What's always made crime difficult as a genre to handle is the same thing that Francois Truffaut said about war movies.
Truffaut's essential point about war movies was that, by their very nature, would glorify it and make it seem exciting. There was no way that you could put war on screen and not make it look incredible. It's the same with crime movies. Whether it's 'Breaking Bad', 'Scarface', go all the way back to the original 'Scarface' by Howard Hawks - there's no way you can put crime on screen and not make it look exciting.
With 'Narcos Mexico', the difficulty isn't in blunting how exciting or enticing it is, but rather showing just how it infectious it was. What jumps out at you from the opening episodes of the series is just how corrupt every facet of Mexico's public institutions were. Police, the armed forces, politicians, governors - everyone is on the take, and it's all folded so neatly into the fabric of society that it's kind of breathtaking when you step back from it.
What you're left with is the realisation that not only is it impossible to topple, but that it's still there to this day. There are so many scenes in 'Narcos Mexico' that defy the very nature of belief, but any bit of cursory research will tell you that not only are they real, but that the series has done a pretty decent job of watering them down to make it palatable and believable. It reframes the birth of the US Drug War into a single man's vision of a united Mexico, born out of necessity rather than ambition.
The opening episode introduces Diego Luna's character, Felix, as a former police officer who intervenes during a government operation designed to crush Sinaloan farmers growing marijuana. The US-backed military back away, but it sets up the tone for the series. Government at any level is not to be trusted. Not only that, it is by its very nature working against its citizenry. This is something that 'Narcos' has explored before, but here in 'Narcos Mexico', the system is so entrenched with it that the gangs work with it rather than buck heads.
The criminals regularly hire police, soldiers, politicians as the need requires them to do so - and none of it looks out of the ordinary. This is perhaps the most chilling part of 'Narcos Mexico' - the normalisation of corruption and graft in government circles, and how this ties in with the current situation in the US.
Let's talk about the cast. While Diego Luna has some of his moments here and there, Michael Pena as DEA agent Kiki Camarena is the real scene-stealer here. While he's perhaps best known for his comedic roles, Pena imbues his character with a sense of forcefulness and resolve that's unlike previous protagonists in 'Narcos'. He doesn't have Javi Pena's easy charm or Murphy's air of cynicism. He's constantly pissed off and frustrated. He knows that he's being an asshole, but he doesn't care. This bullishness frequently puts him at odds with his colleagues, played by veteran character actors such as Matt Letscher and 'Mad Men' alum Aaron Staton, but it's what kicks all of it into action.
Leaving all this aside, what 'Narcos Mexico' does so well across its ten episodes is weave together both intimate storylines about family and relationships - particularly with Diego Luna's character - and larger themes on the nature of corruption and political ends to it. It's a fine line to walk, but the writing and direction is that deft that it balances it neatly and elegantly. When the focus drifts into their personal lives, it never feels like it's biding its time until the action kicks off. Instead, it provides both context for the nature of their crimes, and develops their characters in a way lesser shows wouldn't.
'Narcos Mexico' continues the series' streak of success without losing any of its potency. There's very few television series that can say that four seasons in, and certainly fewer still that actually seem to be getting better in the advancing years.