Over the course of five seasons, Narcos and Narcos: Mexico have been as bleak—and consistently great—as anything on television, and that holds true for the latter’s closing run, which solidifies the series’ standing as the definitive drama about the 1970s-1990s drug trade. Set in the lush jungles, arid deserts, and sweltering metropolises of South America and Mexico, Netflix’s trafficking saga (returning Nov. 5) is a jet-black neo-noir driven by a despondency that knows no bounds. As always, there’s scant uplift here—just an overarching recognition that there’s no hope for justice, for peace, for answers, for absolution, or for the monstrous horrors of the world to ever truly be vanquished.
For all of its thrills and intrigue, Narcos: Mexico’s third go-round is a fatalistic nightmare marked by a pervasive sense of disconnection. In the early 1990s, with kingpin Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo (Diego Luna) now behind bars after failing to unite the country’s rival cartels, pilot-turned-Juarez boss Amado Carrillo Fuentes (the magnetic José María Yazpik) concocts a revolutionary way to evolve the business: separate each facet of his trafficking operation, so that if one cog breaks down or gets caught, the larger machine keeps on running. Amado’s strategy gives new meaning to “divide and conquer,” and for a time, it works like a charm, as does his plan to halt any dealings with his adversaries in Tijuana and Sinaloa. Remaining independent, however, is almost as impossible as successfully collaborating with his fellow greedy cartel dons, thus underlining the catch-22 that propels much of the show’s entangled action.
While Amado attempts to go it alone by striking an exclusive partnership with Colombia’s Cali cartel bigwig Pacho Herrera (Alberto Ammann), Tijuana’s Arellano clan—led by cocky Benjamin (Alfonso Dosal), his sober sister Enedina (Mayra Hermosillo) and his wild brother Ramón (Manuel Masalva)—reigns supreme over Mexico, enjoying the wealth and luxury that comes with its top-dog position. This leaves Sinaloa’s three bosses, Palma (Gorka Lasaosa), El Azul (Fermín Martînez), and Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán (Alejandro Edda), with bottom-of-the-barrel scraps, which invariably begets the type of resentment, anger, and violence that’s par for this milieu’s course. In these warring factions’ conflicts, Narcos: Mexico finalizes its 60-episode study of the cyclical nature of the narcotics industry, in which gangs rise, fall, and are replaced by likeminded outfits who follow the same up-and-down trajectories as their predecessors.
The more things change, the more they stay the same in Narcos: Mexico, and that goes for DEA agent Walt Breslin (Scoot McNairy) as well. Even though he took down Gallardo at the conclusion of season two, Walt can’t seem to get Mexico out of his blood, and it’s not long before he’s sabotaging his relationship with teacher Dani (Kristen Gutoskie) in order to fully reimmerse himself in the bloody campaign against the cartels. McNairy exudes a weariness that feels inexhaustible, and it’s amplified by Walt’s understanding that almost all of his victories have been Pyrrhic. Walt is a man who fears he can’t win, willfully corrupts himself in service of a greater good that can’t be achieved (if it exists at all), and yet refuses to alter his course. In his acceptance of his own failings and weaknesses—and the doom that may come from his conduct—he’s a figure who earns our pity, empathy, and admiration.
If the Emmys paid attention to more than five shows each year, McNairy’s grizzled and forlorn performance would have earned him multiple awards by now, and his masterful turn is paralleled in Narcos: Mexico with that of Luis Gerardo Méndez as Victor Tapia. A Mexican cop introduced as a crooked thief, Victor undergoes a radical transformation upon being asked to investigate a neighbor’s missing niece. His subsequent sleuthing leads to the discovery of scores of young dead women whose demises are ignored by the public at large, and whose bodies are carelessly handled in refrigeration-deficient morgues and then unceremoniously dumped elsewhere. Like Walt, Victor becomes a crusader intent on stopping a scourge of violence that’s destroying the very fabric of the country. And as with his American counterpart, he soon learns that his chances of improving anything are woefully low.
Narcos: Mexico is an anguished affair, and yet in Walt and Victor’s attempts to make a positive difference no matter the consequences (or futility) of their choices, it refuses to simply succumb to paralyzing despair. Similar positivity comes via the story of Andrea Nuñez (Luisa Rubino), a fearless reporter at La Voz newspaper who serves as the proceedings’ narrator, and who endeavors to uncover the connections between the cartels and political mastermind Carlos Hank Gonzalez (Manuel Uriza), who maintains an intimate and covert affiliation with Amado. Assuming the showrunner reigns from Eric Newman, co-creator Carlo Bernard skillfully balances Walt, Victor and Andrea’s plights with the devious machinations of the Tijuana, Juarez and Sinaloa cartels, the result being a dense and intricate depiction of a war without any celebratory end in sight.
Packed to the gills with narrative twists, chaotic shootouts, treacherous double-crosses and more characters than a single series should be able to sustain—including a few notable cameos from seasons past—Narcos: Mexico is suspenseful, gripping and complex. Whether addressing the cartels’ recruitment of “narco juniors” from upper class families as a means of bolstering their support from society’s elite (one of whom is played by Bad Bunny), or illustrating the ramifications of NAFTA on trafficking, the series continues to be compellingly multifaceted. Moreover, it once again augments its based-on-actual-events realism by seamlessly interjecting non-fiction archival footage and TV news reports into its drama proper.
In the final tally, Narcos: Mexico isn’t just an epic about a broken and irredeemable system, a vain anti-drug enterprise, or the predictable treachery of criminals and governments—it’s a multinational portrait of individuals obsessed with greed, power, guilt and a self-destructive desire to make things better, even when those efforts are destined to come up short. As it ends its acclaimed small-screen run, it provides neither a happy ending nor any easy resolutions, instead staying true to the dark, grim perspective on the world, and the human heart, that’s made it such a downbeat triumph.