Somos review – the show that flips the script on brutal cartel crime epics

For years, nobody knew exactly what happened in March 2011 in Allende, a humdrum Mexican town half an hour from the Texas border. Es decir, they only knew the basic, horrific story: when an associate of the Zetas crime cartel was found to have double-crossed his bosses, his punishment was not just his own death but the murder of anyone connected to him, plus scores of innocent Allende residents. The massacre, during which victims were robbed, kidnapped, shot and then burned, took dozens – or maybe even hundreds – of lives. But in a part of the world where justice is a hazy concept and talking out of turn can be fatal, the details remained vague.

That all changed in 2017 when ProPublica published an oral history of the Allende killings by the Pulitzer-winning journalist Ginger Thompson; a podcast, The Making of a Massacre, followed in 2018; and now Netflix has a six-episode dramatisation, Somos. The title translates as “we are” or “we exist”, which is a clue to the show’s motivations: with the atrocity not taking place until the final instalment, this is a show not only about what happened, but who it happened to.

Thus the tropes of cartel crime epics such as Narcos: México or El Chapo are flipped. sí, there is a wayward upstart whom we can peg straight away as a future gang member, with his cheeky mouth and a girlfriend too young to be pregnant, but we spend more time with her than we do with the hoodlum. En otra parte, the weak, spoiled son of a respected rancher is flirting with the criminal lifestyle and is bound to get himself killed, but we’re just as interested in the old rancher himself. The local crime lord sends his teenage boy to the town’s high school: we get to know the kid, and also his gang of friends, as they navigate their first romantic relationships. Hanging over these everyday dramas is what we know, but the characters don’t: all this is about to end in the grimmest way imaginable.

In the background, US law enforcement is making its doomed efforts to infiltrate the Zetas’ operation by grooming informants. There is an opportunity here for a show that has the thrills of a cops v cartel narrative but with fine layers of tragic human consequences underneath, and a far greater voice for women than the average crime saga. Sadly, aunque, that’s a chance Somos never quite takes.

Perhaps it’s that these characters, although they are fictional imaginings of the people of Allende, feel as if they cleave too closely to reality, when a bolder script would have speculated more to fill in those subtler shades that make people on a screen come alive. As it is, the various subplots – the teen love triangle, the panicking snitch, the trafficked sex worker planning her escape – feel sketchy and generic. Scene after scene slowly imparts the necessary information without any flourish to lend the scene itself drama, or relieve the monotonous bleakness. A lot of the acting – some by non-professionals – is unobtrusive to the point of not really being a performance. There are story arc problems, también, with narratives fading out then suddenly zooming back in, or stopping abruptly, their significance lost in a dusty murk of competing plotlines. Life is allowed to be like that, but fiction has other responsibilities, even when it’s based on truth.

Where Somos does succeed is in evoking the singular tensions of a place such as Allende: the ordinariness of it, with all the joys and limitations of lives confined to a small town, undercut by the presence, lurking in the corner of everyone’s eye, of organised crime, ready to attack anyone who deviates or stands out. Loose lips mean broken bones, and even the most careful Allende resident knows a knock on their door could come any day.

At the very start of Somos there is a shot of the cartel’s pick-up trucks on their way into town, passing a giant sign that spells ALLENDE in eight-foot letters. Remember Allende, we’re being told, and the people who lived there, and the people like them in towns like it, who are usually peripheral casualties in the crime stories we watch for kicks. Thanks to Somos, remember them we will, even if this feels like little more than a solemn memorial.

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