Hulu’s take on Russian empress Catherine the Great is occasionally true. But it’s usually worthy of its TV-MA rating.
I don’t know much about the drug trade. But from what I can see from movies and television, it looks like a terrible business. You’re always on call. Every day is filled with seriously stressful business transactions. And if you mess up … well, let’s just say your bosses aren’t likely to bother much with employee development programs.
It’s hard to see why anyone would get into the business. Unless, of course, their glamorous future selves materialize in front of them and tell them that their destinies are wrapped up in white powder.
That’s the vibe that Teresa Mendoza is getting from her future self, dressed in dazzling white and rocking gold high heels. USA’s Queen of the South is her story, told in one massive extended flashback—before she’s risen to the pinnacle of the drug trade (and well before someone shoots her in the head).
Before Teresa became the Western Hemisphere’s most powerful drug lord—er, lady—she was just a girl who got mixed up with the wrong crowd. Her boyfriend was a low-level dealer for the notorious kingpin Don Epifanio Vargas and his powerful wife, Camila. But even though Vargas terminated Teresa’s relationship with her boyfriend (or, rather, terminated the boyfriend), Teresa’s still enmeshed in Vargas’ dangerous world, just trying to stay alive an episode at a time.
But it’s difficult to stay on the straight and narrow when your associates are so crooked. When glamorous Camila sometimes nudges, sometimes shoves you into the moral shadows. When your own future doppelganger is giving you bad advice every step of the way.
Queen of the South is based on the phenomenally successful telenovela La Reina del Sur, which aired on Telemundo in 2011. But don’t just dismiss the show as a soapy, schlocky, guilty pleasure. Sure, while there’s plenty of soap and an awful lot of guilt here, Queen of the South is also evidence of USA’s new foray into gritty drama … and problematic content.
In the show’s latest season, Teresa has morphed from a cartel ingénue to a sometimes ruthless queenpin, going toe-to-toe with Camila while working to become the most fearsome drug lord around. And while Teresa’s certainly not a pure-of-heart heroine, her soul’s not completely black, either. Teresa has little interest in the darker aspects of the drug trade and no desire to see innocents die. And she sometimes risks her own life to do the right thing.
But her do-gooding tendencies, alas, seem to be getting weaker and weaker. She lies frequently and kills when she needs to, and the world around her is dark, dark, dark. Violence is very much a part of this seamy business, with torture and murder making frequent appearances. Sex isn’t off limits, either. Indeed, the two are sometimes inescapably entwined: Teresa herself was brutally raped in the show’s first episode. Language can be scalding. And as for drugs … well, viewers will find that as impossible to escape as Teresa does.
USA has shed its rep as an outpost for light, breezy crime procedurals and dramedies—never mind that those kinds of shows powered the network to the top of the cable ratings. Shows such as Monk and Psych long ago left the building, replaced by gripping, gritty, often grotesque dramas designed to make critics smile and discerning viewers cringe.
Queen of the South will not be mistaken for prestige TV, what with its melodramatic dialogue and its simplistic characters. But it certainly would like to pretend it is—and it dunks its story in a glaze of gratuitous problematic content to try to boost the illusion.
The show’s title, Queen of the South, is taken straight from the Bible and is, apparently, a reference to the queen of Sheba, herself a figure of mystery. The queen traveled to meet with King Solomon in 1 Kings, praised his wisdom and showered him with gifts, and then “went back to her own land” and, essentially, vanishes from the pages of history.
Teresa is no queen of Sheba, of course. But I, too, am ready for this show to disappear.
“Familia is the most important thing.” This certainly rings true for Teresa when a rival drug lord puts a hit out on her godson, Tony. Unfortunately, as much as she wants to participate in the search and rescue with Pote, her right-hand man, she needs to protect other people closer to home. The nephew of her new “business” partner, El Gordo, has gone missing during a smuggling operation, and he suspects that Teresa’s behind it. He’s now giving her until his cigar stops burning to bring his nephew home, or else he will kill two people close to her.
Viewers see gunfire exchanged in multiple scenes, and guns are put to people’s heads. In one exchange, a man is shot in the leg. His shooter is then slammed against a truck and thrown violently to the ground. The wounded man’s leg is bandaged with a scrap of cloth and he is given tequila to help numb the pain. Underworld newcomer Dumas threatens to use a blowtorch to torture El Gordo’s nephew until he tells them where El Gordo’s drugs are. However, the gunshot victim interrupts by having a seizure and, as he dies, he reveals to his comrades that the “liquor” he drank is actually liquidated cocaine.
Pote witnesses police carrying a body bag onto a coroner’s van. He then chokes out a cop (but doesn’t kill him) in order to sneak into the van. He crosses himself before unzipping the bag to reveal the face of a dead teenage boy. He later investigates the house of Tony’s uncle and discovers a trail of blood (including bloody handprints on the walls) leading to the bathtub, where he finds the mangled corpse of a man. Pote slashes the tires of the assassins and even sacrifices himself to save a couple of people, but we also see him shove a woman up against a tree to question her and slit the throat of one of the assassins.
Men and women take shots of various types of alcohol – one woman while pregnant. “H–l”, “s–t”, “d—it”, “b–ch”, “a–”, and “bull—t” are all used, as well as several Spanish expletives; Jesus’ name taken in vain twice. There are multiple references to drugs as well as “vegetarian crap”, “penis cakes” and “strippers.” A hostage is beaten after trying to escape his captors. Another hostage recounts how the first time she stared down the barrel of a gun was when she was 9 years old. A couple smokes a joint and then the woman climbs into the man’s lap and they make out. Women wear cleavage- and midriff-baring tops. El Gordo smokes a cigar.
Teresa orders her own men and a group of Native Americans to transport cocaine to Arizona. Camila is framed for the brutal murder of her daughter’s boyfriend.
Teresa places many people in danger as she tries to smuggle cocaine across the border. A Mexican official lies to Camila’s daughter, Isabella, about the whereabout of her boyfriend and how he was murdered. The official makes some creepy sexual advances toward her when she’s particularly vulnerable, manipulates her and offers her alcohol.
Cars explode and people are shot, beaten, maimed, stabbed and brutally injured (one young woman is nearly killed after a drug lord carves a message on her bare back). Blood flies and is smeared on multiple surfaces. People hurl death threats and talk about their murky (and violent) pasts. A group of men steal and renovate cars, and dabble in other forms of illegal activity. Teresa and her lover discuss their sexual relationship.
Men and women take pain killers, drink hard liquor and smoke cigarettes. There’s quite a bit of profanity, including words like “b–ch,” “bulls–t,” “h—,”d–n” and “s–t.” God’s name is misused, paired with “d–n”, and some Spanish obscenities escape the lips of drug dealers.
Vargas, now a prominent Mexican politician, and his head henchman, Cortez, keep pretending to work with the United States to squelch the drug trade. But Vargas must now contend with his estranged wife, Camila, who continues to grow her own illicit business. And even though Vargas explicitly tells Cortez that he doesn’t want her killed, Cortez seems determined to terminate Camila anyway. Meanwhile, both are having some serious problems with their beloved wild child, Isabella.
“Isabella is using drugs, Teresa,” Camila confides to her right-hand woman. “The irony is not lost on me.”
Isabella and her friends quaff tequila and snort cocaine. Camila is horrified when she sees a photo of her daughter online, obviously drunk and pictured with coke. (She repeatedly kisses her apparent boyfriend.) When Isabella’s parents try to rein her in, she snaps back, insulting both Vargas and Camila. Still, both parents show a heartening level of devotion to their rebellious daughter, with both saying separately that they’d give up all of their illicit success to protect her.
Teresa shoots the knees of one of Camila’s would-be killers and knocks him out cold with his gun. Later, she punches the same man in the head before Camila points a pistol at his temple and performs the coup de grâce. (Blood splashes against a wall as the victim slumps to the ground.) In an imagined future, Vargas witnesses himself getting shot in the gut and dying. In flashback, he suffers what is characterized as a “minor” heart attack. Vargas attends a funeral of a murdered man; he speaks to the dead man’s brother (who holds a half-empty bottle of tequila and frequently fires a gun in the air), who was also his killer. We repeatedly see the picture of a dead man in some background shots.
People drink tequila, wine, champagne and perhaps whiskey. There’s lots of talk about drug deals and products. Camila cautions Teresa to be wary of a “business” partner. He’s only nice to Teresa, Camila claims, in order to sleep with her—like a “whore,” she adds. Ecclesiastes is quoted at a funeral, and we see part of a Catholic funeral ceremony where characters cross themselves. An American DEA agent plants false evidence in a car. Characters say the s-word eight times and use other profanities, such as “a–,” “d–n” and “h—.” God’s name is misused once.
One of Camila’s schemes has gone badly awry: Three people are dead (including one by Teresa’s hand), and the police are making inquiries. James, one of Camila’s underlings, knows he’ll have to murder an innocent maid—the one who saw Teresa’s face—in order to protect them all. But Teresa thinks differently. And she’ll put her own life at risk to save the life of this maid whom she imperiled. Teresa uses a local Catholic priest to help smuggle the woman and her son into Mexico. She tells Teresa, “God will forgive you for what you did to us, but I won’t.”
In flashback, Teresa shoots a man who was about to gun her down: His shirt is already stained with blood before Teresa performs the coup de grace, and the body later lies in a pool of its own hemoglobin. Camila sends an unwitting ally to kill one of her rivals. The rival survives, however, pouring a cup of the would-be assassin’s teeth across her desk, indicating he was tortured and killed. A man, shot three times, rolls around in agony in a warehouse hideout, his hands and torso covered in blood. Someone stuffs a cloth inside one of his gunshot wounds as he howls in pain. A doctor later arrives to remove a bullet still lodged in his body. James points guns at people, threatening to kill them if they don’t tell him what he wants to know. An older teen holds a box cutter to Teresa’s throat.
Someone snorts cocaine to test its quality. A scene takes place in a bar. There’s talk about rival drug cartels. A corrupt cop helps out a drug dealer. Characters say the s-word eight times (uncensored in our Amazon version of the show), along with “h—,” “d–n,” “a–,” “b–ch” and an abuse of Jesus’ name.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.
Emily studied film and writing when she was in college. And when she isn’t being way too competitive while playing board games, she enjoys food, sleep, and indulging in her “nerdom,” which is the collective fan cultures of everything she loves, such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.
Kristin Smith joined the Plugged In team in 2017. Formerly a Spanish and English teacher, Kristin loves reading literature and eating authentic Mexican tacos. She and her husband, Eddy, love raising their children Judah and Selah. Kristin also has a deep affection for coffee, music, her dog (Cali) and cat (Aslan).
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