Queen of the South
USA Network, 2016-21
M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller
📷 : Licensed from Shutterstock
Movies and TV shows about drugs or with disorienting presentations
Thought-provoking movies and TV shows
The 1981 film, Mommie Dearest, contains an iconic scene showing a woman’s courage and strength in a time when social norms dictated that women be obedient, docile, and dependent on their partners. Starring Faye Dunaway (Bonnie and Clyde, Chinatown), the film is based on the life of the late actress, Joan Crawford. The scene depicts Crawford facing destitution after the death of her husband in 1959, who was an executive at Pepsi-Cola Corporation. At a meeting intended to nudge her from his board seat, she stands up at the head of the long conference room table fully surrounded with men in suits, leans forward, and loudly and sternly asserts, “Don’t f*** with me fellas!” It got their attention. Sometimes, business dealings come to this. But there are other ways to get what you want too.
Queen of the South follows Teresa Mendoza from her beginnings as a money changer on the streets of Sinaloa to her rise as head of an international drug empire. She is left vulnerable after her lover, Guero, played by Jon-Michael Ecker (Narcos, Firefly Lane), is killed under suspicious circumstances while working as a drug runner for a cartel. Realizing her life is at risk and now without the protection that comes with being a member of “the family,” she is forced to figure things out on her own. Her only hope for survival is the cliché “notebook” given to her by Guero, which he then urges her to trade with his boss for her life should anything happen to him. Guero’s boss, Don Epifano (Joaquim de Almeida, Fast Five), will literally kill to get the book back into his hands.
The drugs, crime, and brutal violence in Queen of the South provide the landscape for this story about a woman, and more generally, about how women can get it done, whatever “it” is, in a way different than “business as usual.” The series reminds me of Miss Sloane, the 2016 release where Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty, Molly’s Game) plays Madeline Sloane, a smart political operative in D.C. who leads a campaign to pass anti-gun legislation into law. More than a notion, this makes her the enemy of the powerful gun lobby. Similar to Teresa, Madeline navigates her terrain like chess, with deliberate, well-thought-out decisions at every move designed to get her what she wants, without costly missteps.
Played by Alice Braga (I am Legend, Elysium), Teresa scratches, claws, and fights her way to relative safety in the U.S. She exhales for only a moment before being captured by Don Epifano’s estranged wife and rival, Doña Camila Vargas, played by Veronica Falcón (Ozark, Perry Mason). Running her cartel on the U.S. side of the border, she coerces Teresa into drug mule duties. Unbeknownst to Camila, her new “employee” is in possession of a book her husband so desperately wants, a tool that can be used as leverage against him. Meanwhile, Teresa says and does what is necessary to survive, all while learning about “the business.”
In Queen of the South, Teresa and Camila differ in their approach to business growth and management. Their starkly contrasting styles are presented in part to let the audience think about whether women’s instincts are innate or if they vary by personality and socialization. To what degree are their decisions and actions shaped by distinguishing qualities they are born with versus forces like: their exposure to ways of handling people and problems; a focus on individual needs; the constrained set of opportunities available to them.
Strong, confident, and commanding of attention, Camila can be brutal in her tactics. She punishes rivals and demands nothing short of obedience from her employees. Teresa learns this when she discovers one of her boss’ business partners is cheating her. Although empowered to teach him a lesson, Teresa chooses to “do nothing.” Later, Camila admonishes her for this. “You were in a position to do something about it and you chose mercy. Women in this business cannot afford to look weak. Don’t ever make that mistake again.” This outlook and management style make Camila more like the traditional merciless cartel leader who allows no room for mistakes.
Typically, violence characterizes cartels, but Teresa goes against type and stereotype. Rather than brutal killings and wreaked havoc, she is focused and skilled at negotiating deals with suppliers and competitors, qualities which mark her as a leader to be taken seriously. Even her trusted right-hand expresses concern about her approach to conducting business. Pote, played by Hemky Madera (Spider-Man: Homecoming, Perry Mason), fears she is too forgiving, that her kindness and mild-mannered approach will be misconstrued as weakness. But thinking on her feet, quickly devising creative solutions to problems, and holding herself, her suppliers, and even her employees accountable in interesting ways, effectively become her trademarks.
Like everyone, Teresa and Camila’s lives have been shaped by societal forces, but their responses to those experiences differ greatly. Camila focuses on outward signs of power which becomes apparent in subtle ways. When she and Teresa attend an upscale event, she sarcastically but sternly asks her, “Now, are you going to wear that dress or are you going to let it wear you?” Teresa changes her walk and demeanor to project power—and following Camila’s advice, wears that dress! Projecting power is key for Camila. Her experiences as the wife of a cartel leader taught her the importance of this in helping to prevent troubles brought about by employee betrayal and business partners who cheat. Teresa garners strength and loyalty by recognizing the depths of humanity and coming up with ways to make it work.
The cinematography is bright, with scenes often shot in ideal weather conditions—warm temperatures underneath clear skies. Over the course of five seasons, the series peers into cities in Mexico, the United States, Spain, and Malta. The venues become progressively palatial and the scenery increasingly posh, signifying Teresa’s ascendancy in the business. A far cry from the need to yell at a room full of men, Teresa and Camila make clear in this piece, 40 years after Mommie Dearest, that times have changed and there is more than one way to get the job done.