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‘Narcos’ Finally Balances the Scales

Compelling characters have always been the series’ calling card, but with “Narcos: Mexico,” the show has achieved true parity between good and evil for the first time

Netflix/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

Four seasons in, Narcos isn’t shaking up its formula so much as it’s modifying it in compelling ways. The storytelling cycle that’s become a hallmark of Narcos—the rise of a drug lord, the plucky DEA agents with the considerable and arguably futile task of trying to stop them, the corruption and bribery eroding political systems, the soul-rotting excess of exorbitant wealth and power—is born out of the show’s loose devotion to charting the course of actual history. Because history repeats itself, Narcos is destined to repeat itself. But what makes the Netflix series so irresistible and capable of avoiding a feeling of staleness are its characters.

Of course, the early seasons of Narcos wouldn’t be nearly as absorbing without Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar. Thanks to Wagner Moura’s Golden Globe–nominated work, we were pulled into Escobar’s orbit through the man’s complex, often contradictory psychology; his aspirations for the Colombian presidency amid his plotting to assassinate a presidential candidate; his emotional outbursts and impulsive, violent behavior, sometimes carried out by Escobar while wearing an absurdly extravagant hat. Escobar was transfixing—from the height of his power as a billionaire to his final days as a disgraced man holed up in a nondescript apartment, abandoned by almost everyone.

But Escobar was only one side of Narcos’ first two seasons, and the problem was that the other half, devoted to DEA agents Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) and Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal), wasn’t particularly interesting—especially when compared with the flamboyance of Escobar. Murphy’s biggest contribution was his work as Narcos’ narrator, telegraphing events as we saw them flash across the screen. At its best, his narration provided essential context with knowing humor; at its worst, it made the show feel more like a Ken Burns documentary than a crime drama. The third season—which left Escobar behind to focus on the Cali Cartel and also saw Murphy exit, with Peña taking over as the chief DEA protagonist and series narrator—didn’t do enough to balance the scales, either. While the many faces of the Cali Cartel didn’t have a presence like Escobar’s, their half of Season 3 still provided overwhelmingly more thrills than Peña’s solo act. For the first three seasons of Narcos, this narrative imbalance prevented the show from reaching the upper echelons of prestige TV.

Which is why the fourth season of the series, dubbed “Narcos: Mexico,” is such a next-level improvement. As the name suggests, Colombia has been left behind for Mexico for what begins as a quasi-prequel. The events of the season are set before Escobar’s reign in Colombia, though the season is acutely aware of the present-day prominence Mexican cartels would achieve. (El Chapo, the former leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, is a minor character on Narcos: Mexico, a young lieutenant in Mexico’s first formed cartel.) The new Narcos coleads, meanwhile, are Diego Luna and Michael Peña. Luna plays Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, a former cop in the Sinaloa region of Mexico who devises a plan to get all the competing “plazas”—basically, smaller outfits controlling certain regions of Mexico—to unify into one larger organization based in Guadalajara. Peña plays DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, who transfers to Guadalajara right around the time Gallardo’s operation takes off.

In case you couldn’t have guessed it, “Narcos: Mexico” makes it clear how the season will play out: The series’ mysterious new narrator (more on him later) begins by telling the viewer that this story doesn’t have a happy ending, as we see Camarena being kidnapped in Guadalajara. Historical spoiler alert: Camarena did meet a gruesome end, one that perceptive Narcos viewers might recall was recounted in the third episode of Season 1. The DEA agent was captured, tortured, and killed by Gallardo’s men, which forced the United States to take aggressive measures against the cartel in retaliation. “[The U.S.] went after them so hard, every single narco in the world got the message that the DEA was off limits,” narrator Murphy says in Season 1. “Kiki was like Jesus Christ to us. He died to save us all.”

But knowing how Camarena’s story ends doesn’t neuter the tension of “Narcos: Mexico”; rather, it makes the ill-fated decisions both leading men make all the more excruciating to watch unfold, like a slow-motion car wreck. The foresight of knowing that Camarena will be killed—and, through a cursory Wikipedia search, that Gallardo isn’t going to fare much better—makes it more excruciating to watch these men pursue empty gains. While Camarena and Gallardo are guided by, well, very different moral compasses, both men place their work above their families—compounding a sense of alienation that no amount of wealth or drug busts can ever satiate.

Perhaps Peña’s greatest achievement in “Narcos: Mexico” is that in portraying Camarena, he almost entirely suppresses his infectious charisma—I could watch Peña’s Ant-Man character, Luis, tell rambling, semi-incoherent stories all day, but none of that joyousness is present here. While he is the unquestionable protagonist and the guy we’re rooting for, Camarena is, simply, a bad hang. He spends a barbecue with his DEA coworkers and their wives pouting about the agency’s futility in Mexico. He misses the birth of his second child to pose as a field worker inside Gallardo’s enormous weed farm in the Guadalajaran desert. (Of course, he does this without the DEA’s approval, and without telling anyone of his whereabouts.)

As for Gallardo, his ascension in Guadalajara is initially pragmatic and controlled—or as pragmatic and controlled as becoming a kingpin and killing a few enemies can possibly be—before he goes full Icarus and flies too close to the sun. Making hundreds of millions of dollars moving weed into the States, Gallardo can’t ignore the allure of distributing cocaine—despite the inherent risks. Luna’s work as Gallardo is subtle: Over 10 episodes, he peels back the layers of the character’s public-facing persona, until all that remains is a sociopath who not only abandons his family, but gives up his two closest business partners to protect himself from the Mexican government. By process of elimination, Gallardo is left lonely and hollow, and Luna conveys this devolution with pointed apathy and increasingly hollowed expressions. As a bound and tortured Camarena tells Gallardo in their only meeting in the season finale: “Everything you’ve worked for, whatever dream you had, it’s over.”

Though “Narcos: Mexico” does have moments of levity—including the knowing wink that is the introduction of a young El Chapo—its spotlight on Gallardo and Camarena is exceptionally bleak, even by Narcos standards. While Camarena’s DEA legacy is sacrosanct, and his ambition in Guadalajara culminated in one of the biggest drug busts in history, his accomplishments primarily underscore the DEA’s futility. By the time the DEA raided the aforementioned weed farm, the product they seized was no longer driving Gallardo’s revenue—cocaine was. Camarena was merely hurting the operation’s pride, not their business.

It’s the pathos of Camarena’s futility, and Gallardo’s increasingly lonely ascension—and most importantly, the show’s ability to compellingly capture both—that makes “Narcos: Mexico” the most accomplished season of the series to date. The narrative never drags, even as it bounces between the perspectives of the DEA and the cartel. For the first time in the show’s history, Narcos achieves parity between the two sides of its story, and equally enticing halves make a undeniably satisfying whole.

Of course, for that to continue into Season 5, Gallardo will need a new foil. So, in the final moments of the fourth season, an undercover DEA agent—played by Scoot McNairy, who as it turns out, was also the season’s omniscient narrator—makes his way across the Mexican border in a nondescript RV. Waiting for him on the other side are more undercover agents, as he unveils a cache of assault weapons hidden in the vehicle. McNairy’s character will have big shoes to fill, but Narcos: Mexico ends with a preview that asserts that won’t be a problem. “We knew we were in a war,” McNairy’s character says in a climactic voice-over. “Now, it was our turn. Pretty soon, they were gonna know they were in one too.”