How Narcos: Mexico continues to be one of TV's most surprising — and addictive — hits
In season 1 of Narcos: Mexico, drug kingpin Félix Gallardo (Diego Luna) took a trip to Colombia where he came face-to-face with the infamous Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura), and in that instant, the DC Extended Universe was born. Well, DC as in Drug Cartel (sorry, Batman). “I had this Narcos expanded universe fantasy,” says showrunner Eric Newman. “I looked at Marvel like, ‘Why can’t our drug dealers make appearances in the franchise vehicles of other characters?’ It speaks to the interconnected nature of the narcotics trade; we all touch each other in this game.”
What originally started as “the Pablo Escobar story” has evolved into so much more as Narcos: Mexico enters its second season (now on Netflix) and the fifth overall in the Narcos franchise. After Escobar’s death in the Narcos season 2 finale, season 3 followed the already-introduced Cali Cartel, but it was the transition to Mexico and the rebranding of the show that solidified it as one of TV’s most surprising hits. “A lot of people were like, ‘What are they doing? How can they possibly continue without Escobar?’ But the ambition is what makes the victory worth savoring,” shares Newman, who believes the show’s appeal lies in the exploration of “economic disparity, balance of power, deals with the devil, [and] people who aspire to more. You can admire certain things and relate to them, but never lose sight that they are criminals and incredibly dangerous sociopaths.”
Filling the Escobar-size hole in season 3 was a group effort, but the shift to Mexico brought in Luna as Gallardo, who, despite lacking the name value of Escobar, was behind the rise of the Mexican drug trade in the ’80s. “That transition to the violence erupting is an era that really hasn’t been portrayed,” says Luna, a native of Mexico. “I remember that time. It felt like we were telling the story for the outside, but also as a reminder of where we come from and how we got to the mess we’re living in today.”
For an outsider like Newman, tackling this mess came with another difficult issue. “Colombia actually outran its past; there is no ending to the drug war in Mexico,” he declares. “It’s a different kind of carnage. We approached these chapters as the beginning of a tragedy.” And tragedy serves as the new season’s catalyst, resuming in the aftermath of Gallardo’s men murdering DEA agent Kiki Camarena (Michael Peña). Mexico Season 1 narrator Scoot McNairy (Halt and Catch Fire) steps in front of the camera as Walt Breslin, the American sent to lead the “gloves-off revenge mission” that finds the walls closing in on Gallardo, even as he gains more power. “We look at Narcos as a cautionary tale,” says Newman. “When it went south in Mexico was the government realizing they lost control and created a monster. Where we leave season 5 is very much a ‘You broke it, you bought it’ message.”
But that’s not the only message the team hopes the audience may glean. “Prior to us, it was ill-advised to try to make a mainstream show where you had to read at least half the dialogue,” admits Newman, referencing the use of subtitles, which also hasn’t stopped the 2019 film Parasite from becoming a cultural phenomenon. “I’m proudest of the fact that we’ve been able to get people to put their phones down.”
Luna, who grew up watching films like Star Wars in another language, thinks the time is now for more stories told authentically. “When the audience cares about something, they’re willing to make an effort,” he says. “My story can be interesting for someone that apparently had no connection with me. And that opens possibilities and hope for talent all around the globe. Now the system has to change. When they tell me, ‘When you go into your language, you’re shrinking the audience,’ I don’t take that as an answer anymore. Now I have an example to say, ‘That’s not true.’ I grew up watching James Bond, and the bad guys were always talking in English with a weird accent. No more of that, please.”
Agreed! Let the campaign for Luna to be the next James Bond officially begin.