Diego Luna plays kingpin Felix Gallardo in the Narcos spin-off.
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We interrupted our lives to watch the entire Narcos: Mexico season to bring you this review

Narcos: Mexico is so hip to the footsteps it’s following that even though its kingpin comes across as a calculating Don Corleone, his underlings take their cues from Al Pacino’s over-the-top Tony Montana
Andrew Paredes | Dec 07 2018

Created by Carlos Bernard, Chris Brancato and Doug Miro

Starring Michael Peña, Diego Luna, Alyssa Diaz

Even though Narcos: Mexico took pains to distance itself from being a presumptive fourth season of Narcos (Netflix even re-branded it as a separate offering), its narrative arc diverges very little from that of its Colombia-set predecessor—or from any organized crime saga, for that matter. A man driven by ambition ascends a bloody path strewn with cash, corpses and bureaucratic corruption, until his overarching greed precipitates a reckoning. Narcos: Mexico is so hip to the footsteps it’s following that even though its kingpin Felix Gallardo (Diego Luna) comes across as a calculating Don Corleone, with his brow forever furrowed in conscientious scheming, his underlings watch—and take their cues from—Al Pacino’s unhinged and over-the-top Tony Montana in Scarface.

A scene from Episode 6: La Ultima Frontera. IMDb

Narcos: Mexico traces over 10 packed episodes the origin story of the Mexican drug cartels. In the early ‘80s, Gallardo, a small-town cop turned henchman in Sinaloa, sees an opportunity in his brother-in-law Rafa’s (Tenoch Huerta, a livewire) creation of a more potent strain of marijuana to unite the different weed syndicates—called “plazas”—operating throughout the country, forming a more efficient distribution network. Gallardo soon sets up operations in Guadalajara to be more accessible to the police apparatus he must bribe, and there his story runs parallel to that of Kiki Camarena (Michael Peña), a reassigned and likewise hungry narc battling corruption and bureaucratic inertia at a time when the Drug Enforcement Agency was in its infancy and striving to be taken seriously.

Matt Letscher, Michael Peña, Yul Vazquez, Clark Freeman, and Aaron Staton. IMDb

Initially, neither man registers as vividly as Narcos’ flawed DEA agent Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal) or volatile Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura, who makes a welcome appearance in the fifth episode), but this is more a fault of spotty writing than a lack of talent. Camarena is portrayed as a virtuous man with a charisma deficit, a dedicated foot soldier who brings a coffee thermos to pee in during long stakeouts. Gallardo is even more problematic: He is a faithful family man who refuses to have an affair with Isabella (Teresa Ruiz), his flirty, voluptuous liaison with the Tijuana plaza—until his many extramarital affairs are exposed. He is a methodical, risk-averse planner—until he recklessly courts the Colombian cocaine cartels for their business before securing the support of his corrupt government contacts. He advocates for making nice and minimizing violence—until he bashes in the head of a police commissioner right in his hotel lobby. Drug kingpins are supposed to be conflicted men, but Gallardo’s inconsistencies often seem like the plot’s tail waving the character, instead of the other way around.

Fortunately, Gallardo grows into his ruthlessness towards the end, just as the stakes get much higher. In the interim, Narcos: Mexico gooses its ten-episode run with expertly injected doses of humor, courtesy of the rogue’s gallery that orbits its main antihero. Henchmen marvel at the era’s CD technology (“It don’t skip! It don’t skip!”), engage in sex so frenzied they lampoon the concept of copulation, and one of them numbly listens to his Walkman as his crew falls around him in a police raid. All in all, this first season of Narcos: Mexico feels like dutiful exposition, a set-up for more thrilling seasons to come. Hopefully, the eminently watchable Diego Luna gets the payback he so richly deserves.