Wheel Turnin' Round and Round
The first shots in Kingpin, NBC’s “six-episode event,” are at once spectacular and mundane. While a rattle-snaky effect hisses up the soundtrack, Tim Ives’ camera swoops in from the sky, majestically, approaching an orangey desert construction site in Ciudad Juarez, New Mexico—a gorgeous site just waiting to be exploited. Close-ups reveal those who mean to reap profits: a well-appointed and very handsome young man, Miguel Cadena (Yancey Arias), chatting with the governor. Their tête a tête is interrupted by the loud arrival of Ernesto (Jacob Varga), attended by jumpy guards with automatic weapons.
Miguel tries to smooth over his cousin’s ridiculously bad behavior, urging him to shake hands and “show him some respect,” because “the things you do, they reflect on your family.” Where Miguel wears designer suits and his hair neatly trimmed, Ernesto wears cowboy hats and leopard-print shirts with lots of jewelry, but their conflict, you know already, runs much deeper than style. Ernesto has been granted control of his father’s drug empire—the scale of which is indicated in a brief, credits-sequence montage, where huge blocks of coke are loaded onto trucks that cruise up the highway through border checks, all under the resonant background track, Steely Dan’s “Do It Again.” La Corporación is big-time business—regular, deliberate, inexorable.
At the moment, the business is running on fumes: Tío Jorge (Pepe Serna), Miguel’s uncle and Ernesto’s father, has been floating on a boat for weeks, in a desperate effort to avoid capture by the DEA and the Mexican police. Assigned to boat to care for his uncle is Miguel’s brother, the drearily ruthless Chato (Bobby Cannavale), introduced while informing the chef on board that he’s sick to death of the menu: when he’s back on land, he promises himself, “No more damn fish.” Jorge has also become bored and frustrated, and taken to smoking opium. Perhaps this new habit explains poor his most ludicrous outburst: “I have seen the flames of hell! I have swam through rivers of blood!” (Leaving the rest of us to slog through this overheated dialogue.)
When Miguel hears this, he knows that his instincts are right—his uncle is making bad decisions, most especially in assigning Ernesto to run the corporation. Miguel believes he is better educated (at Stanford) and patently better equipped to make deals with the U.S. government than Ernesto, who calls himself El Huevudo (and whose own unhinging is indicated when he’s in the vicinity of his pet tiger, whom he feeds DEA agents’ limbs). Under the guise of “supporting” his cousin, Miguel has been advancing his own interests—“trading favors with CIA,” as well as the New Mexico governor, dealing with Colombian kingpin Don Carlos (Joaquim de Almeida). The trip to Colombia includes watching batting practice for Don Carlos’ baseball team; when Miguel’s young son Joey (Ruben Crabajal) runs the bases for “fun,” he’s accompanied by a squad of suited bodyguards: poor kids of drug lords, their lives are rough.
Miguel’s ambition is nurtured by his brittle gringa wife, Marlene (Sheryl Lee, who was, so long ago, Laura Palmer). She’s a lawyer for the family, and resents that her job is so impossible. She first appears finding herself unable to defend a Mexican army colonel caught red-handed trafficking for the cartel. When she expresses her frustration with this disintegrating situation, Ernesto offers to beat her with a bullwhip. Hustling Marlene outside, Miguel grabs up Ernesto in a bear hug: “What are you doing?!” the little cousin whines. Apparently, he hasn’t seen The Godfather; otherwise, he’d recognize this fierce show of love as the kiss-off it will prove to be.
Clearly, the writers of Kingpin, head among them being David Mills (who wrote The Corner), have seen the Coppola saga, as well as a slew of other gangster films and television series. Critics have been comparing Kingpin to The Sopranos, and NBC is looking happy to push the envelope of what’s allowable—and profitable—on network. This especially for February sweeps, when the six episodes will air (in March, NBC will air a “more explicit” version of Kingpin on Bravo, and a “milder,” Spanish-language version on Telemundo).
But even as the show explores the Sopranos-ish excesses of the Cadena family, it also offers another point of view, namely, that of a DEA Agent, Delia Flores (Angela Alvarado Rosa), who appreciates the operation’s size and complexity, respects its ferocity, and, in this first episode, reveals some sensible priorities (she’ll cut loose a girl busted with marijuana in order to be owed a favor by a Mexican cop who can help her do more important work).
More than any other character in the early episodes, Delia demonstrates a secure, if rattled, moral compass. She can be hard enough, too. She chews out her gringo junior partner when he blows a connection by being disrespectful, then absorbs serious guilt (and lead) when she’s forced to use him on a meet that goes unbelievably bad. Still, Delia’s sincere efforts against the cartel look to be losing. For she’s not only up against the family, but also, of course, the many political and economic structures, on both sides of the border, who deal with it.
Even as Kingpin makes clear its indictment of so many aspects of this commerce, it has another thing in common with The Sopranos: “community backlash.” La Raza has already been fielding complaints concerning “negative” images, as has the National Hispanic Media Coalition. The president of NHMC, Alex Nogales, asks, “Are we going to see, week after week, all these Mexicans killing each other and DEA agents? I understand that sometimes pilots get carried away, but we expect changes by the second or third episode.”
The “carried away” part has to do with Ernesto’s barmy aggression and an alarming assault on Delia, as well as an elaborate orchestration at the first episode’s end. This sequence visually and thematically mimics (and not necessarily to its credit) the end of The Godfather, crosscutting between an appalling murder and a scene where the man who orders it drops off his regular big box of cash to the Catholic Church (“Are you still having trouble sleeping?” inquires the priest). It has to do with the family’s use of a fuzzy-headed, coke-addicted gringo plastic surgeon, Dr. Klein (Brian Benben - and where has he been?), to change “wanted” faces and serve as a kind of beard for executions. He’s as scuzzy as they come, easily tempted by pretty Mexican prostitutes, and married to Sean Young, scheduled to appear later in the series (for this last excess, I, for one, can hardly wait).
The “carried away” part also has to do with the series’ focus on Mexican protagonists (working with black and white lawbreakers, in episodes to come) who are not “positive” models. On one hand, the concern is understandable: with so few images of Hispanics in U.S. mass media, it hardly seems productive to feature scary, cruel, or contemptible figures as the most visible, or at least the most widely hyped. On the other hand, the characters are not fearful and brutal because they are Mexican, and they’re not intended to represent a race or a nation (that said, white characters still enjoy this non-representational luxury in ways that minority characters simply do not). Indeed, Miguel’s U.S. affiliations tie his ruthlessness to a whole other background, to his keen understanding of the ways the gringos conduct business. This makes Miguel’s malevolence—which occasionally looks ambivalent, as when he chides his wife for being excited by murder—more chilling than Ernesto’s blustery bravado.
Miguel (modeled, says Mills, on Michael Corleone) commits his violence not with guns alone (he hires shooters for the ugly stuff), but with technologies, schemes, and visions. He recognizes La Corporación and his role in it as part of a longstanding capitalistic system. He imagines a future. “We are not murderers,” he tells Ernesto, “We’re businessmen.” It’s a self-serving and -delusional distinction, one that the series challenges outright: everyone exchanging favors with the Cadenas is implicated, from judges to cops to governors to CIA operatives. Miguel’s assertion seems self-conscious, but then again, he may be making up rules as he can. Just like his partners do.
At the same time, Miguel understands that his (unofficial) relationship with the gringos is not, in and of itself, based on trust, but on practical exchange: who can be of what use to whom? “If everybody in America stopped buying drugs tomorrow, the Mexican economy would collapse and then millions of Mexicans would cross the border to survive,” observes Miguel, “And that is the American government’s worst nightmare.”
In other words, borders—between nations, races, legal provisos—stand in for and so preserve a fiction of order. No matter how many “aliens” are working in the U.S., how much traffic crosses every day, how many corrupt officials get paid, or how much evidence is “lost,” the story endures. While Kingpin jumpstarts controversy by claiming to expose how the fiction works, it’s also more fiction. The fact is that the drug trade goes on, supported by and supporting all levels of “legitimate” enterprise and governance. If Kingpin shows even a little of that intricacy, of that collapsing of personal, familial, and corporate interests, it will have done more than U.S. network news has done lately.