A brutal example of the female disposability that’s a cornerstone of the cartel business arrives early in the pulpy action-thriller Queen of the South (USA Network). In the second episode, a captive young woman who’s proud of her recent promotion from “pro” to mule collapses when some of the 20 or so pouches of cocaine in her stomach begin to dissolve. Her guards drag her body to a table, where they cut open a seam down her still-warm torso, then root around her insides with bare hands in search of the bags that haven’t disintegrated yet. The watchmen are jubilant: More than a dozen and a half are still intact.
Men are expendable in the drugs-and-murder industry, too. “One day, you’re gonna come home and I won’t be here, ’cause I’ll be dead,” Teresa (Alice Braga) is warned by her mid-ranking trafficker boyfriend, Guero (Jon-Michael Ecker). Except he’ll die because he started a side business after skimming from his boss, cartel jefe Don Epifanio (Joaquim de Almeida). After his assassination, Teresa’s marked for death simply because she’s his girlfriend.
As we know from the show’s opening scenes, when a gold-laden, designer-dressed Teresa is pierced in the heart by a bullet, disposability can be shaken off through determination and vigor — but not forever. In the first five episodes that have aired so far, it’s the resourceful female characters’ struggles to be seen as something more than single-use that give Queen of the South its moderate surprises and satisfactions.
There’s little to distinguish Queen of the South from any number of crime-centric dramas other than the gender of its protagonist and her protector/capturer, Camila (Veronica Falcón), Epifanio’s estranged wife, who schemes to take over the empire that she built with him. But that novelty — combined with the adequate plotting, dialogue, and car chases — is enough, so unused are we to seeing women with any agency in cartel narratives. (Queen of the South is adapted from the Telemundo drama La Reina del Sur, which made a star of Kate del Castillo — the actress arguably most famous in America for brokering that infamous meeting between Sean Penn and El Chapo.)
The series’s surprises come from Teresa, a Mexican money-changer who’s smuggled across the border by Camila while on the lam from Don Epifanio. Armed with a reckless confidence that can only be explained by the unacknowledged awareness that she’s the protagonist of a TV show, Teresa repeatedly risks her life to prove to Camila and her gentlemanly handler (Peter Gadiot) that she’s more than an expendable mule. The show is probably raising her through the ranks as quickly as plausibly possible, but given that we’re already aware of her eventual perch on the throne, the weekly Teresa-is-smarter-than-she-seems story lines already feel like a waiting game.
More satisfying is the chess game that Dallas-based Camila plays with her Sinaloa-rooted husband, in which Teresa is a prized piece. Gravelly-voiced, stiffly bobbed, and just sexy enough to make men wobbly at the knees while retaining enough blood in their brains to be able to do her bidding, Camila is the queen of the show, and it’ll be a damn shame to see her go if showrunner Scott Rosenbaum kills her off to make room at the top for Teresa. Simultaneously officious and sinewy, Falcón is never more terrifying than when she’s softly but firmly asserting her dominance. “Turn on the stove” is an order you never want to hear from this woman.
Teresa and Camila maintain a thinking calmness in the most precarious of situations — an advantage unshared by Brenda (Justina Machado), Teresa’s friend from Mexico. But in the most recent episode, the high-strung comic-relief character proves capable of not just caring for herself and her hapless young son (Adolfo Alvarez), but of being useful to a small-time dealer. She makes it look easy to sell cocaine — and to stay alive — with a brash seductiveness that’s part chiding mother, part cheerful helper. Those aren’t the most revolutionary female roles, but Brenda knows what kind of women the men around her are looking for, and she fights valiantly to be something more than a drug receptacle to be tossed away after she’s served someone else’s purpose.