You can expect a lot of things when you’re watching Narcos—shocking violence, glitzy mansions, ’80s fashion, backstabbing narcos, piles of cash, even bigger piles of cocaine—but one thing you don’t expect is a twist. This is, after all, a series loosely based on historical events, so there’s no use withholding something big from the audience when they can just find the answers—i.e., what happened to Pablo Escobar or the many other drug lords with dope nicknames like “The Lord of the Skies”—on Wikipedia. (This is not a problem, since the show creates a rich atmosphere that convinces viewers to stick around; the best way I can describe it is that it’s Prestige TV comfort food.)
Now, while this might stretch most people’s definitions of “withholding,” “big,” and “twist,” the first season of the spinoff series, Narcos: Mexico, revealed something in the waning moments of its finale that truly blew my mind. After DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena (Michael Peña) is kidnapped, tortured, and killed on the order of rising Mexican kingpin Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo (Jabba the Hutt’s no. 1 fan, Diego Luna), the agency becomes hell-bent on bringing those responsible to justice. And leading the group of undercover agents entering Mexico is this dude:
The neckbeard, the look of disdain, the worn-out plaid hoodie? All iconic, and exactly what you’d expect a DEA agent who isn’t gonna play by the rules to look like. But what was more exciting—and temporarily took me out of the show—was that this character was being played by the great Scoot McNairy. (We also learn that McNairy was the season’s omniscient narrator, telegraphing onscreen events in customary Narcos Explainer Journalism fashion.) I’d imagine the niche corner of the internet that admires his work and watches Narcos had the same reaction I did. Which was something like this:
I’m not sure what we should call ourselves—Scooters? Nairy-nuts? OK, probably not Nairy-nuts—but any urge we felt to remove Narcos from the binge rotation after the latest season dissipated after McNairy’s thicc ’stache announced that he’d be taking Michael Peña’s place as the new protagonist. That’s part of Narcos’ DNA: The narcos and the agents come and go—often quite violently—reflecting history and the inevitable passage of time. And when the closest thing to a series mainstay is literal cocaine, it’s important that Narcos keeps casting compelling performers like Michael Peña, Diego Luna, Pedro Pascal, and Wagner Moura. The good news: For its second season, out Thursday, Narcos: Mexico found a great one.
While McNairy isn’t a household name, he’s settled into his role as one of Hollywood’s most promising and persistent That Guys: a character actor who’s recognizable in part because they’ve appeared in so many shows and films, and often find a way to outshine higher-billed stars and burrow into your subconscious. (If there was a That Guys Mount Rushmore, it would have to include Shea Whigham and David Costabile.)
McNairy was, for the majority of his career, the type of everyman actor who regularly appeared as an extra and in commercials. (A young McNairy can also be seen in an early 2000s Death Cab for Cutie music video; enjoy.) It wasn’t until he had supporting roles in two consecutive Best Picture winners—Argo and 12 Years a Slave—and shared the screen with a murderers’ row of talent (Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Ben Mendelsohn, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins) in Andrew Dominik’s 2012 film Killing Them Softly that McNairy broke out of relative anonymity. Now, you can reliably find him popping up in buzzy projects, from Gone Girl and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice to Destroyer and Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood.
But McNairy has really made an impression on the small screen, where he’s floated across prestige networks and put together an admirable body of work. On Netflix, he was a sheriff in the miniseries Godless; on HBO, a grieving father in True Detective’s third season; on FX, a man with a drug addiction in Fargo’s third season who’s killed in tragicomic fashion by a falling air conditioner. Perhaps McNairy’s finest performance is also his most underappreciated: his role as computer engineer Gordon Clark across four seasons of AMC’s criminally underwatched tech drama, Halt and Catch Fire. The biggest throughline across these TV roles is the effortless way McNairy delivers a thousand-yard stare: His characters don’t need to speak for you to know they’re weary, or anguished, or tortured—or a little bit of all three. And when the lid does come off, like when his character in True Detective is desperately searching for answers about his missing daughter, it’s as devastating as it is terrifying. I mean, take a look these forehead veins:
It’s little wonder McNairy makes for a perfect DEA agent on Narcos: Mexico; the role is right in his wheelhouse. The DEA protagonists of the series are always weighed down, fighting against a system that diminishes any opportunity for them to make an actual difference. It’s David versus Goliath, only Goliath is winning—and usually getting help from local government and the CIA. Kiki Camarena’s big bust in the first season of Narcos: Mexico, for instance, doesn’t do anything to hurt Gallardo’s bottom line: The DEA seized a ton of weed after the kingpin’s operation pivoted to cocaine.
As Walt Breslin—who isn’t based on an actual person, but is an amalgam of the DEA agents who worked on the investigation into Camarena’s death—McNairy is motivated not just by avenging a fellow agent, but by the ways in which the escalating drug war has infiltrated his life in the States. (His brother, who was addicted to drugs, was killed in an apparent dispute over a few grams of coke—going to Mexico is as much about duty for Breslin as it is about easing his conscience.) From the way Breslin’s cameo bookends Narcos: Mexico’s first season, with a cache of hidden assault weapons and the promise for revenge, you’d be forgiven for expecting McNairy to be the Cartel Terminator. The reality is, unfortunately, that Breslin’s quest underscores the DEA’s perpetual futility in its quest to dismantle the cartels. Like the mythical Hydra, if you chop off one proverbial head, two more kingpins take its place; Gallardo’s operation includes a young man we’ll come to know as El Chapo.
When Gallardo is—spoiler alert for actual history?—finally behind bars at the end of the season, it has little to do with the actions of Breslin and his team, but rather the betrayals of conspirators who are looking to claim the narco’s empire for themselves. The closest thing to justice Breslin can hold on to is Gallardo’s wry acknowledgement that he did order Camarena’s death, but even that moment is tainted by the kingpin’s warning that without him unifying all the rival cartels in what amounted to a cocaine monopoly, the violence in Mexico is only going to get worse. “You’ll be drowning in blood, chaos,” Gallardo tells Breslin from prison. “You’re going to miss me.”
It’s a quintessential case of “the worst person you know just made a great point,” and Gallardo’s imprisonment is hardly a salve from another bleak season of Narcos mired in violence, futility, and political corruption. Breslin, in fact, might be the least-successful DEA protagonist in the series—and that’s saying something. But it’s also why casting McNairy was such a master stroke: He evokes his character’s anguish and weariness without having to say much, turning hope and the pursuit of retribution into cynicism, self-loathing, and pathos on a dime. Were Narcos: Mexico renewed for another season—and please, Netflix, don’t you dare deprive us of future El Chapo content—it seems unlikely McNairy’s character will return. Once again, it’ll be up to the series to find a worthy replacement.
As for McNairy, playing a colead on one of the streamer’s most popular shows is yet another exciting step in his career, one which should get him a little closer to being a household name. He has already established himself as an elite character actor—and even on a series replete with narcos, sicarios, and corrupt government officials, he found a way to capture our attention. It might just be a matter of time before we’re putting Scoot McNairy and that glorious ’stache on That Guys Mount Rushmore.