Netflix has flashier shows, but none better than “Narcos,” which moves to a new chapter in its fourth season, titled “Narcos: Mexico.” Sweeping in scope, the series remains as addictive as ever in chronicling the bleak history of the drug war, delivering a drama so crisp and smartly executed as to provide its own kind of high.
Although the setting and key characters have changed, the common thread throughout has been the collateral damage the war on drugs has inflicted across decades – an endless cycle of violence amid enforcement efforts that, as the omniscient narration notes, has claimed a half million lives.
After beginning with Pablo Escobar in Colombia, “Narcos” shifted to the Cali cartel, an equally colorful and bloodthirsty bunch. The latest change of scenery adds considerable star power, with Diego Luna as Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, the savvy drug lord seeking to consolidate power across Mexico in the 1980s; and Michael Pena as Kiki Camarena, the gung-ho DEA agent who ultimately met a tragic end (previously turned into a 1990 miniseries).
“Someone should call D.C. and tell them we surrendered Guadalajara,” Camarena grouses early on, chafing against what he sees as the handcuffs placed on his agency by feckless superiors.
Both sides of the equation are fascinating, with Gallardo seeking to forge an uneasy peace among the various drug kingpins – in what only can be likened to the mob families parceling off Cuba in “The Godfather Part II” – establishing Mexico’s first narco-union. (Gallardo was appropriately known as “El Padrino,” or “The Godfather.”)
Heavily subtitled, “Narcos” demands undivided attention for those who aren’t fluent in Spanish, but the series really derives its power from the unpredictability of the various factions, and the corrosive influence of the huge money that illegal drugs generate. That also produces some darkly comic moments, such as one of Gallardo’s lieutenants meeting with a realtor at a gigantic mansion, asking, “Do you accept cash?”
Given the mercurial nature of the players even a criminal mastermind like Gallardo can’t possibly foresee all the angles, grappling with corrupt officials, ancient grudges and regional feuds that complicate every effort to cement deals, even when they’re to everyone’s mutual advantage. The show also cleverly builds on prior seasons, while throwing in tantalizing tidbits like introducing El Chapo – a small-time soldier destined for bigger, more infamous things – whose trial in New York is a reminder how current this all is.
“I can’t tell you how the drug war ends,” the narrator says at the outset. “Man, I can’t even tell you if it ends.”
That line dovetails nicely with producer Eric Newman’s comment a few seasons ago about the show’s longevity beyond the Escobar storyline, saying that the writers needn’t worry about running out of material until “cocaine stops.” While that’s hardly a reassuring thought while watching the carnage the drug war unleashed, in terms of delivering quality TV, mission accomplished and then some.
“Narcos: Mexico” premieres Nov. 16 on Netflix.