When Narcos first hit Netflix in September of 2016, it was a little bit of a surprise hit. It’s not often that a bilingual show with heavy subtitles works, but thanks to Netflix's global audience, Narcos sure did. It’s turned out to be one of Netflix’s most beloved shows, but after three seasons, it was basically rebooted and rebranded as Narcos: Mexico.
It was a bit of a weird move for the subscription streaming service. Yet, how does Narcos: Mexico stand up to the original Narcos? Is it different than the early iteration of the series? Let's take a look.
The first two season of Narcos on Netflix followed the incredible rise and violent fall of the most infamous drug kingpins in history, Pablo Escobar, played brilliantly by Brazilian actor Wagner Moura. On one side was the incredibly powerful and notoriously violent Medellín Cartel, led by Escobar, and on the other side there were DEA agents trying to bring him down. More specifically there were two agents, Steve Murphy, played by Boyd Holbrook, and Javier Pena, played by Pedro Pascal.
A big part of the success of that first season was the performance by Wagner Moura. His potrayal of Pablo Escobar was spot on. He played him not as a one-dimensional lunatic willing to kill everything in his path to the top of cocaine mountain, but as a compassionate family man who cared deeply for his children, his hometown of Medellín, and the country of Colombia.
He didn't take it too far, as there are constant reminders about just how evil Pablo Escobar was; still, by the end of the series, he was almost an anti-hero fighting the government because they didn't want him to succeed. It’s a fascinating take on the man and again, Wagner Moura nailed it.
Narcos' season were ominous and serious. It was a dangerous time in Colombia and indeed much of the rest of South and Central America and the Americans, misguided or not, felt righteous in their belief that bringing all-out war to Colombia and to Escobar was completely warranted. Of course, in the end – spoiler alert – Escobar was taken down by a combination of Steve Murphy and Javier Pena’s characters and Colombian police and military forces. It’s all very much based on the real story and was flawlessly executed, unlike Pablo Escobar, whose execution on a roof in Medellín was anything but flawless or dignified.
With Escobar dead, Season 3 of Narcos shifted to the other major cocaine cartel in Colombia, the Cali Cartel, based, obviously Cali. They were major rivals of Escobar’s and with his death, they moved hard to fill to power (and drug) vacuum left in the wake of Escobar’s death. While Season 3 was equally well done, production-wise, it does suffer from a couple of flaws; luckily it was still immensely popular.
The hardest loss in Season 3 really was Wagner Moura. The show just wasn't the same without him as Escobar. The men that ran the Cali Cartel, while just as ruthless as Escobar, lacked his charisma and his panache, in my opinion. The show suffered mightily because of this. There were no anti-heroes, only villains, and Escobar was both, which is what originally made the show unique.
Additionally, the story of the Cali Cartel is harder to tell. There were more players, they operated in many different cities around the world and there wasn’t a unifying bad guy for an audience to cheer against. Sure, they were just as violent as Escobar, maybe even more so, but the story wasn't as good. Still, the production and acting were world class and the ending, setting up what the creators thought would be Season 4, was excellent, with Pedro Pascal’s character back home in the States, sitting on the Rio Grande with his father, watching Mexican drug smugglers load up a boat.
With Narcos: Mexico, Netflix and the showrunners decided to do a light reboot. It only made sense, as the criminals were changing and the location was changing; therefore, it made sense for everything to change. Out was basically the entire cast and in was a completely new one. All the main characters from the previous series were gone. Honestly, it was the smart move. Sure, the show could have brought Boyd Holbrook and Javier Pena back and fudged the story of the DEA agents in Mexico, but instead they stuck with the realism and honest storytelling by changing the players, as they changed in real life.
Leading the new cast would be Michael Pena, playing real-life DEA agent Kiki Camarena, and Diego Luna as Felix Gallardo, the leader of the Guadalajara Cartel. Luna's casting came on the heals of starring in the Star Wars universe. In a minor, but sure to grow role, Alejandro Edda played a young gunman in the cartel named Joaquin Guzman, who is better known as “El Chapo.”
Because the timeline of the rise of the Mexican cartels overlaps a lot of that of the Colombians, Narcos: Mexico had an opportunity to bring back a number of characters, including one very memorable scene with Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar when Diego Luna’s character visited Escobar in Colombia to make a pact to smuggle cocaine through Mexico. The scene also featured an excellent appearance of Escobar’s famous hippos, which he kept as pets. It might be the best episode of the season and once again Moura’s performance was perfect.
Narcos: Mexico had the exact same look and feel of its counterpart, Narcos. The gritty realism, the nebulous treatment of heroes and anti-heroes, even the bilingual production style were the same. It’s a much different story, both from the cartel’s perspective and the DEA’s, but the themes are very similar. For the cartel, it was: How do you protect your asssets against the wolves coming for it? For the DEA, it was: How do you get the pencil pushers in Washington to understand just how bad things are?
Is the story as good? Frankly, no. There was only one Pablo Escobar, the larger-than-life Colombian who was once named as one of the richest men in the world, despite his outlaw status. You don’t find a story like every day. The shows have been just as compelling though and Narcos: Mexico definitely stands up with its big brother.
The best news about the whole thing? That bit about a story as crazy and compelling as Pablo Escobar’s? Well, there is another one. It took place in Mexico and it’s star was one El Chapo Guzman. Oh yeah, Narcos: Mexico should be about to get very, very crazy.
So if you are fan of the first Narcos, but have been hesitant to watch Narcos: Mexico, stop hesitating! While it’s maybe not quite as good as the first two seasons, it is very close and with the story left to tell, it’s only going to get better. A lot better.