JOSHUA TREVIÑO, AUSTIN
Mexican civic breakdown and internal warfare has reached levels that make the violence of the 1990s seem bucolic by comparison. Though fiction should be a start to understanding rather than a conclusion, Narcos: Mexico is a good place for that start. Should you watch Narcos: Mexico season three? Probably.
One of the rare pleasures of the extended holiday break was the opportunity to finish the third and final season of Narcos: Mexico. The first two seasons were triumphs, in my view. Superb casting, superlative direction, and a tight sense of message and metaphor sold the series in full. I never watched the predecessor series (simply Narcos), partly because it never grabbed me, and partly because I don’t have much personal investment in Colombia. (I’ve been to Bogota, and I like it, but I never quite got to know it at any meaningful level. It is just a place I’ve been.) The story of Pablo Escobar is important, and I suspect the full tale of American involvement in his death remains poorly told—as always, Mark Bowden has the definitive book—but it is a historical episode among others.
Narcos: Mexico is something altogether different, even if the series shares a title and thematic content with Narcos. Two elements drew me into the series in the first two seasons. One was the subject matter, explicitly referenced in season one, of the difficulty of creating a cooperative community of mutual self-interest, in a civic culture that militates against exactly that. The first two seasons focus upon the rise and fall of Felix Gallardo, who sought to “unite the plazas,” which works until it doesn’t. Early on, in a key meeting with various regional narco bosses, one of them observes bluntly that getting Mexicans to work together like that will be impossible. It was a moment that made me sit up and take notice. It’s an observation straight out of scholar (and former Mexican foreign minister) Jorge Castañeda’s 2011 Mañana Forever:
In the United States, there are approximately 2 million civil society organizations, or one for every 150 inhabitants; in Chile there are 35,000, or one for every 428 Chileans; in Mexico there are only 8,500, or one for every 12,000, according to Mexican public intellectual Federico Reyes Heroles. Eighty-five percent of all Americans belong to five or more organizations; in Mexico 85 percent belong to no organization and, according to Reyes Heroles, the largest type, by far, is religious. In the United States, one out of every ten jobs is located in the so-called third sector (or civil society); in Mexico the equivalent figure is one out of every 210 jobs. In polls taken in 2001, 2003, and 2005 on political culture in Mexico, a constant 82% of those surveyed stated they had never worked formally or informally with others to address their community’s problems. In another series of polls already quoted concerning Mexican and world values, a robust and inverse correlation was detected between Mexicans’ happiness (which grew remarkably between 1990 and 2003) and their belonging to any type of organizations. In the words of the survey in question, “the more a Mexican joins an organization or belongs to any type of association, the lower the probability of his or her feeling happy.… Studies regarding values have constantly concluded that Mexican society is extremely difficult to organize.”
Or, to reference a completely different context, it is also a core theme of my own favorite movie, 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia, and the scene with the Damascus parliament at the end:
In this milieu, an attempt at mutual-benefit cooperation that Tocqueville would laud slides inexorably into rule by the strong. Those from the greater Claremont orbit will recognize John Marini’s thesis of the American-Western genre as the metaphor for the creation of democratic society. The archetype would be another 1962 film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, with the titular villain playing the role of anti-democratic barbarian, the antihero playing the pre-democratic man, and the hero (of sorts) playing the fully democratized man. There is another, quasi-Straussian layer within that particular film, in the “print the legend” exhortation, as the democratic man (a lawyer, a schoolteacher, essentially non-violent) turns out to require the protection and violence of the pre-democratic man (a rough-hewn country dweller, a gunman). The typical Western illuminates the inexorable progress upward toward that democratic civilization. At the end of it, the railroad comes through, or statehood is conferred, or a minimum the bad guys are dead.
The gangster genre is not quite the mirror image of that—you can’t watch 1974’s Godfather Part II and see a complete reverse trajectory — but it is something like it. In the specific subset of the gangster genre that is Narcos: Mexico, it is a mirror image of Marini’s march to civilization. Instead of the narrative proceeding from disorder to order, and the triumph of the democratic man, it heads in the precise opposite direction. Across three seasons, what begins with an attempt at order descends first into caudillismo (at the close of season one), and then into plain anarchy (at the close of season two). Once Gallardo himself is definitively jailed, he promises that he’ll be missed. What comes after the lion are the wolves.
Season three was supposed to be about the reign of the wolves, but it stumbles badly in the telling. The story of the 1990s in Mexican crime was the story of the intersection of progressive political liberalization, with economic liberalization, with the emergence of the cartel leadership that inaugurated the modern Mexican drug wars beginning around 2006. Narcos: Mexico season three tries to cover it all, but it can’t quite manage it with the deftness that the preceding two seasons did. There is a heavy reliance upon expository narrative that becomes disastrously clunky at the end, when the semi-protagonist of the series, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, “El Señor de los Cielos,” is simply announced to have died. It’s less a storytelling conclusion than an off switch.
The exposition choices are made infinitely worse by the decision to shift the show’s omniscient-narrator duty away from the weary DEA Agent Walt Breslin (played by Texan Scoot McNairy), who did outstanding work in seasons one and two, and hand them to Andrea Nuñez, a fictionalized young female journalist played by Luisa Rubino. Rubino is simply incapable of occupying the role. McNairy’s Breslin is battered and staring down the barrel of fifty years old; Rubino turned twenty-two while filming. She’s young and fresh and dissonantly out of place in the Narcos: Mexico landscape. The trope of crusading young journalist who won’t stop until she finds the truth, no matter how many old men tell her to stop, is tired and boring in any show. Rubino’s Nuñez appears based upon no one in particular, which is probably just as well, as a real early-twenties woman staging dramatic confrontations with Mexican narco politicos would probably wake up dead. There’s nothing wrong with her performance as such: the fault is not in the actress, but the writers. When Breslin’s tired and laconic voice popped up to explain something in the first two seasons, it carried with it the air of credibility. When Nuñez opines on Mexican-crime facts in Season Three, it has all the aesthetic of someone reading from Wikipedia.
I mentioned that there were two elements drawing me into the series in the first two seasons. The second was the characterization of the sentimental-unto-death Pablo Acosta, “El Zorro de Ojinaga,” who across those seasons embodied the cruelty and magnanimity of the norteño in ways I found familiar, warm, and shocking. As played by the superb Gerardo Taracena—not a norteño at all, but a native of Mexico City—he was easily the standout and compelling character of the show. Sadly, Acosta dies of acute lead poisoning at the close of Season Two, but the good news in season three is that there is an actor to mirror his cultural performance. A fictionalized Juarez crooked cop named Victor Tapia is portrayed by the utterly riveting Luis Gerardo Méndez, as a man gripped by moral crisis. Tapia is himself a killer, a low-level nobody dulled to the brutality of his life and surroundings, who is gradually possessed by a mania to singlehandedly solve the epidemic of random women’s murders in and around the local maquiladoras. Gerardo Méndez portrays a haunted and driven man nearly to perfection, and when he reaches his own cruel end, it is something close to a redemptive arc.
Nevertheless, the arc is squandered. The writing simply doesn’t come together. The narrative threads do not cohere. There is something to be said for a show that attempts to portray dissolution and chaos, but having set the task before themselves, the showrunners shy away from it. The close of Narcos: Mexico season three abruptly attempts to conclude its protagonists’ runs in hurried fashion. As mentioned, Carrillo Fuentes simply disappears. El Chapo, deftly played as an increasingly cunning country boy by Alejandro Edda, plans his return to freedom. The Arellano Felix family re-sets to square one, exactly where they began. This would be fine for a documentary, because life and events do not follow three-act structures, but it is a failure of vision in a drama. “That’s just how it happened” doesn’t cut it in a show where a Gen-Z Tijuana Lois Lane has been narrating the tale the whole time.
Should you watch Narcos: Mexico season three? Probably. Narcos: Mexico as a whole, across all three seasons, remains one of the most necessary and compelling television shows of the past decade. A quarter-century after the events in season three, Mexican civic breakdown and internal warfare has reached levels that make the violence of the 1990s positively bucolic by comparison. It is reaching into our communities and our governance, and though fiction should be a start to understanding rather than a conclusion, this is a good place for that start. The casting shines so often—I haven’t even mentioned the luminous and canny Mayra Hermosillo as Enedina Arellano Félix, the Tijuana family’s true commander—but it is as often poorly used. Even the filmmaking suffers at points: in the final episode, there is a set piece where director Amat Escalante appears to forget white balance in his filming, and the result is genuinely painful to the eyes.
It’s good, but it isn’t superlative. Narcos: Mexico season three could have been many things. The era of Mexican history covered by the season was certainly rich in possibilities. Among them was the United States’s own National Drug Intelligence Center investigation of Carlos Hank Gonzalez, arguably then the most powerful man in Mexican politics: the real power behind the presidency and the military both. The NDIC nailed the kingpin dead to rights—he was the controlling patron of Mexico’s major cartels—and in response, Carlos Hank Gonzalez hired former United States Senator Warren Rudman (R-NH) as a lobbyist. Rudman earned his hefty fee: on April 11th, 2000, United States Attorney General Janet Reno took the extraordinary public step of simultaneously disavowing the NDIC, and apologizing directly to Carlos Hank Gonzalez.
And they say there’s no such thing as a global elite.
This gets a passing mention from the omniscient-narrator Nuñez, but it could have been the narrative key to it all. We’ll wait for something new, I suppose. Narcos: Mexico is some of the best television we’ve gotten lately. Where it shines, it dazzles. But it doesn’t stick the landing.
Joshua Treviño is the Chief of Intelligence and Research at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He writes at Armas about culture, events, and strategy, with a particular focus on Texas, Mexico, and China.