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A Guide to the ‘Narcos’ Extended Universe

As the series moves into a new era in Mexico, it’s time to celebrate the show in all its ridiculous glory and look back on the idiosyncrasies that define it

Aaron Dana

Narcos comes back into our lives this weekend with another season of what’s become one of the more fascinating, adaptable series on television. What was the Pablo Escobar Show for two seasons—buoyed by an incredibly captivating performance and legit dad-bod commitment from Wagner Moura—has since left his orbit. Post-Pablo, it’s clear: The kingpins will come and go, but the white powder they peddle for hundreds of millions of dollars will remain.

The next entry in the Narcos Extended Universe—the NEU for short—moves the action from Colombia to Mexico to trace the rise of Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo (played by Jabba the Hutt enthusiast Diego Luna) and the Guadalajara Cartel in the early ’80s (and, of course, the plucky DEA agents set on stopping them). “Narcos: Mexico,” as the fourth season is being called, is the kind of thing someone could reasonably start without watching previous Narcos seasons. It’s got more of the same tropes—dramatic cartel power plays, ridiculous narration, political corruption, copious violence, cocaína—but the setting and story are new and refreshing. It’s connected to the previous seasons as a continued depiction of cartel history—and how Mexico’s own cartel became intertwined with Colombia’s.

With “Narcos: Mexico” arriving Friday, and with my colleague Megan Schuster and I absolutely enraptured by the NEU in all its ridiculous glory, we thought we’d dissect the universe’s idiosyncrasies, aesthetic choices, and most crucial moments: the things that are quintessentially Narcos. Whether you’re a Narcos newcomer or someone who needs a refresher before the next addictive binge, consider this your guide to the NEU. Of course, that means we’ll be diving into spoiler territory—but c’mon, the show’s loosely adapted from actual history. Is it really a spoiler if you can just look this stuff up on Wikipedia? Vámonos. —Miles Surrey

Pablo Escobar’s “Prison” “Term”

Megan Schuster: The first glimpse we get of Pablo Escobar’s personalized prison, La Catedral—or, as the DEA referred to it, Club Medellín—comes by way of a delivery truck. This truck, which is supposedly delivering piping, clean towels, and uniforms for the guards, is allowed through the gates of the prison without the surrounding military units so much as glancing at its contents. When the back is opened minutes later inside the prison grounds, women pour out and make their way into the building, there for the sole purpose of entertaining the “prisoners” (a.k.a. Pablo and his sicarios). And that’s just the introduction.

La Catedral was negotiated as part of Escobar’s surrender to the Colombian authorities. In exchange for the government getting to say it had the country’s drug kingpin under lock and key, Escobar got … pretty much free rein over the prison. He controlled the guards, the only other occupants were people who worked for him, and the digs were quite sweet. [Extremely Stefon voice] This prison had everything: cases full of booze, a tank of lobsters, roulette and blackjack tables, and even lavish feasts with a live band, chefs, and absolutely phenomenal hats.

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In the Season 1 episode “La Gran Mentira,” a government official flies to Escobar’s compound to get him to sign his surrender papers. During their discussion, Escobar claimed that both sides are winning in this; he’s not getting extradited to the United States, where he would undoubtedly have suffered a harsher punishment for his crimes, and the Colombian government gets to claim it’s on top of the drug war. But given the life of luxury Escobar enjoyed within La Catedral, and the fact he was still able to run his business virtually unchecked within its walls, I’d say he was painting a pretty unrealistic picture with that statement.

Reminder: Pablo Escobar Blew Up a Commercial Plane

Surrey: Going into Narcos with just the most basic information about the show, violence is expected. Per the NEU guidelines—and the “creating a cartel” guidelines in general—you can’t build a drug empire without killing some of your enemies along the way. Violence is currency in this world as much as the drugs and money are. Unfortunately, more often than not innocent bystanders are caught in the crossfire.

The most chilling, real-life example of this is what Escobar does in the sixth episode of Season 1, appropriately titled “Explosivos.” Escobar wanted to get rid of an antidrug Colombian presidential candidate, César Gaviria, so he planted a bomb on Avianca Flight 203, which the politician was expected to be on. In the end, 110 civilians were killed when the bomb detonated shortly after takeoff. (Gaviria, meanwhile, wasn’t actually on the flight.)

It’s a harrowing event in Colombian history—Narcos incorporates some real post-crash news footage to give the moment some added weight—and the first big moment that swung the public perception of Escobar and his empire. He wasn’t a Robin Hood–esque figure trying to help the poor, as local media initially portrayed him; he was narco and a terrorist.

Cocaine Montages

Schuster: Narcos is one of the few shows where I never feel the urge to hit “SKIP INTRO” when Netflix gives me the option, thanks in large part to Rodrigo Amarante’s very affecting “Tuyo” and the accompanying historical archive–esque images. But the intro is more than just stylistic—it also lays the groundwork for an important piece of the show that we’ll see countless times across seasons: the cocaine montage. In the opening credits, powder billows across the screen and armed guards stand around piles of packaged product and suitcases full of the drug. Elsewhere in the show, the cocaine montage is one of the series’ most prominent plot drivers.

The show cycles through various versions of the montage, from production to packaging, shipping to consuming. Narcos makes it abundantly clear that its central character is the drug, not merely the men who peddle it. While we’re drawn into the series by those characters, beautiful shots of the Colombian countryside, the drug lord–vs.-government battle, and Javier Peña’s extremely ’70s sunglasses, cocaine is very evidently the through line.

Overt Music Cues

Surrey: While music isn’t as foundational to the Narcos viewing experience as the absurd amount of cocaine, it definitely plays an important part in establishing the show’s sense of place. The best Narcos music moments are the ones that punch you in the face, hold up a sign saying “THIS IS WHAT DECADE WE’RE IN,” and force you to arrive at a conclusion you had likely already made. In Season 3, for instance, Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Poison” played when Chepe Santacruz brought the Cali Cartel and its cocaine to New York. Then the show used Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” for a money-laundering montage.

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Reminder: “C.R.E.A.M.” stands for “Cash Rules Everything Around Me.” In the NEU, subtlety, thank god, is overrated.

Pablo Escobar Pensively Staring at Things

Surrey: Pablo Escobar must’ve had a lot on his mind. In Narcos, he talks about his aspirations to become the president of Colombia, he tries to help the poorest of the poor in his native Medellín, he’s a family man—all of which is juxtaposed against the kingpin’s ruthless violence, acts of terrorism, and ridiculous flexes of exorbitant wealth, like smuggling hippos onto his ranch (which, good news, are still thriving in Colombia to this day). He is a man of contradictions, and what better way to express that inner turmoil than to give him plenty of moments when he’s just pensively, somewhat solemnly staring off into the distance.

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I mean, this happens a lot. It’s a meme and everything (i.e. “Waiting for the delivery guy like”).

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This is probably what I’ll remember most about Pablo Escobar. Well that, and the hats.

The Concerned Wife

Schuster: One major issue with the Narcos Extended Universe is its lack of meaningful female characters. Sure, there are women in the series: TV reporters (particularly Valeria Velez, who starts up an affair with Escobar), mothers (especially Escobar’s, whose well-being seems to be his guiding force in the world), and daughters. Judy Moncada is one of the few female roles of any significance, but she is called into action only after her husband and brother are killed by Escobar and his forces. On the whole, most women in this series fall into one all-too-common TV trope: the Concerned Wife. Keep in mind these aren’t just wives of the narcos, though Tata, Escobar’s wife, is routinely shown making faces like this:

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The trope also extends to the “good guys.” One of Season 1’s major themes is DEA agent Steve Murphy (played by Boyd Holbrook) moving his wife to Colombia for his job, then having difficulty juggling the dangerous realities of his new role in the drug war with his wife’s super unreasonable desire to know that he’s safe, and that in turn she is safe in her home (spoiler alert: She isn’t). Outside of their abilities to make pinched-looking faces and to nag their husbands for simple assurances like “You’ll have a place to sleep tonight,” “Our kids are safe,” and “No, I’m not gonna die on the job,” women don’t have much of a place in this series. If you want to watch a show about a female drug lord, you should probably tune into Queen of the South, which airs on USA Network.

Everything (and Nearly Everyone) Is Corrupt

Surrey: If Narcos had a mantra during its Escobar seasons, it was the choice he presented to Colombian soldiers in the series premiere: plata o plomo, silver or lead. In other words, if someone cannot be bribed and enmeshed in the entire cartel operation—be it anonymous soldiers, high-ranking officers, or even, as evident in “Narcos: Mexico,” politicians—then they must be killed. And as we’ve seen through three seasons, most choose plata over plomo. That maze of political corruption has meant that the DEA agents and well-meaning local officers and politicians trying to stop the cartels aren’t just fighting the bad guys; they’re fighting a system that is actively trying to stop them every step of the way.

Oftentimes, that means agents aren’t just obstructed by bureaucratic B.S.—like having search warrants for potential narco compounds stopped dead in their tracks by crooked government officers—but subjected to the same horrific acts of violence that plague the streets. In the second season, Colonel Carrillo (played by Maurice Compte) and his men are ambushed after getting fed false intel on Escobar’s location. Carrillo’s men are all massacred—and Escobar himself steps out of the car and pulls the trigger on the man he resents. It’s epic, brutal, and tragic.

This is a good time to mention Narcos is loose with its historical accuracy, and that Carrillo wasn’t a real-life individual so much as representative of the good people who tried to stop Escobar. Still, point well made, Narcos: Corruption is everywhere. The CIA included.

Pablo Escobar’s Anticlimactic Death

Surrey: Despite amassing so much money that his men literally buried some of it, Escobar’s last stand was the antithesis of what his reputation might imply. He was holed up in a dinky house with one measly henchman and surrounded on a rooftop by DEA agents and Colombian forces. He was summarily executed. Escobar was barefoot and, having amassed an even bigger belly, sporting a healthy dad-bod.

It’s not that I feel sorry for the guy after how things ended, it’s just that the Colombian government and the DEA finally taking out Escobar was more symbolic than anything else. At that point, the Cali Cartel—the main focus of Narcos’ third season—was in control of the country’s drug trade. Escobar was the scapegoat, an easy political win for both the States and Colombia. When he was dead, business carried on as usual, just as Narcos moved past him. That Escobar met such an anticlimactic end—historically accurate, by the way—speaks to the cyclical nature of the cocaine trade and the men in charge of it. The only constant in the jostling for power is powder.

The Cali Cartel’s Season 3 Introduction

Schuster: Getting the Gang Together montages are always fun—and they’re even more fun when they involve powerful, incredibly rich drug lords. We’re introduced to the Gentlemen of Cali (a.k.a. the non-Pablo Escobar cartel) long before Season 3, which is set after Escobar’s death and focuses on their exploits, but their reintroduction in Episode 1 is iconic:

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Here we find Pacho Herrera, one of the four members of the cartel’s “executive board,” luxuriating in a bubble bath, drinking what appears (or I hope, at least) to be a mimosa and taking a business call. I mean, can you say #goals? Unlike seasons 1 and 2, when Escobar sported mom jeans and pastel polos, and was often on the run in off-the-beaten-path locales, the Cali Cartel’s season is full of opulent wealth, a spectacle I am absolutely here for.

Miguel Rodríguez, one of the two brothers who was largely in charge of the cartel, is first shown surrounded by stacks of cash, working with the cartel’s accountant to cook the books:

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And cartel CEO Gilberto Rodríguez’s first three scenes show him bribing an official, attending a soccer match in a private box, and then boarding his helicopter wearing what I assume was a very expensive suit. These guys ran a very different operation than the Medellín Cartel, and that became clear fewer than 10 minutes into their season.

Our Introduction to Mexico

Schuster: One of Season 3’s biggest successes was establishing Colombia’s link to the Mexican drug world, which in turn created a point of reference for the audience coming into “Narcos: Mexico.” In “Follow the Money,” Season 3’s third episode, Pacho Herrera and his younger brother, Alvaro, travel to Mexico to meet up with Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the leader of the Juárez Cartel. Their goal is to strike up a partnership that would allow the Cali product to be more easily moved into the United States by Fuentes’s people. The sitdown, which lasts many days and multiple episodes, is not your regular business meeting; it involves the destruction of a plane, dope shirts, and plenty of tequila. But the basic premise is simple: Cocaine has moved from Colombia to its more northern counterparts, and the Cali Cartel wanted to use the then–relatively unprotected Mexican border to move product into the U.S. Later in the season, once Cali is taken down, it’s made clear that the focus of the drug war will have to shift to Mexico, as those cartels learned the tricks of the trade from their Colombian influences. But all of that is all set up by Pacho’s initial time in Juárez.

The Final Takedown of the Cali Cartel

Schuster: Narcos is a combination of many different genres: drama, romance, occasional comedy, and, every once in a while, action that could make even Tom Cruise jealous. One of those sequences comes toward the end of Season 3, as the DEA and Colombian police storm the home of Miguel Rodríguez looking to take him into custody and end his cartel’s reign once and for all. It’s an extremely stressful watch if you’ve seen the whole season: Rodríguez is holding Jorge Salcedo, a cartel employee who has secretly been feeding information to the DEA in an effort to get out of the drug world and protect his family, hostage, and because Rodríguez’s home is built like a fortress—with various escape hatches, protected areas, and guards—confidence in the DEA actually getting its man is relatively low. But the overall sequence of events is really well done, from a shoot-out to a car chase to a crash that comes out of NOWHERE, before Rodríguez is finally captured. The raid is Narcos at its highest intensity and at its most cinematic.

Javier Peña’s Last Scene

Schuster: Our last look at Agent Javier Peña is a cryptic one. Just before his face comes into view in his final scene, we watch a group of armed drug traffickers load up a boat with wrapped packages, climb in themselves, and travel up a river into what we can only assume is the United States. Peña, who is in Texas helping out his father on his ranch, is seen staring out over the water, watching this boat cruise along. At the end of Season 3, it wasn’t yet clear whether Pedro Pascal would reprise his role as the rogue DEA agent for Season 4, and in this scene there were clues that could be read both ways. His father realizes Peña’s fascination with the boat and says, “You stand here for an hour and you’ll count 20 of ’em going by.” Peña tells his father he’s through working with the DEA, but as his dad plugs away fixing a fence, Peña can’t help but stare out after that boat as it cruises into the sunset, even removing his sunglasses for the occasion:

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The season ends with that moment. It wasn’t long after that Pascal confirmed he would not be a part of “Narcos: Mexico”—which also makes sense, since the new season starts as a prequel of sorts, beginning its origin story even earlier than Escobar’s. But the brief period of time when fans could imagine him returning to his role and taking on Mexico was glorious.

El Chapo Incoming

Surrey: The person who’s most synonymous with the drug trade this decade is probably El Chapo, the former leader of the Sinaloa Cartel (which is still operating to this day). Even if you don’t know anything comprehensive about what he’s done, the name probably rings a bell. Incredibly, the week of the release of “Narcos: Mexico” coincides with the beginning of El Chapo’s long-awaited, highly stressful (particularly for the poor jurors) criminal trial in New York. This is some bizarre cross-promotion, considering the fact that a young El Chapo is also a minor character in this new season.

Though he is only one of the many underlings working for Félix Gallardo, “Narcos: Mexico” is well aware that El Chapo is likely the most famous real-life figure member of the season—which is why the actual character reveal, which basically amounts to a diminutive guy (El Chapo is 5-foot-6) saying that he goes by the nickname “Chapo,” still serves as an “Oh, shit!” moment. With his demise—highlighted by preposterous prison escapes and an ill-fated interview with Sean Penn—so recent in our minds, it’s stunning to be confronted by his humble beginnings and to consider everything that happened in between those two points. So while El Chapo doesn’t get much to do this season, there’s a clear through line between the rise of Gallardo and the eventual rise of El Chapo, as well as hints about what Narcos intends to explore in the future. We’re absolutely getting “Narcos: El Chapo,” is what I’m saying. I, for one, am holding out hope that Sean Penn will play himself.