after all of what he’s accomplished. He wants respect, and there will always be someone above him to tear him down. Luna molds into the role elegantly, each slight felt in his expressions, each attack and setback held in his body language and words.
Peña’s Kiki is endlessly determined, each setback and slight against him only further pushing him to higher means of taking down the cartel. Peña has been more of a comedic actor as of late, and here he proves his great worth as a dramatic actor, with a performance which helps hold the show up, along with Luna’s, and really helps deliver one of his better roles.
Both main characters are driven by the same thing: respect. There’s a lot of disrespect going around; earning your place requires more than just proving your worth. This is the main theme of this season: both men push harder and harder toward their ultimate goal while still finding resistance and dismissive sharks.
It’s in Joaquin Cosío we find the most interesting and captivating performance of the series, as Don Neto. As Neto, he at first comes off as a dismissive and annoyed fool, but soon grows into the character I could not take my eyes off of. He lights up every scene with simply being in it, and Cosío really held my attention throughout.
While on good footing for its first few hours, it’s at the episode five mark and onward where the season takes off and grows into a tense wave of fallout. Everyone ends up with emotional scars as cocaine is introduced to the picture, with it bringing some familiar faces from seasons past. It’s in fighting to keep above water where Narcos: Mexico finds its most power. Every action has consequences, and the constant shift to combat cause and effect gives the drama a massive boost. On the surface, business may be growing exponentially, but what it means to these characters and what came before changes who they are.
The direction is superb in these hours, with the sun-baked production in Mexico providing unique architecture and atmosphere, which differentiates from past seasons of its sister series. Under Eric Newman’s showrunning, the show feels connected but is more energized and has a slight hand in pop culture, with some small homages and twinges of crime dramas of the past. It adds up to a very appealing season of television, one where those at the forefront are given a huge backdrop to work on.
But despite all the good, the women in the season are somewhat sidelined. Alyssa Diaz as Mika, Kiki’s wife, does get some moments but left me wishing she was in more scenes due to how well her character works. Teresa Ruiz as Isabella, too, one of Félix’s business partners, is a rather fascinating figure in the show, but isn’t featured as much as hoped. It also skips over some of the more intriguing pieces of the true story, though with the disclaimer up front and the amount of time needed, it’s understandable.
Narcos: Mexico is a fresh start for an already great series. For a show about power and respect, it gets down to the relationships which run them, and how cogs only work if the others are aligned. Netflix has brought a foreign language crime drama to a larger audience and knocked it out of the park again. It’s a solid follow-up to previous years and will be a great starting point for newcomers, as well as an incredibly welcome return for fans.
Narcos: Mexico begins streaming on Netflix on November 16th. All episodes were provided for review.