Narcos: Mexico is something of a special case for Netflix. It is the fourth season of the streaming giant’s successful series about key figures in the drug trade and the concomitant and largely ineffectual war on drugs waged by the U.S. government and others over the last few decades. But it is also a reboot of sorts — hence the colon and specific new destination in the series’ title. That new title and location also brings with it a new timeline, a new drug of choice (this time it's marijuana over cocaine, which fueled the empires of both Pablo Escobar and the Cali Cartel), and, most importantly, a new cast led by stars Diego Luna and Michael Peña.
With that in mind, it wouldn’t have been out of the question for Netflix to call the series Narcos: All Stars — though that might send the wrong message about its respective lead actors. But the sentiment, nevertheless, still holds true. Both Luna and Peña are the draw here, as they have been brought in not only to smooth the transition from the Narcos of the past three seasons to Mexico, but also to attract new viewers, who perhaps missed out on the Narcos train the first time around. In other words, this new season is the perfect jumping-on point for new and old viewers alike, and the show’s creators have highly incentivized viewers’ participation by bringing in a pair of talented, popular actors to make a well-oiled machine run even smoother.
That’s certainly true of the series. Narcos is, by now, at the peak of its storytelling power. After a slight misstep in season 1 that relied too much on the narration of Boyd Holbrook’s Steve Murphy, as well as archival news footage, and a recounting of real events that was a bit too much like reading a Wikipedia entry on Pablo Escobar, the series turned things around. Subsequent seasons showed dramatic improvements from a storytelling perspective without entirely abandoning the elements that likely made the show popular (and easy to follow) in the first place. By the time the series’ then-best season — a Pedro Pascal-led season 3 — rolled around, Narcos was one of the most reliable hitters in the ever-expanding Netflix lineup. The problem, though, was that the series had more or less said what needed to be said about the Colombian cartels. And after several not-so-subtle hints about Mexico and the drug trade in that country (particularly in the season 3 finale), the series was ripe for a reboot.
That reboot quickly establishes itself as the most riveting and entertaining entry in the series yet. As before, the story of Narcos: Mexico unfolds in parallel storylines, one from the perspective of those involved in the drug trade and one from the perspective of those working to stem it. Both Luna’s Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo and Peña’s Enrique ‘Kiki’ Camarena are at the beginning of their respective journeys, with Gallardo sowing the seeds (literally) of his weed empire, while Kiki is looking to make a name for himself and to make a difference in his line of work by moving to Mexico to be part of the DEA’s largely powerless office down there.
The series surrounds Peña with a group of recognizable actors; namely, Matt Letscher (The Flash) as James Kuykendall, Aaron Staton (Mad Men) as Butch Sears, and Yul Vasquez (FBI) as John Gavin. They are, for the most part, content to play the same game they’ve been playing for years: buying drinks for members of Mexican law enforcement in exchange for information that they’re not authorized to act on. Adding to the DEA's woes is the rampant corruption within some of the departments that sees high-ranking enforcement officials on the payroll of various drug dealers.
It’s a disorganized and ineffectual system on both sides of the law, and the series paints Gallardo as an enterprising climber ready to exploit the undisciplined and inefficient network of bosses and, essentially, micro-cartels to suit his own large-scale ambitions for building an empire. To that end, Gallardo becomes the most fascinating player in Narcos: Mexico early on, and Luna gives him both the gravitas and humanity needed to make audiences want to follow along on his ill-gotten journey. There are parallels to what Narcos did in season 1, establishing Escobar’s rise to power and his dominance in trafficking cocaine, but there’s something more humanistic about Gallardo that likely has something to do with the difference in his profile compared to that of a figure like Escobar who, 25 years after his death, is still the subject of several films a year it seems. That’s not to say Gallardo is entirely sympathetic. He’s still a stone-cold killer when he needs to be, but there is also a pragmatism to the way he works and the way Luna plays him that makes Gallardo out to be more interesting than a psychopath with a ridiculous amount of power.
That Narcos: Mexico would take the time to humanize its subjects and to understand where they come from and why they would make the choices that they make, turns the new season (or series, what have you) into the best yet. There’s still the familiar docuseries component, this time narrated by the unmistakable dulcet tones of Scoot McNairy, but that element is scaled way back, allowing the show to more fully realize its potential as a drama presented through the lenses of a variety of distinct, fascinating individuals, rather than in aggregate, as told by a “just the facts” approach to history.
The historical record is still unquestionably important, especially with regard the fates that befall so many of the key players (mild spoiler, sure, but come on, this stuff happened over 30 years ago), but Narcos: Mexico has successfully excavated the human drama from the record, and in doing so has constructed a narrative that’s as fascinating in its character beats as it is in how it delivers a chronicle of real-life events.
Narcos: Mexico premieres Friday, November 16 on Netflix.