Narcos: Mexico review: a show for people who want the drug war to last forever

Narcos started as a show about Pablo Escobar, a real-life gangster who outdid even the most outrageous fictional ones. The show built a compelling two-season crime thriller around his astonishing life and death. But while Escobar died, Narcos — a hit that premiered in 2015, when Netflix was rapidly building its streaming empire — needed to go on. A third season followed another Colombian cartel. Then a spinoff, Narcos: Mexico, tracked a parallel cartel in Central America. The first season detailed its rise; the second chronicles its fall. If there was any point to all this, it’s become hard to keep track of. The show is too busy following the cocaine.

Narcos: Mexico is the story of Mexico’s first drug kingpin, Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo (Diego Luna). The 10 episodes that premiere this week detail the dramatic implosion of Gallardo’s empire, a collapse that makes for extremely bingeable television. Yet, despite the thrilling spectacle, exhaustion seeps in. Even though it aims at being something more, Narcos: Mexico doesn’t seem to have ambitions far beyond those of the criminals it follows, pushing more product.

The second season of Narcos: Mexico wants to make a point about consequences, at least on a surface level. The collapse of Gallardo’s empire stems directly from brash actions taken during his ascent — most directly, the murder of DEA agent Kiki Camarena (Michael Peña), which sends agent Walt Breslin on a reckless mission of retribution. There are also bridges burned along the way, friendships set ablaze to use as fuel for ambition that leave many eager to see Gallardo out of power.

Throughout, Narcos occasionally makes overtures at the grander significance of the story it’s telling. Across 10 episodes, Gallardo’s desperate maneuvers to retain control of his business and stick it to those who have slighted him have consequences that reverberate beyond the criminal underworld, ultimately resulting in a rigged presidential election. “Sound familiar?” the show’s narrator winks.

There is a long series of assumptions in this, ideas that have been present in Narcos from the start, even as it occasionally paid lip service to their subversion: that Central and South American nations are lawless playgrounds for the corrupt, where prosperity can only be seized by crooks and violence reigns. Every now and then Narcos does its diligence to complicate this picture, almost entirely via narration: a tossed off line that notes the Mexican and Colombian drug trades exist wholly to serve the appetites of the wealthy in the US and Europe, or another about the fundamentally destabilizing influence of the United States’ foreign policy that created problems in exchange for the glow up of “solving” them.

The actual moral universe of the show is far simpler: dope dealers deserve whatever’s coming to them, the bad guys often win, and the good guys should be able to do whatever it takes to stop them.

Narcos can’t truly complicate itself any further because doing so would acknowledge that all these stories are the same story, and in telling them, the show becomes complicit. Midway through the first season of Narcos: Mexico, Gallardo (Diego Luna) leaves his native country for a secret meeting in South America. In a moment that’s designed to be a big surprise for longtime Narcos fans, Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura) is waiting for him.

“I’ve always sort of seen this as of the Marvel superhero universe of connecting narcotraffickers, and that they all coexist,” showrunner Eric Newman told The Hollywood Reporter not long after the season premiered in 2018. It’s a crass way of describing the dynamics at play in these stories of cartels and corruption, but also a very American one. The gringos, as the Mexicans doing the dirty work for the cartel bosses say, always want more. And what better expression of “more” is there than the excesses of the modern cinematic universe?

This is how Narcos has carried on, and how it will carry on if it continues its run. Just as Narcos: Mexico harkened back to Narcos with a well-deployed Escobar cameo depicting a meeting that likely never happened in the real world, the show continues to hint at the ways it will sprawl outward and continue telling these kinds of stories now that it has exhausted the drama of Gallardo’s Federation. It’s not subtle about it either, making sure in its first season that you know Gallardo’s driver Joaquín Guzmán goes by “Chapo” and spending a considerable amount of time this season laying the groundwork for rivalries that he will carry into the future, for what will be one of the most prolonged conflicts in the history of Mexico’s drug war.

You could tell this story indefinitely, because it is still being told today, with every story of a white person enraged at the sound of Spanish being spoken, with every ICE raid, with every chant for the wall. Cartel dramas like Narcos are fairy tales for a nation in decline, flattening diverse and complicated countries for the benefit of a nation that refuses to acknowledge the havoc it has wreaked on the world.