Thursday, July 6, 2017

REVIEW: 'Queen of the South' - Danger Follows Teresa Around in Bolivia in 'El Nacimiento De Bolivia'

USA's Queen of the South - Episode 2.05 "El Nacimiento De Bolivia"

Teresa, James and Guero travel to Bolivia in search of a new supplier: the mysterious and dangerous narco-cult leader El Santo.

It's always fascinating to see characters taken out of their normal, comfortable lives. Things haven't been normal or comforting for Teresa for a long time. Her life has completely changed in not a whole lot of time. This life of working for Camila is still surprising and traumatizing to her. It's her choice to continue to be doing all of this. It's a life that she is choosing for herself. But it's not comforting or simple yet. It's still full of many hardships. All it takes is for something to go wrong in either Mexico or the United States for her to go to jail or get killed. That's the environment the show has played around in for its entire series run so far. It has no problem going back-and-forth across the border. It lives in the life-and-death scenarios for these characters. They each have to make these life-changing choices that will only cause more trauma and complications for them moving forward. So now, Guero is working for Camila but hasn't earned her or James' trust yet. He is trying to prove his worth by hooking them up with a new drug supplier. It just means that he, James and Teresa have to travel to Bolivia to make a deal happen. That's the change up to the central environment that gives this episode a new energy and feel to it.

Yes, "El Nacimiento De Bolivia" still thrives on life-and-death stakes. The characters make it clear right away that a relationship with El Santo is seen as a last resort in the drug smuggling game because he's so vicious and unpredictable. Even Epifanio doesn't want to work with him, that's how serious all of this actually is. It's now presented as the only choice to keep Camila's cartel alive during these turbulent times. It's a daunting task for them to complete. This hour doesn't make it easy for them. As such, it's very intense because they are working against a deadline. They only have three days to get the drugs on the ships. Otherwise, there's no route back to America with them. That's the amount of time they are working with. So, the stakes are adequately raised early on in this episode. They are clearly stated amongst the characters and then easily made complicated by various plot twists. It's the expected storytelling route. And yet, it's still effective. Yes, things are still incredibly broad and silly with the characterizations of some of the people the core trio meet in Bolivia. But the main story itself has enough genuine drama to overcompensate for all of that weirdness.

One of the bigger plot complications is that Guero's contact in El Santo's operation happens to be an ex-girlfriend of his, Leo. When she points a gun at his head upon seeing him, it's clear that things did not end well between the two of them. And yet, it also plays as the show establishing a pattern of behavior in Guero. He has a history of leaving women behind without telling them what happened to him. They are then forced to reinvent their lives and do things they never thought they were capable of doing. That defines Teresa's story across the entire series. She has become a part of this life because Guero left her. And now, she's trying to form a connection with Leo by exploiting this information. It just doesn't have any subtlety to it. It's a story that is more interested in Teresa's reaction than Guero's. He could use some more character development. Right now, he's just a guy pining after Teresa and hoping he doesn't get killed in the process. That's basically it. Meanwhile, Teresa is at the center of the action actually trying to make the deal with El Santo only for things to get complicated, weird and then lethal.

The show has been no stranger to violence across its two seasons. There seems to be a character who dies in every episode. That especially feels true of this season. Sometimes death comes for recurring characters. Other times it comes for characters who were just important to that week's plot. In this case, Leo is the one who is killed to amp the stakes up even higher in this main story as Teresa, Guero and James struggle to make contact with El Santo. Instead, they are targeted by a police force that is solely devoted to tracking El Santo and stopping any more drug shipments from happening within their country. It's nice to see a woman heading up this task force. But she is also presented as a mustache-twirling villain who aims to do as much harm to the main characters as possible. During her first appearance, that includes forcing Teresa to snort as much cocaine as possible. She is able to single Teresa out right away as one of the new traffickers in the city. Instead of arresting her, this captain has her own power trip. It's a really brutal scene to watch. One where everyone quickly has to worry about whether or not Teresa will survive taking so much drugs. And yet, it's not really a serious threat. Even the show seems to forget about it halfway through the episode. James and Guero are concerned about her for a little bit. But once Teresa forces Leo to arrange a meeting with El Santo, everything is perfectly fine with her once more. That just seems fake and can take the audience out of the intense story.

As if that weren't enough, the show turns things up an addition notch in showing the brutality on display in this world. Teresa, James and Guero are taken by this task force before meeting El Santo. They are tied to chairs and sitting poolside with the captain who is ready to kill them if they don't give her the information that they need. Again, it's not surprising that Leo dies in order to establish the stakes of this moment. It's also strong and perhaps foolish for Teresa not to give in to this woman's demands even though it means she, James and Guero will be killed. And then, they are miraculously saved by unknown allies. It will more than likely be El Santo's men. They are taking out the task force hunting them while saving these newcomers who want to make a deal with them. The mystery of it all works because it is completely seen from Teresa's perspective. She's not an active participant in any of it. Instead, she is pushed into the pool and risks drowning before anyone is able to rescue her. The bullets are flying above her but all the camera reveals is the horror happening underwater. That's a particularly exciting way to frame all of this. Of course, Teresa survives. Her surviving all of this could seem as impossible as well. But it's something the show is asking the audience to go along with. Plus, it doesn't end happily for Teresa. She instead gets chained up in a jail cell in Bolivia. That's a nice cliffhanger ending. It's clear that the show wants to spend some time in this moment. So, it's great that it's not rushing through the plot so quickly in order to return to the states as soon as possible. That's exciting.

Some more thoughts:
  • "El Nacimiento De Bolivia" was written by Joe Loya and directed by Nick Copus.
  • Camila signs the divorce papers that Epifanio gave her. She does it in order to declare her independence from him and perhaps end this war between them. It's a strong and decisive action by her. But will Epifanio accept it? Will peace actually occur between them? Right now, the war has been defining so many of their actions. Will that just stop now? Or will something more happen that will intensify things moving forward?
  • Camila asks Pote to kill the man who trained him in this business. He doesn't have a big personal reaction to that. He carries out the order so that Camila can deliver her message to Epifanio about turning her allies against her. But Pote could use some more characterization as well. This was an interesting first try. But more would be nice too.
  • Guero is picking up on the hints that James is interested in Teresa. He doesn't confront him about it. But he does make a comment about it to Teresa. She doesn't feel that way. She believes it was just because she was dying and Guero is reading too much into things. But he probably isn't. The audience knows that both of these guys are interested in Teresa.
  • Teresa is proving to be the only one from Camila's cartel whom El Santo is interested in meeting. He's coming across as a very eccentric man. He has a vetting process that only Teresa can go through. She has to visit a dentist to get his opinion of her in order to get the address and key to a hotel room. And yet, it's all for nothing too.
  • There is so much buildup in this episode regarding El Santo. Not only is he a drug trafficker but he's a cult leader too. He's so vicious and brutal that most of the world doesn't want to work with him. After all of this buildup, the payoff of his actual introduction can't disappoint. If it does, it would be really crushing to this entire story and not seem like it was worth all of the time spent on it.