Queen of the South Traces a Woman's Rise to Power in America's Drug Trade

John Russell
Queen of the South
Benedicte Desrus/USA Network

When you’re unexpectedly gunned down in your palatial mansion, they say your life flashes before your eyes. (Don’t they?)

This is certainly the case for Teresa Mendoza, the center of USA’s new narco-drama Queen of the Sourh, based on Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s international bestseller La Reina del Sur. Teresa’s apparent fall is the catalyst of this tale, which flashes back to track her modest beginnings selling cocaine on the streets of Mexico City, her eventual escape from Mexico after her boyfriend is murdered by his own employers and her rise to the top of the Southwest drug trade in the United States.

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Teresa’s journey is firmly within the tradition of prestige-TV antiheroes like Walter White and Tony Soprano, star Alice Braga says: “She’s a resourceful woman who struggles to survive. I think Teresa is the hero of her own life. But definitely being involved in this world of violence and drugs, she is—in a way—an antihero.”

Alice Braga as Teresa Mendoza

Eniac Martinez/USA Network

Alice Braga as Teresa Mendoza

The character may be new to English-speaking audiences, but this isn’t Teresa’s first incarnation. Pérez-Reverte’s novel was previously adapted into a hit telenovela, and a film version starring Eva Mendes and Josh Hartnett fell apart in 2009 after a drug cartel reportedly ran the production out of Mexico. “Our story honors the spirit of the book, which was set largely in Spain,” executive producer David T. Friendly says, “but we had to find a way to center our story in America.”

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A fan of the novel, Braga was able to make the character her own thanks to the writers’ willingness to diverge significantly from the source material. And both she and Friendly say they’re being very careful to ensure that Queen of the South doesn’t glamorize the drug trade. “Teresa does not choose this violent world; it chooses her,” Friendly says. “She’s all about survival and maintaining humanity in a harsh world.”

Queen of the South, Series Premiere, Thursday, June 23, 10/9c, USA.