Thursday, June 23, 2016

REVIEW: 'Queen of the South' - Teresa Mendoza Goes on the Run From the Cartel in 'Piloto'

USA's Queen of the South - Episode 1.01 "Piloto"

When the Mexican drug cartel comes after Teresa Mendoza with a vengeance, she is forced to run and do whatever it takes to survive. Now, her fate is sealed in the dangerous narco world forever.

USA's newest drama Queen of the South continues the network's new trend of expanding its original series to darker and edgier material. Mr. Robot and Colony started that programming strategy. And now, Queen of the South plans on continuing it. The new series opens with a very bold move that shows the audience just how serious and dark it should be taken. It follows that up with a pilot that is very intense and propulsive. When the tension isn't as high, the characters don't really pop a whole lot. But Alice Braga's leading lady, Teresa Mendoza, does at all times. It's not enough to justify the continued use of a voiceover. That works in the opening minutes of the premiere but really isn't necessary to underline just how her love is like a drug or how she's able to overcome some horrifying situations that happen to her. Her journey in this first episode should be the sole focus. It is quite a compelling journey that sets up an interesting story arc for the season.

"Piloto" opens with a glimpse into the future and the success that Teresa has found in the drug trade. She is sitting atop her own empire. This is a lifestyle she is confident in and enjoys. She is still using the same product that she is selling - just like she is when the pilot goes back to the start of her journey. But she likes the luxurious life she has built. But she also warns that this lifestyle can only end one way. And that's exactly what happens to her. The very first impression of Teresa Mendoza is her death. She is shot by an unknown assailant with one bullet to the chest. It's a very effective killing. The series is building to that tragic moment for Teresa. It will show how she went from a poor citizen in Mexico to one of the wealthiest people in the drug trade. And yet, how much of this glimpse of the future should the audience trust? Is it something that is really going to happen? That's how her story ends? Or is it simply the reality she has accepted for her life should she enter this profession? This first episode does showcase the fantasy elements of this existence as they pertain to her. She is able to rise up and defeat the cartel members who wish to rape and kill her because she is motivated by the future she wants for her life. She reaches her breaking point and starts having a conversation with herself. That's an interesting narrative decision. It certainly allows Braga to play different elements of this character at all times. But could it be setting up one big reveal that her journey to power in America may just be a fantasy after all?

That's a mystery and concern for later on in the series life though. Right now, it's important to show just who Teresa is as a woman and how she is motivated to survive in this cruel and unforgiving world. In the beginning, it's just a simple love story. She is pulled into this dangerous world because she falls in love with drug runner Guero. Their romance is never all that important to the narrative stakes of the hour. He is destined to die which pushes Teresa on this run for her life. And how fantastic is that? It's a flip of the typical gender norm of this kind of story. Over the years in television, so many women have died solely to motivate their male companions into action. Here, it's the opposite of that. Guero is killed. It happens offscreen which could set up the inevitable reveal that he is still alive somehow and did this to Teresa for nefarious purposes. But right now, his death is the inciting incident of the premiere. He dies so that Teresa can have urgency and purpose. Once she gets those things, it's fantastic to watch. It is slow getting to that point. It's formulaic and routine to see the two of them go to a party for their drug benefactors Epifanio and Camila Vargas. That's followed up with Guero telling Teresa what to do if he is killed. All of that felt solely as plot setup and exposition. It's a necessary component of this hour to establish the stakes of the second half where the series really takes off.

It's just important that Guero is killed. The specifics of his death are a little too cryptic and don't really add up. He was apparently stealing from his boss but somehow another gang was involved too. But again, it's not important why Guero is killed. It's just important that Teresa is forced to go on the run because of his death. That does more to show what type of a person she is than her brief happiness and love with Guero. She reaches out to her best friend, Brenda, to make sure she is able to run as well. She doesn't immediately flee to protect herself. She cares about Brenda because she has always been there for her in this lifestyle. And yet, it's always obvious that Teresa is much more capable of handling this dark world. Brenda is frightened when the hitmen come to kill her husband as well. She sees it happens and it essentially renders her numb and motionless in a time where she needs to act. It's a weird moment when she and her son are able to escape. They disappear and are never relevant again. The narrative instead focuses on Teresa and how she is all alone in this endeavor. The story indicates that Brenda will continue to be an important part of the story. But Teresa is more important and she needs to be isolated right now in order to be very compelling as a main character.

Teresa is not able to stop at any moment while she's on the run. She faces danger immediately when she rescues Brenda and her son. But then, the safehouse isn't safe at all. The hitmen are easily able to find her there. They take her by surprise. They want to have some fun before killing her. They want to prove that they have the power in this dynamic. Sure, it's the easy decision to have that power dynamic then become a scene about rape. But it's significant that the show is essentially about female empowerment. Teresa wants to just act like she's not being violated right now. But that's not going to help her out of this situation that ends with her death. So instead, she grabs her guns and kills the man on top of her. It's a very powerful moment that shows that she is willing to do whatever it takes in order to survive. Sure, it could be a major mistake that she leaves one of the hitmen alive. He could still track her down and kill her for what she knows about their operation. But that's a problem for a later time for her.

Teresa is doing her best to stick to the plan that Guero has made for her. But it's failing at every single turn. The safehouse wasn't safe. But more importantly, Epifanio doesn't want to help her get to safety and freedom. He's just interested in the book of trade secrets. That's what everyone is fighting over. She wants him to be a friend for her on this mission. But he isn't. She forces him into action. She points her gun at herself demanding him to help her. He agrees. But then, she worries a phone call he made is just to set up a deal to trade her to the people who want her dead. She proves herself to be very resourceful by once again using a gun to escape a dangerous situation. This time she causes a car accident that leaves Epifanio incapable of following her. And yet, she still finds himself taken by unknown forces. When she finally finds refuge and a helping hand, it's just a ploy to keep her distracted until the cartel men can arrive and take her to an unknown location. That facility is managed by Camila who has decided to expanded her empire's hold on Texas. Teresa now finds herself in Dallas. She has escaped the country where many people wanted her dead. She's still in danger though. She's resourceful. But that isn't able to get her out of every situation. Camila is smart too. She knows just how important Teresa is. Now, she has to decide what to do with her. It's an ominous tease to leave the audience with. But it sure does work in building excitement for the next episode.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Piloto" was written by M.A. Fortin & Joshua John Miller and directed by Charlotte Sieling.
  • It really is going to be so tiring to see all the characters snorting heroin all the time. It's an addiction that is underplayed. That's appreciated. But that needs to have purpose as well. They cope with their realities with drugs. What will happen once they get in situations where they can't rely on that?
  • So, what are the odds that Guero is really dead? He's an important enough character for the opening part of the episode. But a sudden reveal of him being alive won't have much of an impact because of the limited amount of time he's actually onscreen. His relationship with Teresa is played as this big and loving thing. But it always feels very plot motivated as well.
  • Epifanio is running for Governor. That decision puts so much tension in his marriage with Camila. She wants to continue expanding their empire while he wants to pursue his political ambitions and take a step back from his criminal operation. She flees to Texas acting as if their marriage is over. So, she probably won't want to help him when it comes to finding Teresa.
  • Brenda is a bit too one-note during her brief time onscreen. She is the upbeat and energetic best friend trope. Sure, she is put through the emotional ringer as well. But that's never all that important or requires too much focus.
  • The balance of characters speaking in Spanish versus English is really off and weird. They transition from the two at odd times with no purpose whatsoever. It's definitely noticeable that the show got the note not to have too many subtitles for the audience to read.