By Manik Sharma Feb. 15, 2020
How do corrupt, greedy men who work inured to the law or accountability of any sort, work together? It is a question Narcos: Mexico repeatedly poses, showing us the haywire ways of the drug world that has led to Mexico’s present- day cartel wars.
In the third episode of the second season of Narcos: Mexico, a dejected Pablo Acosta (Gerardo Taracena) is bent over the body of an old friend he has just killed and says “The only thing that keeps order in this game is respect.” In the fourth episode, a corrupt Mexican policeman exclaims while grinning “Respect and fear go a long way.” In its fifth season now, – counting the three that surveyed Colombia – Narcos remains a fascinating study of a lawless world. How do corrupt, greedy men who work inured to the law or accountability of any sort, work together? It is a question Narcos repeatedly poses, showing us the haywire ways of the drug world and what has, on a macro level, led to Mexico’s present-day cartel wars. In empirically recreating history, Narcos sticks to its proven model of essaying different aspects of the drug trade, from politics to personal animosity, from corruption to cross-border status quos, succeeding in offering an entertaining encore.
In a slight departure from the recurring voiceovers employed in the previous seasons of the show, this time, there is lesser political context. The latest season picks up after the murder of DEA agent Kikki Camarena (Michael Pena), hesitantly assisted by Felix Gallardo (Diego Luna), the man at the heart of the Mexican drug trade. Gallardo, played with pensive brilliance by Luna, continues to attempt the improbable – institute order and accountability in a drug trade pillared on the shoulders of cartels run by fidgety, snide men. Other than the bureaucratic hustle, he has a DEA-shaped cloud hanging over his head. Last season’s narrator Walt Breslin (Scoot McNairy) is out to hunt the men involved in Kikki’s murder and for this chase he has been given the licence “to take the gloves off”. In the first episode, Walt and his team kidnap the doctor who helped torture Kikki and drop him into American territory so he can be tried on home soil. Slowly, Walt believes, he will “move up the ladder” until he gets to Gallardo with enough proof to make him pay.
Though Narcos: Mexico has a more genteel, plain man at its heart, Luna’s brilliant portrayal refuses to romanticise the drug business the way Escobar did.
Gallardo, on the other hand, is besotted by problems of his own. Riddled with guilt about having assisted Kikki’s murder, he cuts a regretful figure. The “plazas” Gallardo brought together are plagued by infighting and jealousy. In the opening episode, he is gifted a tiger by a partner. “Stare into its eyes and it won’t fuck with you,” Gallardo is told, as if prophesising the path he must take to survive – to do what no one has done before, to shift the centre of the drug trade from Colombia to Mexico. Gallardo is a far cry from the headstrong Escobar, the highlight of the first two seasons of Narcos. In fact, he is an antithesis of most of the drug lords the show has showcased over five seasons.
As Walt and his team become American-sponsored vigilantes on Mexican soil, the legal and diplomatic loopholes begin to show. Exacting revenge is one thing, but bringing justice to a corrupt system is another, as Walt learns. Thinly written, Walt’s character is a missed opportunity, to the point that his presence can at times feel like a formality. But the season really picks up after the halfway mark as push comes to shove. Both men become desperate, often overriding their own first instincts. Gallardo stares into the eye of the tiger while Walt gradually becomes him. The multiple sub-stories that shift focus between warring cartel families, are instructive to the displaying the rot that eventually consumes businesses built on crime.
Though Narcos: Mexico has a more genteel, plain man at its heart, Luna’s brilliant portrayal refuses to romanticise the drug business the way Escobar did. There are enough similarities between this season and the ones that have preceded this, but it is also evidence of why Narcos has become such a hot property for Netflix. This season shows some wear and dust that has begun to gather on the scripts, but should it reinvent itself, there is no reason why this world won’t continue to intrigue and entertain.
Manik Sharma writes on Arts and Culture.
He tweets at @Manik1Sharma