Every single episode of Narcos: Mexico has involved one or more instances of bureaucratic stonewalling (that have only gotten more frustrating as the season has progressed), and “881 Lope de Vega” cashes in pretty much every single one of those chips. It’s an episode that’s physically frustrating to watch, to the point that I thought it might be one of the worst of the season before giving myself a little time to cool off and think objectively.
Gallardo was right, of course: The abduction of a DEA agent means that the hammer will actually be coming down this time, but enough people in the government have their livelihoods on the line that the red tape dictating what Kuykendall and company can and can’t do isn’t any easier to navigate.
To that end, this is perhaps the best episode at illustrating exactly what the DEA was up against. It earns the shock value that the series attempts to leverage by including occasional news footage of the people who died as collateral damage for the drug war. It’s inconceivable that so much of the system was rigged that, for example, Rafa was caught red-handed by a squad of agents, and then let go as the DFS claimed him as one of their own. Mexico City doesn’t have any intention of incriminating men who could incriminate them in turn, and sending an officer whose hands are essentially tied is part of the game.
The only silver lining is that Rafa’s escape allows for enough of a fuss to be kicked up — i.e., enough news outlets to pick up the story — that the government eventually is forced to really act. Calderoni is brought back in (never thought I’d be so happy to see that guy), and he’s ready to get to work. (Where his predecessor had been a stickler about getting warrants to question folks, Calderoni’s thoughts on the matter are, “What’s a warrant?”)
At the beginning of the episode, Rafa is the only one who isn’t worried by the impending fallout, and it turns out that he’s partially right not to be. He gets as far as Costa Rica (and takes a delighted Sofia along with him) before Calderoni catches up to him — on a tip from Gallardo himself. Gallardo knows there needs to be a fall guy for everything that’s going on (he even said so to Rafa, explaining that was why the government had gone to him for the go-ahead on Kiki’s abduction), and he doesn’t have any qualms about effectively making Rafa pay for his own mistakes.
It’s the one faint point of satisfaction aside from Calderoni’s reintroduction in an episode that is extremely heavy work otherwise. Gallardo’s efforts at putting things right are dynamic; Kiki’s torture decidedly is not.
Whether or not you know how the case ends, it’s horrible to watch, as it becomes more and more obvious that, were so many people not so intent on keeping things under wraps, Kiki Camarena might have been saved at least some of the pain that’s inflicted on him. Though every single DEA agent (including those who’d been sent back to the States) comes back to Guadalajara in order to help find him, it’s just not enough. (Again, it casts an awful pall over the proceedings to know that the U.S. government had called off the investigation that the cartel kidnapped Kiki for.)
It’s also so clearly a lose-lose situation for Kiki, who can’t give the cartel answers to questions that he doesn’t have, and can’t make anything up in the event that they figure out he’s lying. Though Calderoni manages to beat an address out of Rafa, Kiki is no longer there by the time the raid arrives.
The time that the series has invested in Kiki’s home life pays off to devastating effect here, as Mika serves as something of a through line. The episode opens with her dreaming that Kiki has come home, but it’s only a dream. It’s only her subsequent badgering that gets anyone except the DEA to actually take action, and the episode’s most emotional moments belong to her. The first is when she packs a backpack for Kuykendall to take with him on the raid, with some clothes for Kiki to change into; the second is her reading the final part of Charlotte’s Web, when Charlotte dies, to their children. Maybe it’s a cheap trick, but the overlay of her voice reading out the spider’s lonely end — “No one was with her when she died” — is a total gut-punch. (I actually just wrote “Jesus Christ” in my notes because I was so immediately at a loss.)
It’s a moment that works because of the way the season’s been built, emphasizing the structure that allowed Gallardo to get away with so much for so long, and made it so impossible for Kiki to catch up. What worries me is what comes next. Though Diego Luna is terrific as Gallardo, Michael Peña’s role is the more interesting one by virtue of the fact that he’s been given more emotional depth. It’s not entirely clear where Narcos: Mexico will go without him, even in just the one episode it has left.
Seeds and Stems:
• As the DEA raid Gallardo’s (empty) estate, one of the men takes a look at a painting and ponders aloud what it might mean. Ferguson’s answer, a terse, “Do I look like a fucking art major to you?” is one of the episode’s only funny moments.
• I’m not sure what to make of Kiki and Rafa’s tortures being shown, however briefly, in parallel. It could probably be taken as a comment on the methods of the police not being that much better than those of the cartel, but it’s an angle that’s come in way too late for it to have that much purchase.
• Props to Alyssa Diaz as Mika Camarena. She’s been doing great work all season in a role that could easily have been a totally thankless one.