Narcos: Mexico, the official title for the slick, solidly crafted fourth season of Narcos, arrives as a serviceable new chapter for fans of the Netflix series and, to a lesser degree, those who have never watched a single episode. I add that last sentiment because this season is, in a sense, an origin story and a prequel to those years in Colombia — taking on Pablo Escobar and then the Cali cartel — yet even if one hasn’t kept up with the series, this season would still be easy to follow (thanks to an unobtrusive narrator). However, those who are up to speed will enjoy a more intense experience, given that the events depicted during the reverse time jump add an extra layer of urgency to what comes later.
That is to say, all of the self-assured swagger of Agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) and quiet confidence of Agent Javier Pena (Pedro Pascal) would have never materialized, if not for the enormous efforts undertaken by Agent Kiki Camarena (Michael Peña) during the seminal struggles of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. So yes, I’d recommend Narcos: Mexico for fans and newcomers, especially since this season claws through the layers of the rotten onion to the core of the whys. It’s about the open fields of weed discovered by DEA agents, but much more, it’s about battling institutions and power struggles and hidden agendas. It’s complex and intoxicating, and here’s why.
1. Narcos has, especially with season 3, widely been compared to The Wire because it deeply explores both sides of the law enforcement coin. Season 3 was my least favorite (Brian Grubb liked it the most), but that’s because I harbor an irredeemable soft spot for Murphy, who’s a love-or-hate character for the ages, so I understand if you can’t stand the guy, but I missed him. Well, Narcos: Mexico manages to pepper Season 3’s structure and vibe with a voice reminiscent of Murphy’s not-yet-existent ghost. Also, this chapter shows the fledgling DEA struggling to be taken seriously by the U.S. feds while infiltrating the Guadalajara cartel. Institutional-based betrayal is rampant, much like in The Wire, and the Mexican federales are entrenched in the drug trade while taking a cut of cartel profits. The sheer level of institutional f*ckery makes Narcos: Mexico the most The Wire-y chapter so far. Again, there’s a narrator who approaches smartass Murphy levels, and I am easily charmed by such devices. So this prequel’s a win for anyone who has enjoyed any Narcos season.
2. A mild spoiler alert feels a little silly, given that we’re discussing historical events, and with this chapter, folks know what happens and that the narrator isn’t lying while warning that this 1985 story “doesn’t have a happy ending.” The drug war hasn’t come close to ending in 2018, and obviously, the show (mostly) stuck with the facts when killing Escobar, etc. When we see someone get kidnapped during the season’s opening moments, the camera doesn’t shy away from revealing that this is Agent Camerena, even though this scene doesn’t really play out until many episodes later. (Fact: It took until 2017 for Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo to be sentenced for his role in Camerena’s murder.) Here, Gallardo (played by Diego Luna) is the main criminal figurehead, so there’s no tweaking how this turns out. Camarena’s death sparked a global outrage, and deservedly so, and this season illuminates why his eventual demise arrived in such an earth-shattering manner.
3. Even if nothing else clicked during this season, Peña’s riveting and expansive performance would override all. He’s wild-eyed when we first meet him, yet when we catch up with him several minutes later, he’s calmly manipulating (comparatively) low-level drug suppliers in Fresno, trying to close an undercover deal while convincing these guys that he’s as insane as they are with a gun-involved stunt. There’s a little Mr. Orange-Gives-A-Bathroom-Speech here that Reservoir Dogs fans might appreciate, but quite simply, Camerena embodied the soul of an otherwise weak operation. He’s almost alone in the U.S. side of the fight at the beginning, although he persuades his superiors to get their head in the game. He’s a magnetic presence but a madman, and an obsessive, so when he decides to take on Mexico, he damn well means business.
4. Luna is also wonderful as Gallardo, the pioneer of Mexico’s drug trade, but his success in his role is more about what he doesn’t do. He’s restrained, always preoccupied with thinking five steps ahead, unlike many drug lords depicted in popular culture. He’s not glorified but is portrayed slightly sympathetically, even though he doesn’t have the sad-clown potential that Pablo Escobar did as embodied by Wagner Moura. Still, there’s something captivating about Luna as the ex-cop who seized opportunity to become a kingpin while fine-tuning his organization and spurring it to exponential growth. While eyeing an expansion into cocaine, he held politicians and police commanders in his pockets, and his climactic downfall is swift and stunning. If you loved the business-like acumen of the Cali cartel, you may enjoy Gallardo even more than the impulsive Escobar. But you’ll likely find room to dig both.
5. If you’re itching for some levity here, not a ton will be found in this season, which is unrelenting while pivoting between Camerena and Gallardo’s filled-to-the-brim stories. However, there are elements of the absurd to be appreciated, including the Chapo stuff and antics from some of Gallardo’s henchmen. They chuckle at Tony Montana’s dialogue in Scarface, and Ernesto “Don Neto” Fonseca Carrillo is portrayed flamboyantly. He calmly, almost merrily, witnesses a bloodbath while wearing headphones as blood and guts fly through the air — it’s surreal and almost magical before reality hits again.
6. Yeah, so on Camerena’s side, that reality hits hard. That’s when his wife, Mika (Alyssa Diaz), and his boss, James “Jaime” Kuykendall (Matt Letscher), make things happen. Where Mika is concerned, we can fully grasp the gravity of Murphy’s wife panicking and fleeing Colombia with their infant daughter. Mika actually encourages her husband to take the DEA gig in Mexico and puts on a brave face throughout his tenure, even taking great pains to hide a threat to the family, so his mission isn’t derailed. She firmly believes that her husband can make a difference, and he does, but at a terrible price for his family. Yet Mika’s a much more well-rounded character than the stereotypical “supportive wife,” and she played a role in global recognition of her husband’s fate. I’d definitely be down for a Mika spinoff. She’s still alive and advocating, so … maybe? Probably not, but Netflix: Mexico serves her and the rest of its characters well.
‘Narcos: Mexico’ arrives on Netflix on Friday, November 16.