Narcos Mexico review: Season 4 of terrific Netflix show takes Sacred Games, Dark Knight approach
Cast - Diego Luna, Michael Pena, Joaquín Cosío, Teresa Ruiz
Rating - 4/5
Narcos: Mexico opens with a young man riding his rickety bike across the Mexican countryside, over green hills and on dirt roads. He’s being chased by the police. He takes refuge in a church, like an illegal immigrant knocking on the doors of his country’s embassy in a foreign land. Rafael Quintero knows that even in the lawless badlands of Sinaloa, the police dare not murder someone in the House of God.
As the police forms a circle outside the church, a man approaches. He looks important, starts barking orders. Betraying the inner compliance that curses every human being when confronted with authority, the police captain gives in. The man enters the church, and exits with Rafa in his capture. “I’ll handle it from here,” he says, and drives off with his friend.
Watch the Narcos: Mexico trailer here
The man is Felix Gallardo, future leader of the Guadalajara Cartel, and his friend, Rafa, is the man who’s going to help him get there. Rafa has created a new strain of marijuana, in a country where weed grows like wheat in the Punjabi countryside. This new strain of marijuana is delicate. It needs to be cultivated away from other fields, so as to keep it pure, uncontaminated by the common stuff. Felix Gallardo senses an opportunity, and like Gus Fring in Breaking Bad, puts all his resources into facilitating Rafa’s skills.
He is a businessman, and after earning a significant amount of money in his life, he is open to bending the laws. It helps that he comes from the town of Sinaloa, notorious for having birthed some of the most legendary drug lords of our times. In Sinaloa -- and indeed, in many parts of Mexico -- tombs are erected for drug lords, who are seen as Robin Hood-like figures that bring economic prosperity to their towns. But this is just one side of a rusty coin. In 2017, it was reported by Sky News that a record 25,000 people died in drug related violence in Mexico.
The Mexico of 2018 is a troubled place, caught in the centre of a multi-billion dollar illegal drug war that it was instrumental in starting. Effects of what began in the ‘80s, during Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs, can still be felt to this day. Some believe, like climate change, for the impact to be irreparable.
There is an immense responsibility on Netflix and Narcos: Mexico’s shoulders to not in any way glamourise this reality - something that our very own Mirzapur, which releases on the same day on Amazon Prime, fails spectacularly at. Now in its fourth season, these new set of episodes -- five out of 10 were made available for preview -- can also be seen as a spin-off, a show that tells a plot that runs parallel to the previous seasons.
Real world consequences of the story that Narcos is telling have already been felt. Just a couple of years ago, the brother of Pablo Escobar, who was played so wonderfully by Wagner Moura in seasons one and two, issued a chilling threat to Netflix. “If we don’t receive $1 billion, we will close your little show,” he said. Nothing happened, but to receive a threat from the former hitman of the Medellin Cartel must surely have called for emergency meetings.
But the show suffered its most tragic setback in 2017, when a member of the crew - the veteran location scout Carlos Muñoz Portal - was killed under mysterious circumstances while working on this season. His bullet-ridden body was found in one of the most violent regions of Mexico. Diego Luna, who plays Felix Gallardo in the show, told me that Carlos’ death is related less to Narcos and more ‘to a very dangerous country, that is living a war that has affected every level of society.’ He said the crew owes it to Carlos to tell this story in the most responsible manner possible.
And this new season is a tremendous tribute to Carlos’ work. The authenticity of its locations is striking -- you can almost feel the dry dirt, the heavy sweat, and the harsh Mexican sun. It’s crucial, too, that more than most other stories such as this, which sadly begin and end with the escapism of newfound wealth, Narcos: Mexico devotes almost an entire episode to show how the other side has been impacted by this terrible war.
Michael Pena plays Kiki Camarena, a man who DEA agents of today see as their patron saint, someone who -- spoiler alert -- sacrificed his life for the future of all humanity. Kiki goes undercover to investigate the rumblings that have been felt around Guadalajara about Felix Gallardo’s growing empire. As someone who has become accustomed to bureaucratic red tape, Kiki doesn’t inform his bosses of his plan.
He gets on a bus, where everyone is quietly blindfolded until they arrive at one of Felix Gallardo’s majestic plantations. With no one to watch over him but the Mother Mary painting on the bus’ dashboard, Kiki is stunned to learn of the scale of the operation. All day, he works in the fields with people who are essentially modern-day slaves, gathering intel bravely. Watching these people toil away, the lowest and most expendable rung of a global operation, you can’t help but be reminded of the reality that most empires are built on the backs of the poor.
The fact that Rafa’s crop needs to grow in isolation serves as a metaphor for Kiki and Felix Gallardo’s parallel journeys in the show. They’re both loners, despite being always surrounded by others. To achieve their goals, they know that they must work alone. It’s a classic set-up, to pit an immovable object against an unstoppable force. Heat did it. The Dark Knight did it. And so did Sacred Games.
Those who’re aware of how this story played out would know that a reboot can be expected in the next season. But Narcos: Mexico lays enough seeds for the future, whether it is in the introduction of new characters and successors to Felix Gallardo’s empire, or the return of certain old ones. For the blow go on, the violence must be weeded out first.