Narcos: Mexico, review – The drugs don't work as new series lives in the shadow of its predecessors

Jacob Stolworthy

For Netflix, the drugs most certainly do work. In Narcos, which tracked the life of Colombian drug baron Pablo Escobar, the streaming service found its darling. From the moment the drama debuted in 2015, it was assured, addictive viewing, made unmissable by a heavyweight lead performance from Wagner Moura. Its follow-up surpassed expectations, concluding Escobar’s story, before the show nobly ditched its entire cast for a third outing focused on the Cali Cartel, which proved to be just as watchable. Unlike its characters, Narcos could do no wrong.

The same cannot be said for its latest attempt. Where the first three seasons commanded the utmost attention, Narcos: Mexico tells its story with as much flair as a GCSE history book. Michael Peña and Diego Luna are the results of the latest cast shakeup, playing figures on opposing sides of the drug war: the former a DEA agent, the latter Félix Gallardo, the Guadalajara cartel leader attempting to construct the biggest marijuana empire in South America.

As ever, the series interweaves drama with narration and actual archival footage, a flourish which once infused episodes with a rip-roaring vim not dissimilar to a gangster epic directed by Scorsese. There’s no such fun to be had this time around. “The f***ing audacity of it,” the narrator states after reeling off a staggering fact relating to the drug trade, almost willing viewers to muster up enthusiasm for the ensuing scenes. You’ll be left thinking the subject would have been better suited to Ken Burns, the filmmaker behind exhaustive documentary series such as his 26-parter, The Vietnam War.

Not that the series’ faults can be completely attributed to the material. The first season arrived at a time when the cartel sub-genre was in full swing (see: Sicario, Escobar: Lost Dream), and brazenly justified its existence by going deep on one of the drug trade’s most controversial figures. Here, staleness plagues each scene intensifying the fact that Narcos may have outlived interest in its subject. “I’m going to tell you a story, but it doesn’t have a happy ending. In fact, it doesn’t have an ending at all,” is an opening line not exactly geared to inspire excitement for a one-season anthology series.

That episodes are comprised of numerous cigar-chewing characters, reeling off non-ironic dialogue such as: “If you want to kill rats, guess you have to go into the sewer,” doesn’t help its cause. Frankly, a series this heavy on unlikeable men falls far down the list of things to watch in a post-Me Too age; by my count, the opening trio of episodes features just one female character of note.

Peña (Ant-Man) and Luna (Rogue One) are inevitable highlights, the former reining in his usual wise-cracking exterior in favour of cool detachment as Kiki Camarena, the DEA agent in over his head. And don’t be surprised if your attention is drawn from the action to the mouth-watering Mexican vistas on display, no doubt selected by location scout Carlos Muñoz Portal, who was tragically shot dead while working on the series last September.

Narcos: Mexico lives in the shadow of its predecessors, attempting to emulate their success without any willingness to embrace originality. “You want a history lesson? Buy a f***ing book,” one character instructs Luna’s Gallardo in episode two. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself scrambling to Amazon Prime to do just that a few hours later.