I think a lot about how Narcos, Netflix's popular drama about drug cartels and the law enforcement agents who try to bring them down, elects to tell most of its story in Spanish. Well over half of the dialogue isn't in English, and if you cut out Boyd Holbrook's narration, that percentage jumps up at least 25%. This holds true for Narcos: Mexico, the spin-off series that changes the show's location and cast, with Michael Peña as Kiki Camerena, a DEA agent who transfers from California to Guadalajara, Mexico, and finds himself picking up the trail of Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo (Diego Luna), who is well on his way to becoming Mexico's first major drug kingpin.
Like the three seasons of the series that preceded it, Narcos: Mexico is a show that stars Spanish-speaking actors, speaking Spanish more often than they speak English. It is the one place in the American TV landscape where Americans Latinx and not can see an overwhelming number of Hispanic actors, and listen to them speak Spanish, and not have their words immediately translated. Where their crowded homes and verdant mountains and narrow city streets are portrayed with something approaching verisimilitude. They're allowed to live their lives, and be Colombian, be Mexican. Too bad they're all playing criminals.
Narcos: Mexico is an effective crime thriller, but it's effective in ways that aren't terribly distinguishable from other crime dramas of its ilk. You'll see the rise of Gallardo from ambitious and underestimated pitchman to powerful drug lord who upends the criminal order. It'll be paralleled with Camerena's struggles in a law enforcement organization that is both compromised and uninterested in supporting his zeal for justice and real change. Eventually they will collide. They're both doomed, in their own ways. It's fine. If you liked Narcos, you'll like this. But I'm beginning to find it exhausting.
In one episode of Narcos: Mexico, Rafa, one of Gallardo's oldest friends and associates, sits in a mansion purchased with the profits of Gallardo's newly successful cartel, watching Scarface—a movie where Al Pacino did an awful impression of a Cuban man and became an icon of masculine entitlement—and you can see the movie lighting up the dopamine receptors in Rafa's mind. It's a strange ouroboros of a moment, wherein the whole farce of drug cartel dramas like Narcos are almost laid bare entirely. They're positioned as important stories, meditations on corruption and power and the rot at the center of the American Dream, but really they're just about entitled men taking what they want, and how cool it would be to live like that. In that single scene, the whole thing collapses on itself: a movie where a white man co-opts a Latin man's story and becomes a hero to all entitled men. That American film then crosses the border to kindle the embers of entitlement lying dormant in a Mexican man. A Mexican man who is a character in yet another story about the intoxicating rush that comes with being a man who takes, despite all the risks. A story that's then distributed worldwide on Netflix, keeping the myth alive. Aren't these men remarkable? Look what they got away with.
That mythology is vital to Narcos, a series that started with one of the biggest names in the drug trade, and intends to work its way through every major front in the war on drugs. The timeline of Narcos: Mexico is concurrent with its parent series, so some names will seem familiar to you, and if this is your first time out watching Narcos, don't worry, it'll have some names you recognize—like the lowly driver Joaquín, whom everyone calls "Chapo."
It's the sort of thing that you'd expect a good television show to do: expand its universe, set up avenues for new stories, tease some things that its audience might have knowledge of. But in the context of Narcos and the grand tradition of drug cartel dramas, it's just another tired exploitation. Narcos has always had the briefest moments of self-awareness wherein it acknowledges that the War on Drugs is a largely man-made problem, where political jockeying ignites entire wars waged in the streets of Central and South American countries, but it's never really interrogated that idea. It's too invested in the game to tear it down.
And I can't help but wonder—how much longer will Hispanic actors and Hispanic countries be forced to return to the marijuana and coca fields, to labor for the benefit of American audiences whose appetite for a cheap high will never know a bottom?