“Narcos: Mexico” wants you to think that it’s a whole new show. The newest season of the Netflix drama did go to the trouble of enlisting a new cast, relocating to a different area of the world, and promising first-time viewers that it’s not necessary to have seen the previous seasons. It’s even listed separately from “Narcos” on the Netflix site, with the new episodes listed as “Season 1.”
However, it is still the same series in every respect that matters, which makes it an easy recommend for previous fans. Showrunner Eric Newman has gotten very good at dramatizing the ever-expanding saga of the drug war for television, and the result here are 10 tense, detail-oriented episodes that don’t lack for action and drama.
While the scope might seem large, “Mexico” manages an admirable level of focus, as the show boils down largely to two men in the early 1980s: Felix (Diego Luna), the man who made the business of marijuana run like a corporation, and Enrique “Kiki” Camarena (Michael Peña), a DEA agent whose team is doing the best they can to take down Felix’s operation, despite the odds of doing so being nearly impossible in a country as corrupt as Mexico.
While it’s hard not to miss departing star Pedro Pascal, who became easily one of the best things about the original series during its Colombian days, Luna is a huge get for the series and makes Felix a terrifying, yet also all-too-often sympathetic, figure. (The fact that both Pascal and Luna are set to be leading their own individual “Star Wars” series for Disney’s upcoming streaming service is a fun coincidence.)
There are some other familiar faces popping up in the cast, including Matt Letscher, familiar to CW fans as “Flash” villain Eobard Thawne, and “Mad Men” alumnus Aaron Staton, aka Ken Cosgrove (no eyepatch). But it’s really Luna and Peña’s show, and even though they very rarely share the screen together, the pairing makes for a dynamic one. Peña is a long way from Ant-man’s wisecracking sidekick here, ensuring that Kiki is thoroughly grounded in the realities of this life.
“Narcos” has always been more on the level of “Scarface” than “The Godfather,” and this season feels like it’s made its peace with that fact (characters even watch a VHS copy of the Brian de Palma film at one point). There are times when the henchmen begin to feel a little generic, the agents chasing them underdeveloped as characters — and those are the male characters, who get off lucky in comparison to the women, who barely even qualify as human beings. The actors do what they can with the tropes they’re handed, but “Narcos” is not the show to watch if you’re looking for female characters with any real agency.
During the show’s Escobar run, “Narcos” occasionally fell prey to the temptation of wallowing in the more glamorous aspects of the drug cartel lifestyle, which “Mexico” manages to avoid — however, the use of Mexican locations emphasizes the natural beauty of the landscape, especially the local beaches and greenery.
There’s some bloat in these episodes (there’s no reason for the finale to stretch to nearly 70 minutes,) and the show’s signature voiceover is once again ever-so-slightly overused. However, that narration does bring with it some intrigue, as in an unusual twist we don’t learn the identity of the narrator until the very end of the season — though savvy viewers will be able to identify the actor as Scoot McNairy, a new cast member who gets set up to play a significant role in a subsequent season.
Ultimately, “Narcos” has always been a story rooted in futility, its worldview drenched in the cynical knowledge that real solutions to the drug war are relatively impossible. The show is not afraid to admit that the system is broken, that human nature’s worst aspects will make sure that business is always booming for these men. This basic fact makes heroes out of the average men who try to fight these facts, many of whom end up being casualties in this battle.
The opening lines of “Narcos: Mexico” reflect that world-weary attitude: “I’m going to tell you a story, but it doesn’t have a happy ending. In fact, it doesn’t have an ending at all.” It’s grim, but honest, and just looking at the state of the world today, it’s hard not to agree that the show has a point. Fortunately, while its message may be a downer, the storytelling’s compelling enough to be worth it.