On 2 October 1968, just ten days before the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, military and police opened fire on a crowd of protesting students and civilian onlookers gathered in the main square within the Tlatelolco neighbourhood of Mexico City. Official sources at the time put the death toll at 39 but the true number of people killed is thought to be somewhere between 300 and 400. That’s the sobering historical truth behind Amazon Prime’s breathtaking new Mexican original series Un Extraño Enemigo.
The series is directed by Gabriel Ripstein (600 Miles, Chronic, From Afar) who described it to todotvnews back in September as: “a story born from real-life events, things that happened in Mexico in 1968, and from there we were inspired to build a fiction series centered on the presidential elections that are reaching the climax this year”.
The main protagonist of the series is fictional: though the ruthless Fernando Barrientos (Daniel Giménez-Cacho) is inspired by Fernando Gutiérrez Barrios, the real life head of Mexico’s Federal Security Directorate between 1965 and 1970. The reasons for attributing the protagonist’s actions to a fictional character while other key characters are actual historical figures becomes clear as the series unfolds. Barrientos as depicted in the series has more than a little in common with Francis Urquhart (or Frank Underwood if you prefer) not least in the dynamics of his marriage to Esperanza (Karina Gidi). His immediate ambitions are to retain his current position of influence: at the outset of the series political manoeuvers are afoot to mothball the Federal Security Directorate and to position himself close to whoever incumbent President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz (Hernan Del Riego) chooses as his successor.
The only thing on Díaz Ordaz’s mind is the impending Olympic Games and the image Mexico will present to the outset world as hosts of those games. Meanwhile other senior politicans: Secretary of the Interior Luis Echeverría Álvarez (Antonio de la Vega), Secretary of the Presidency Emilio Martínez Manatou (Javier Díaz Dueñas) and Head of the Federal District Alfonso Corona del Rosal (Fernando Becerril) are all vying to succeed Díaz Ordaz as President. As the Institutional Revolutionary Party held power in Mexico uninterrupted from 1929 until early this century that choice wasn’t one for the Mexican people but for Díaz Ordaz himself. Finding a solution to the growing student protests before they could disrupt the Olympics hence quickly became a potential path to the Presidency for all three men.
The show isn’t all about the politics though. Indeed the true heart of it and certainly the big emotional hits are elsewhere. A recurring theme is the collateral damage suffered by ordinary people in a system where justice is what the state decides it is and where the people in power are willing to manipulate events for their own ends. I mentioned House of Cards before but this is House of Cards where torture and murder can seemingly be sanctioned by organs of the State at will. In the first episode two men walk down the street discussing an impending birthday for one of their children and one asks the other to be a godparent and the next thing they are at the police station signing confessions for a non-existent terrorist attack at a subway construction site. “These two are screwed” says one of the cops to a colleague.
With the odd key exception (more in the spoiler section) the student movement is perhaps a little underrepresented in this series, certainly contrary to the expectations of some Mexican reviews I’ve seen but there are glimpses into the lives of characters in the immediate orbit of Barrientos that left me wanting to see more of these characters and this world, perhaps away from the immediate threat of torture or death. Whether that’s his wife’s desire to move to a better neighborhood and be more respected by the wives of other powerful men, his journalist lover’s anger at his interference in her work or the differing attitudes of his two sons to having such a powerful father – these touches put me in mind of a series of the quality of Mad Men.
The production values of this series are fantastic and it has a terrific soundtrack. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Watch it now on Prime Video.
For those who have seen the whole series already a few SPOILERY thoughts on some key moments in the series, including the final scene, below the picture.
For me the most affecting scene of the whole series is at the end of the 5th episode after Beto has tried and failed to get Alicia out of the city and they end up down in that basement. What choice Beto had in that moment, aside from death or worse for both of them and indeed what choices he had in ending up as an infiltrator in the first place are open to question. Similarly in the subsequent episode was Barrientos simply manipulating him into falling deeper under his sway or were his words an indication perhaps of how he started down his own path?
I was expecting an answer to the mystery of the little boy who kept appearing to Barrientos. Perhaps a sibling he lost? But if we got one I missed it.
As for the concluding scenes of the series, the theme of innocents as collateral damage continued until the last. I’ve seen talks of a second season and that final scene, as Barrientos learns of Enrique’s murder and presumably the murder of his grandchild as well, could be seen as the perfect set up for a season 2 mystery as to who was responsible. Personally, although I’d happily watch a season two, I could also read it as his ultimate fate, to never be sure which of his possible enemies had taken their revenge.