Netflix’s true history drama Narcos is now in its fifth season (with three outings for the original series followed by by successor Narcos: Mexico), and although its cast and location has changed multiple times over, it’s become the kind of show where you know exactly what you’re going to get.
An ambitious upstart in the Latin American drugs trade starts an empire only to find himself in over his head? Check. An American federal agent is stifled in his relentless pursuit of good ol’ ‘Murican justice by corruption and bureaucracy? Check. Mixed in archival footage accompanied by an occasionally on-the nose voiceover? You guessed it, check.
All these things, in addition to other staples of the show such as an impressive ensemble cast and a glorious assortment of Latin American vistas, are present once again in the latest season – the second to focus on Mexican drug lord Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo (played with aplomb by Diego Luna) and his Guadalajara cartel.
The set-up, as ever, is that of an epic cat and mouse chase – except whereas last time out the cat was largely kept on a leash, this time round it comes in the shape of a vicious tiger. (In the very first episode Felix is actually gifted a tiger by an associate, which doesn’t seem entirely accidental.)
From the get-go it’s apparent that the DEA ain’t messing around no more: an early torture scene of one of Felix’s accomplices serves in part as retribution for the murder of last season’s protagonist Kiki Camarena (Michael Peña), with Walt Breslin (Scoot McNairy) displaying the callous disregard for playing by the rules that characterises his pursuit of the cartel boss.
And it’s not just the DEA Felix Gallardo has to worry about this series – he’s also got to appease the constantly warring factions of his own cartel, live up to his increasingly ambitious promises to his partners in Colombia and deal with his own complicated familial troubles.
Plus, in one of this season’s most interesting storylines, the strength of Felix’s reliance on Mexico’s ruling party, the PRI, is explored– we watch as he desperately attempts to see off the challenge of political rival Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, eventually resorting to one of the most blatant displays of corruption imaginable.
There can be no doubting that there is fascinating story to be told here, and there are certainly points where season two delivers the goods. When Narcos: Mexico is good, it tends to be very good, and punctuated throughout the series are some genuinely excellent moments. The end of the eighth episode, which intercuts scenes showing the rife corruption at the 1988 Mexican election with Walt’s attempts to shepherd potential witness Pablo Acosta to safety amidst a dramatic shootout, is genuinely thrilling, while the final tête-à-tête between Breslin and Felix is a superb note to end the series on.
And yet despite all that is good about the series, there are times – especially towards the middle – where Narcos: Mexico feels like a bit of a slog. Perhaps it’s because the series is largely exploring similar thematic ground to before, or maybe it’s just that watching endless conversations between men about their business tends to get a little dull (even if that business is the smuggling of narcotics). But either way, it does just feel like some of the energy and verve of earlier seasons is somewhat lacking– and it definitely seems to lack the binge-worthy quality the show once had in spades.
On the occasions we are treated to glimpses of archival footage it made me think that the story might be better served by documentary than drama, while on more than one instance I found myself thinking that the series had simply taken too much on – there are so many characters, so many different feuds, that the series sometimes struggles to maintain its focus.
One of the areas that this series falls down is that as a protagonist Walt Breslin just isn’t quite as compelling as Michael Peña’s Kiki Camarena, who served as our main way in to the story last time out. This is through no fault of Scoot McNairy, who gives a committed performance in the role, but his character never feels like a particularly fleshed out one – perhaps stemming from the fact that he’s a composite character rather than a real historical figure like Camarena – and there are points in the series where he features so infrequently that he almost seems like a bit part.
The second season of Narcos: Mexico, then, is far from flawless – but there are enough reminders of what has made the show such a phenomenon to make it a worthy watch, and it will undoubtedly appeal to the tastes of those who have been captivated by the series in the past. I do wonder, though, how much further this show can go before it all becomes just a little bit staid.