Michael Peña
Photo: Carlos Somonte (Netflix)

The dramatic template for Netflix’s ongoing Narcos series doesn’t change much in its new “parallel” spinoff, Narcos: Mexico. Drug empires corrupt entire countries, from the individuals touched by them right up through every level of law enforcement and government. Good cops—especially those from the United States plunked down in the midst of the ensuing lawless chaos—chafe at the idea that the system is designed to thwart them, and seek extrajudicial means to bring down their high-profile targets. In the end, a lot of people on both sides die, some traffickers get captured or killed, and the cowboy cops look ruefully into the distance, knowing that the world’s insatiable desire for illegal drugs mean that today’s victories are only stopgaps.

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That tension between fatalism and heroism is the engine Narcos as an enterprise runs on, the series’ reliance on true-life figures and events (with the inevitable “inspired by true events” pre-episode caveat in play) informing each season’s action with a world-weary inevitability. That conflict also continues to mark Narcos with an unfortunate tendency to favor the cowboys. As workmanlike as the series is detailing the complex histories of its settings and suggesting just how intractable the drug trade is for those countries, its DEA protagonists’ similar complaints about the deck being stacked against them inevitably tilt Narcos’ narrative in their direction. With its 1980s backdrop, Narcos’ dramatic approach to the war on drugs leans more toward Rambo’s “Do we get to win this time?” ethos than the more complex modern take of The Wire.

Photo: Carlos Somonte/Netflix

Narcos: Mexico’s cowboy is DEA Agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena (Michael Peña), a gung-ho operative introduced putting a drug dealer’s gun to his own head as part of an ill-fated undercover operation in order to prove his loyalty. That willingness to put himself in danger sees him accepting an unprofitable post in Guadalajara, just in time for rising marijuana kingpin Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo (Diego Luna) to make his move, both to consolidate the country’s fractious weed cartels—and to branch out into the exponentially more lucrative cocaine business by reaching out to the warring Colombian cartels of Cali and Medellín. (A fifth episode appearance by both of the central organizations of the first three Narcos series brings a predictably riveting single encounter between Luna and Wagner Moura’s charismatic Pablo Escobar, providing this spinoff’s connective tissue.)

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In each season of Narcos, the escalating war between the cop and the kingpin provides the series’ dramatic frisson, and, here, Peña and Luna follow in the “we’re not so different, you and I” footsteps of Boyd Holbrook and Pedro Pascal’s battles with Moura and the “gentlemen of Cali.” (Apologies to Alberto Ammann, whose Cali kingpin Pacho’s brief appearance here only underscores how much Narcos’ third season missed Moura.) It’s here that the Narcos franchise continues to bog down, though, as the obsessed cop vs. criminal mastermind beats never change, especially when it comes to domestic matters. Peña’s Kiki is at least matched with Alyssa Diaz’s formidable Mika, who manages to make more out of her character’s supportive but hard-headed role than the usual worried expressions and wet-eyed fretting about her man not coming home. Unfortunately for Luna, Félix’s partnership with wife Maria (Fernanda Urrejola) suffers in comparison, at least partly as a function of Narcos: Mexico’s debilitating portrayal of its main antagonist.

Diego Luna as Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo
Photo: Carlos Somonte/Netflix

Both Peña (crisp, lean, and authoritative), and Luna are fine actors, of course. But the Narcos formula hems them both in here, leaving them playing men either too one-note in the perpetually pissed-off Kiki’s case, or wanly inconsistent in Félix’s. (A mid-series infidelity subplot leaves viewers wondering where Luna’s unassertive Félix found the energy.) The parallels are drawn between the two men early, as both buck against systems seemingly designed to keep them from asserting their considerable wills and ambitions. Kiki’s unbending nature sees him constantly butting heads with anyone he sees as in his way. (Mika makes Kiki show his new DEA colleagues the black eye he’s sporting in his official ID, received after he took on a group of wedding guests daring to smoke a joint in the bathroom.) Félix’s forward-thinking plans find him supplanting his obdurate boss in the weed business and explaining how his experience in losing his first wife to leukemia taught him, “You have to control this fucking world, or it will control you, and it will break you.”

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But there’s not much room for Peña or Luna to grow in these 10 episodes, at least in the show’s unchanging conceptions of them. Peña gets dressed down during one of his tirades against how things are done, with fellow agent Butch Sears (Mad Men’s Aaron Staton) snapping, “All we needed to fix Mexico was a well-timed temper tantrum.” But, as is Narcos’ underlying mission statement, the complaining, action-hungry cowboy is always right, and Peña is left playing the same notes, again and again. As for Luna, after a first-episode gambit where the then-policeman uses his wits and guts to brazen out a series of tight spots on behalf of his operation with pot-cultivating friend Rafa (Tenoch Huerta), Félix almost immediately recedes. With his oft-hinted, on-the-nose backstory to go on, Félix—who became, according to the season’s typically laconic narrator, godfather of “the first Mexican drug cartel”—is, in Luna’s portrayal, a bewilderingly passive criminal mastermind.

Photo: Carlos Somonte/Netflix

Luna, his sad eyes perpetually split by prominent worry lines, makes Félix’s gradual climb and inevitable betrayal of those closest to him a lockstep shuffle rather than the lightning rise of Maura’s magnetic force of nature or even Ammann’s defiantly flamboyant climber. There is some weight given to both Kiki and Félix’s simmering resentment at being overlooked. The series does solid work at contextualizing just how ineffectually under-resourced the early DEA was, the constant disrespect shown to Kiki and his colleagues’ “fact-gathering” mission fueling Peña’s depiction of Kiki’s ever-present grudges. And while the increasingly dapper Félix is mocked as a “slick-haired motherfucker” by his pursuers, Narcos: Mexico repeatedly shows how his roots in the backwaters of Sinaloa constantly mark him as inferior by the powerful men he deals with. But neither motivation can do much to sharpen the characters’ increasingly monotonous speechifying.

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Luckily, Narcos’ varied world is home to a wide collection of colorful supporting types. Huerta’s Rafa—credited with the creation of the cartel’s signature seedless weed (or Sensemilla)—is an electric creation, his obsession with developing and protecting his “babies” in their necessarily isolated desert fields seeing him desperately digging wells for promised water. When he intoxicatedly hurls a box of grenades into yet another dry hole, the resulting explosion of water finds him capering like Daniel Plainview. Also, his obsession with spoiled socialite Sofia (Tessa Ia) finds the besotted pair pulling a series of over-the-top jobs in order to keep their carnal Bonnie and Clyde fantasy alive, despite the inevitable consequences. (There’s also a sly nod to American cultural imperialism in how Rafa’s first viewing of Brian DePalma’s blood-drenched, hyperbolic drug epic Scarface informs Rafa’s increasingly coke-fuelled look and behavior.)

On the law side, Kiki’s initially ineffectual boss, Jaime Kuykendall (The Flash and Legends Of Tomorrow’s Matt Letscher) shakes off his complacent impotence under Kiki’s influence, especially once Kiki is put in serious danger. Described by the series’ narration as “the Eliot Ness of Mexico,” Julio Cesar Cedillo’s honest lawman Calderoni manages to create a believably complex portrait of just what a “decent” man has to do to find justice in a corrupt system. And then there’s Don Neto (The Strain’s Joaquín Cosio), whose barrel-chested old trafficker becomes Félix’s most trusted advisor, even as he never loses sight of how the simple, hedonistic pleasures of the old days were a lot more fun. (Same goes for Jackie Earle Haley, strutting and drawling in the small role of American cop and Kiki confederate Jim Ferguson.)

The action in Narcos: Mexico is suitably bloody, with perhaps an overabundance of CGI bullet hits (and one gory airstrip mishap) punctuating the narrative flow. But, for those not familiar with the fates of people involved this time around, it’s not a spoiler to call Narcos: Mexico the darkest entry in the series so far. The big set pieces that have marked Narcos’ run are all here, too, although with none as impressively elaborate as the raid in season two’s “Los Pepes,” and Kiki’s two big undercover operations—sneaking into Félix’s hotel headquarters and infiltrating Rafa’s massive pot operation—both fizzle. As ever, the narration fills in the gaps and drops klutzy exposition with seen-it-all, wiseass gringo perspective. It helps that, in Narcos: Mexico, it’s the effortlessly charismatic Scoot McNairy doing thankless voiceover duty as an unseen, omniscient figure whose identity is only discovered in the very last scene of the series. It’s in the narrator’s defiantly American take on the action that Narcos: Mexico suggests just where its heart is when it comes to its maddeningly complicated human story, especially once his purpose in the continuing drug war is revealed. As impressively rooted in location, casting, and language (fully three-quarters of this season is in subtitled Spanish) as Narcos remains, it’s also an exercise in explaining to countries whose drug-producing issues are at least partly a result of American foreign policy that, for all the complexity and pain, the cowboys are the ones who will ultimately fix things.

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