The first season of Narcos: Mexico on Netflix was an underrated masterwork. It told the sad, true story of Kiki Camarena, a Mexican-born American D.E.A. agent who was abducted, tortured, and killed in 1985. The first three seasons of the original series Narcos had repeatedly alluded to the murder of Camarena and how horrific it was (Camarena’s torturer’s put power drill holes into his body until one to his head killed him). While Narcos attempted a The Wire-esque portrait of the War on Drugs in Colombia, complete with backstories and B-plots for characters ranging from Colombian presidents to cartel sicarios, the first season of Narcos: Mexico told a tight, sad story about Camarena’s end and how it intersected with the rise of drug kingpin Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo (one of the suspects most likely responsible for Camarena’s murder).
With so many crime shows and films portraying Mexicans as cartel members and criminals, Narcos: Mexico was unique for telling the true story of a Mexican-American who fought and died serving the D.E.A. The writers didn’t make Camarena into a saintly martyr either. He is portrayed as being selfish, hot-headed, and more concerned with his job than getting along with his wife and co-workers. There is a haunting sequence in the first season where Camarena, played by Michael Pena, discovers an illegal marijuana field in Mexico. Surrounded by migrant workers unaware of his status as a D.E.A. agent, Camarena is presented as being truly alone in a crowd, magnifying his outsider status at work and home.
Pena was very good in the first season as was Diego Luna as Gallardo, and Luna along with the American actor Scoot McNairy is one of the main reasons to watch the new season of Narcos: Mexico for the writers have opted for the narrative sprawl of the original Narcos and so Narcos: Mexico becomes a little weaker in its second season. A subplot involving two competing female traffickers feels shoehorned in to make up for the show’s male-dominated story. Another storyline following a more honorable, old-school trafficker than Felix provides a fitting contrast to Felix’s ruthless ways, but in many ways still feels like it could have been its own show. With so many subplots, I wasn’t surprised to learn that McNairy’s character, D.E.A. agent Walt Breslin, was a composite character made up of multiple “real life” figures.
For most of the past decade, McNairy has almost only featured in interesting and adult projects (True Detective, Halt and Catch Fire, Godless, Argo, Killing Them Softly, The Rover, and the list goes on), and he is believable as the sad, reckless, everyman Walt. The major acting standout is Luna, who somehow is able to act with his entire being. Felix is not a static character. He starts off as a family man and a Mexican cop only to slowly lose his soul and become a tightly coiled cartel snake willing to murder women and children to send a message to his own employees. Luna can even project carrying a heavy mental weight with his back to the camera. He’s that good.
So there’s yet another American television program portraying Mexicans largely as cartel criminals and corrupt politicians, but the acting is good. Does that make it worth watching? I guess, if it can help educate cocaine users on how their purchases support crime and violence. As Brad Pitt’s character says in The Counselor, “think about that the next time you do a line.”
Editor’s Notes: The original three season Narcos played fast and loose with the facts. After watching the show, the first two seasons of which followed the D.E.A.’s hunt for Pablo Escobar, I read Mark Bowden’s landmark Killing Pablo to see where the show had held true to the facts and where they had printed the legend. I’d be curious to do something similar with Narcos: Mexico. I’ve read that Elaine Shannon’s Desperados covered the Camarena story shortly after his assassination occurred.