Teresa Mendoza has her beginnings in the streets of Mexico, but it's control of a drug empire that she's destined for
Credit: Eniac Martinez/USA Network

Just as it did with Mr. Robot last year, USA continues to add grittier shows to its roster with its latest genre fare. This year it’s Queen of the South, a Narcos-esque drama about the rise (and fall?) of drug lord Teresa Mendoza. While “Piloto” is burdened by the usual pilot trappings, such as too much exposition and an expedited plot, it’s also a good look at just what this show will potentially be: a violent, fun drama with a great lead performance.

“Piloto” starts off in the future, with Teresa at the height of her powers. Adorned in gold high heels and an all-white blazer and skirt, Teresa’s voiceover lets us know that she controls the largest drug empire in the Western hemisphere. As she says, she’s the reason you can get a gram for your stupid bachelorette party. But, she notes that this business comes with threats, and just as she says it, a bullet comes through the window of her house, dropping Teresa as the camera focuses on the blood coming out of her mouth. That’s one way to kick off your pilot!

From there the narrative jumps way back to when Teresa was buying drugs and exchanging money in Sinaloa, Mexico. While she’s making the exchanges she meets her love, the white (literally) knight who dominates any origin story, whether it involves a drug kingpin or not. Guero, with his long hair and his Texas roots, steals Teresa’s heart by beating up her employer for the way he treats her. Aww, love at first assault.

Things between Teresa and Guero get hot and heavy quickly. They spend the night out with Guero’s friend Brenda and her man, a drug runner just like Guero. After the two spend a night of dancing and coke and having sex on the hood of a car, Teresa’s voice-over takes us through the next few months, as she becomes Guero’s girlfriend and is introduced into the world of these drug runners.

At a Christmas party sometime later she’s left on her own as her and Brenda snoop around the house of Guero’s godfather, Don Vargas, who also serves as the head of the cartel. This is where the exposition gets really heavy. There’s talk of Don Vargas running for Governor in the next year, meaning he needs to distance himself from the business during his campaign. Apparently his wife, who helped build this empire, isn’t too happy about it. In fact, Teresa overhears a heated exchange between the two where his wife all but lays out that she was the one who kept this business running, so he can’t just make a unilateral decision. It’s one of the first nods toward this show being about how these women navigate a world dominated by men and machismo.

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Before long Guero has risen through the ranks of the cartel; he and Teresa are in love and living large. Things can’t stay that way for long though, and after Guero is ambushed, he prepares Teresa for the day she might have to run. He sets her up with a getaway bag, a passport, some money, and a notebook that he tells her not to read. He says if she goes to Don Vargas with that book, she’ll be able to trade it for her life. He also gives her a phone with simple instructions: If it ever rings, it means he’s dead.

NEXT: Shots fired

Because this is a pilot, that getaway bag comes in handy sooner than expected. Jumping ahead an indeterminable amount of time, Teresa is sitting in her tub watching Scarface when she gets a call on the one phone she doesn’t want to get a call on. Guero is dead and she needs to leave right now. She grabs her bag and takes off.

She calls Brenda to warn her about the men who could be coming for her, but it’s too late. Brenda and her son are hiding in a closet while the men try to torture the truth out of her husband. Apparently he and Guero were skimming from their own boss. Teresa shows up just in time to help Brenda and her son make an escape, though they end up separated, as Teresa holes up in a safe house while Brenda disappears into the streets.

Before long though the two men who killed Guero and Brenda’s husband find Teresa. They grab the bag and the notebook and try to figure out how to deal with a drug runners girlfriend who may know too much. In the episode’s most uncomfortable but also riveting moment, one man goes upstairs while the other takes off Teresa’s pants and sexually assaults her. Teresa focuses on the stairs behind her and sees golden high heels walking down them. It’s a vision of her future self, the same one who gets shot in the opening moments, and this badass Teresa is telling her that this is a defining moment and she knows what she has to do.

So, Teresa grabs a gun from the floor and shoots her assailant in the head. As the other man runs back downstairs she points the gun at him and makes her escape with the bag and the notebook. She puts a call in to Don Vargas, who’s now the Governor, because Guero said he’d always be able to help her.

As it turns out, Don Vargas isn’t so reliable. He tries to just take the book and leave, but Teresa steps in front of his car and points a gun to her own head. She says that he can abandon her if he wants, but that she’ll kill herself and the blood will be on his hands. After reluctantly asking if she has money and a passport, he agrees to help her get away.

When Don Vargas makes a pit stop and spends most of the time on his phone though, future Teresa makes an appearance again. She knows something is up; plans have changed and Don Vargas isn’t going to help her. So Teresa grabs a gun from the front seat and waits to make her move. That move means shooting the driver in the head, causing the car to crash. Don Vargas begs for her help in escaping the wreckage, but Teresa knows better. She grabs the bag and notebook and begins to wander on her own.

Eventually she ends up at a gas station in the middle of nowhere, where a man treats her wound with a good ol’ fashioned mix of tequila and scorpion juices (seriously!). Not everything is as it seems though. Teresa is kidnapped from the gas station bathroom and brought to some sort of drug-running facility where she’s locked up in a storage cage. She manages to escape her zip ties and punch through a mirror, taking the broken glass in her hand so that she can attack whoever’s next to come into the cage. This woman, if nothing else, is extremely resourceful.

And guess who’s the next to walk in? Camila Vargas, the wife of Don Vargas, who’s officially kept ahold on her empire. She’s running the operation here and she’s not stupid. She takes the broken glass out of Teresa’s hand, even comforting her and making her feel somewhat safe. You see, that gas station is an outpost on her mule route, and her people tell her whenever something fishy goes down. Plus, her husband has been looking for a woman who escaped his clutches, and surprise surprise, here’s Teresa sitting right in front of her.

Will Camila bring Teresa into the fold? Will Teresa make an escape and start her own thing? How do we get to the point where Teresa ends up shot? We don’t know yet. All we know, as the episode comes to a close, is that Teresa isn’t home anymore. Camila informs Teresa that she’s in Dallas, Texas, the home of Camila’s expanding empire. Future Teresa pops up one more time, assuring her that she’s going to like it here. Now we’re ready for the rise of Teresa. Bring on episode 2.

Episode Recaps

Queen of the South
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