Yet another installation in the world’s continuing fascination with the drug trade in the Americas. Call me jaded, but having seen at least 10 of these come out every month, I may have unfairly written off “Narcos: Mexico” before it even began. I quickly realized, however, that the “Narcos” spin-off series maintains the quality of its parent, one of the standouts in the crowded sea of the drug trade subgenre.
But, should “Narcos: Mexico” even be called a spin-off? On the surface, it carries no links to the original about Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug cartels and the United States’s involvement in the two. This time, it focuses on Mexico in the early 1980s. Diego Luna (“Rogue One”) plays Felix Gallardo (a real life drug cartel figure nicknamed “El Padrino”), an ambitious, ruthless leader who unifies many of Mexico’s cartels to form the infamous Guadalajara cartel. He is pursued by Kiki Camarena (Michael Peña, “A Wrinkle in Time”), a D.E.A. officer who moves to Guadalajara with his family before realizing the scope of his mission.
“Narcos: Mexico” features many of the same elements that brought the original such high acclaimed, even down to the theme song. Although you do not need to be familiar with it to enjoy this version, fans of the original will notice “Mexico” feels very familiar. There is plenty of exposition about the drug war itself, giving a sense, once again, that corruption is pervasive in both sides of the “War on Drugs” and how futile that “war” ultimately is.
Unfortunately, “Mexico” does not have a character quite as compelling as Escobar — one of the best antiheros in recent TV history — or even Pedro Pascal’s (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) Javier Peña. Luna delivers a fine performance with what he is given, but he is not given an opportunity to showcase much range. At times, his performance is rather one-note (even though he plays that one note extremely well), rarely venturing beyond his default demeanor of “steely and ambitious.” Peña’s performance on the other hand is much more well-rounded. Camarena is shown as extremely skilled and possessing a strong moral compass, but ultimately frustrated by the corruption in government agencies he encounters at every turn.
Even the main characters are often upstaged by the colorful characters that pop up around Mexico. Even more so than the original, “Narcos: Mexico” makes the country itself as intriguing as the storylines. The Mexican landscapes are beautiful in a harsh, brutal way (it is worth remembering that a location scout named Carlos Muñoz Portal was murdered on the job) and the characters involved with the drug trade are flamboyant and ostentatious in typical ’80s fashion. The action scenes and gore can become somewhat self-indulgent, but by now that’s almost expected.
Like the original, “Narcos: Mexico” reminds us that, while the story it tells is complex and entertaining, it really doesn’t need to happen at all. Nobody knows whether it will ever get any closure, or whether it will plod on, taking hundreds of thousands of livelihoods with it.