Photo: Carlos Somonte/Netflix
New Narcos, new narcos! Goodbye Pedro Pascal, goodbye Boyd Holbrook; hello Michael Peña, hello Diego Luna! Though Narcos: Mexico is technically a sister show to Narcos rather than its fourth season, it shares enough of the same DNA that the transition shouldn’t rattle you too badly.
Though some of the show’s politics remain funky — the fact that the drug war is ongoing and that culpability may lie in more places than we care to admit, a striking point that can’t quite find a balance with how the show discusses marijuana — this season promises to deliver a story much more narratively compact and streamlined than what we’ve seen previously. That has everything to do with the story being told, which is much less of a chase than the hunt for Pablo Escobar. In case you’re not familiar with the historical ground the season is covering and don’t want to be spoiled (for lack of a better way of putting it), I won’t give it away, but the first episode of the season alone makes it clear that the playing field is a small one.
From their respective introductions, it’s clear straight off the bat that Félix Gallardo (Luna) and Kiki Camarena (Peña) are well matched. In his first scene, Gallardo, a Sinaloan state cop, strolls straight into the middle of a military operation and apprehends their target, Rafael Caro Quintero (Tenoch Huerta), without a scuffle — and lets him go as soon as they’re out of police sight, so that he and Rafa can see about saving what they can of their marijuana operation. And DEA Agent Camarena, in Fresno, bullshits his way through an undercover drug bust (though he quickly has to contend with a local police operation not believing that anyone brown could be in law enforcement).
The rest of the episode is moving pieces across the geographical board — everyone needs to get to Guadalajara before the story really gets going — but the expositional gambit works. It’s the season premiere, so we’re still learning about these characters, meaning that there’s still plenty of narrative meat on the show’s bones as it works its way through the setup.
The more we see of Gallardo, the scarier he becomes. He’s a family man, sure (his wife gives off slight Lady Macbeth vibes), but he’s also unafraid to shoot a man in the middle of a crowded public space in broad daylight in order to get a point across. (Sidebar: Is it weird that I love when Diego Luna is mean? Having the sweet-faced actor play someone so ruthless is such a delightful subversion of expectations.)
He’s the one to suggest that the Sinaloa drug operation make a move to Guadalajara, reasoning that the police won’t be able to use as brutal tactics in a city as in the countryside. Then, in the ultimate flex, he takes Don Neto (Joaquín Cosio), who has been negging him at every possible turn, along with him and Rafa to make the deal that’ll let them set up shop, and proceeds to bulldoze all of his advice by shooting the gangster they’re supposed to meet and thereby escalating their case directly to police agent and drug lord “El Azul” (Fermín Martínez). It’s a gamble, but it works. El Azul is impressed enough with Gallardo’s attitude and with Rafa’s know-how (he’s the Jesse Pinkman of the equation, it would seem) that he kills the dead gangster’s angry brother on the spot.
Back in Fresno, Kiki makes a gamble of his own, taking a job in Guadalajara when it becomes clear that his career in California has hit a bureaucratic dead end. At first, it seems like he’s just about to hit the same wall in a different place, as his superior officers make it clear that they don’t make any arrests, instead spending their nights buying drinks for everyone and passing along what information they gather. The only improvement seems to be that his coworkers are less overtly racist, if at all.
But Kiki, like Gallardo, is ambitious. He knows the CIA (who have street cred, unlike the fledgling DEA) has its fingers in the pie, and a quick look around the watering hole reveals cops and drug lords (including El Azul) alike. That revelation is the final shot of the episode, and it’s a thrilling cap to the hour as well as a promising jumping-off point for the rest of the season.
• Again, Narcos: Mexico is a companion series, so let’s thank our lucky stars that it uses the same theme song, “Tuyo,” which remains one of the sexiest opening credits songs in recent memory.
• To return quickly to “I love when Diego Luna is mean,” there’s something chilling about the way Gallardo is willing to sit right next to a freshly dead body as he waits for the next phase of his plan to kick into motion.
• Don Neto is a pain, but I have to admit that I laughed when he took one look at Rafa heading off into a college building with a pink backpack and asked, “Is he looking for vocational guidance or what?”
• R.I.P. the Naranjo brothers and their bowl cuts.
• A potentially boring bullet point: the risk inherent in telling the story of something that actually happened is that that knowledge can lower the dramatic stakes. If you already know what happens, who lives and who dies, a little of the tension saps out of the room, and it’s up to how the story is told to pick up the slack. Based on one episode, I’m tempted to say that I think Narcos: Mexico will pull it off à la Better Call Saul, but we’ll see if I have to eat my hat by the end of the season.