“What I’m doing here… I’m building an empire,” says Félix Gallardo (Diego Luna) in Narcos: Mexico, a statement of intent that could just as easily apply to the Narcos franchise itself. Netflix’s original drama, which charts the origins of the modern drug war, was its first non-English-language series to break out internationally, an unexpected hit that spawned multiple seasons, taking the story of Pablo Escobar in Colombia to his successors, the Gentlemen of Cali. Now, that empire is expanding even further, with Season 4 of the narcotics thriller travelling North to Mexico, a soft reboot that kicks off a whole new chapter of crime.
It’s a big step for the Narcos franchise, bidding farewell to both Boyd Holbrook’s Steve Murphy and Pedro Pascal’s Javier Peña, the two constants who have anchored the series’ evolution. But the all-new Narcos emerges as a refreshing blast of new characters and locations, all stitched together with the continued themes of power, corruption and obsessive ambition.
And so we’re introduced to Gallardo, the daddy of Mexico’s drug trade. In the 1980s, he’s a man with vision: while Mexico’s trafficking scene is a disorganised sea of separate groups and growers, he sees the value in bringing it together to create one overall business, ensuring everybody gets their cut and nobody gets short-changed. A union of dealers; a collective of criminals; a super-sized cartel. When we first meet him in Sinaloa, he’s sporting a police badge, as he stops an army storming a church to cart away Rafa, a marijuana farmer. Rafa, we learn, is actually family, and the badge? He’s not a cop anymore. And so he and Rafa flee to Guadalajara to start building their business on safer soil – Gallardo, we immediately realise, is a man with an idea, and the balls to pull it off.
At the same time, we meet Kiki Camarena (Michael Peña), a DEA agent who isn’t afraid to put his neck on the line to get his target. When things go sour in Miami, he and his family head to Guadalajara for a new post – setting two headstrong forces on an inevitably collision course.
It’s a tale as old as time, bringing a touch of Michael Mann’s Heat to this already testosterone-fuelled rivalry, and Narcos: Mexico works because its two leads are perfectly cast. Diego Luna, who has impressed time and time again since Y Tu Mama Tambien, is clearly relishing the chance to play dark, building on the roguish ambiguity of his Rogue One character, Cassian (about to get his own Star Wars series, but with a constant sense of calm and focus: unlike the fiery Escobar, Luna’s Gallardo is a patient, driven operator, whose sharp, quiet authority sees him move smoothly between friendly rapport with colleagues and calculated schemes behind their backs.
In the opposite corner, Michael Peña is as wonderfully charismatic as his scene-stealing turns in Ant-Man showed the world he can be. He’s just as determined as Gallardo, but in a different way: his resolve is to do the right thing and make a difference, a committed drive that’s all the more sympathetic because we know things won’t end well for him. Kiki’s undercover skills are impressive, even as he and the DEA discover that they aren’t prepared to take on Gallardo’s complex and rapidly-growing operation, and that shared theme of rising above expectations gives a unique edge to Narcos’ new era: Camarena is a man who was subject to stereotypes and prejudice in America, now eagerly working at a DEA that’s nonetheless only a few years old and carries no clout, only able to gather information in the shadow of Mexico’s bent law enforcement; the Mexican traffickers, meanwhile, are subject to that same false preconception, and the underestimation of these dealers’ ability to organise and band together is weaponised brutally and efficiently by Gallardo.
The only frustration is that the series, even in its fourth season, remains frustratingly short of complex or rounded female characters – we have memorable supporting turns from people such as Gallardo’s veteran sidekick, Don Neto (Joaquin Cosio), but the families of Felix and Kiki are sadly undeveloped, at least in the opening episodes watched for this review. There’s potential for Kiki’s wife (Alyssa Diaz) to get more to do, but Narcos: Mexico’s focus is resolutely on its two stars.
If that sounds like a disappointing retread of familiar ground, Narcos: Mexico nonetheless benefits from the consistent way it approaches its storytelling: the show has done this so many times that it’s got its signature, slick style down cold. The intercutting between stories and characters is impeccable, the pacing grippingly precise, the sweeping camera movements over parties, raids and shootouts still impressive, and the sudden outbursts of violence no less shocking, all stitched together with a voiceover that balances darkly ironic humour and informative digressions with a constant sense of unavoidable death.
There’s a knowing quality to all this gloss by now – at one point, we see characters watching Scarface on a cathode ray TV. But Luna and Peña bring a grounded weight to their parts in this sculpted version of history, which lends this patient thriller a classy tone more reminiscent of The Godfather than Brian De Palma’s Pacino-fest. In the background of every scene, a low-level guy keeps popping up called Chapo, teasing the generations of gun-toting, drug-dealing and law-avoiding to come. Narcos: Mexico sees Netflix’s series rebuilding its empire – long may it continue.
Narcos: Mexico is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.99 monthly subscription.