Matador "Code Red Card" Review and 4-Episode Test: Mess with the Bull, Get the Horns

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Matador S01E04: "Code Red Card"

Well it was Game Day down in Matador country, with Tony Bravo finally making the roster against the Riot’s alleged rivals, the Austin Terror. He'd had a scary dream about his father the night before, and that's how we learned that soccer means something to him. Unfortunately, it also coincided with a major meeting of Andres Galan's that promised to shed light on just what the hell he’s up to with his villain club. Luckily, by this point Matador seems to know how to juggle all of its moving parts. Sometimes Bravo’s a spy, sometimes he’s a family man; other times he’s just a pro soccer player with daddy issues. Meanwhile, Galan wears his own set of hats: He's a telecommunications mogul, the father of an errant, spoiled daughter, and a wannabe member of a shadow government bent on world domination. Honestly, the show's entire premise never seemed like it would work in the first place, so the fact that it has in any capacity is a huge plus. 

So here’s what went down in "Code Red Card": Noah and Annie needed Bravo to plant a bug in Galan’s office because the businessman was meeting Maktar Zola, a leader of a private and brutal African army. Thank god this show is smart enough to know its strengths: Like, of course Zola has an eye scar, and of course he wants "the coordinates." To what? Your guess is as good as mine. There’s a fine balance of information withholding going on here—not too much, not too little. Last week the object of desire was a priceless Olmec artifact, this week Galan had his sights set on something equally mysterious, something that required an army of mercenaries. Yes, there was technology with blue-blinking lights.

But Matador isn’t all spy stuff. Minor though it may be, there’s a refreshing amount of family drama in this wish-fulfillment universe. Javi and the gang check in at least once an episode (yeah no duh they'll have to be rescued at some point), and this week's story featured big bad Andres Galan having father-daughter troubles just as she was kidnapped by a double-crossing Congolese warlord. (Side note: Galan had a tracking device implanted in his daughter’s tooth.) That's just the kind of show this is, where family matters as much as secret shadow governments. It's interesting that two other recent spy shows, The Americans and Burn Notice, both count family as a major element; perhaps the secrecy of espionage just begs to be contrasted with the intimacy of family life?  

A show like Matador doesn’t need to get too serious, and I don’t mean that as an insult. In today’s ocean of entertainment options, the best compliment you can bestow upon any given work is that it knows itself. "Code Red Card" pulled its various threads ever closer in the third act, as proof it could make all the cartoony stuff work. Bravo’s first shot at some playing time came just as he received the news that Galan’s daughter was being held captive. So what does the kid do? He charms the crowd with some impressive brute-play, doing just enough to build his brand and get tossed out and save the day. It wasn't by the book, but neither is Bravo.

I just hope Matador continues to move in the direction of bleach-blonde martial-artist henchmen and golden guns and well-spoken, finely dressed bad guys having tense conversations over the finest of stadium foods. Getting to see Alfred Molina in this type of role is a huge treat in and of itself; he is a Tony Award-nominated actor and former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, he doesn’t need to slum it as a low-rent villain, and revealing that Galan is at the mercy of unseen forces provides for greater range in his acting. This show is worth it just to see Molina act! And beyond that, while it's definitely a plus that Galan feels fuller than a stock bad guy—which isn't even necessary in a series that essentially amounts to a Burn Notice plus soccer—it's Matador's clever plot turns that hint at something juicier ahead (bad guy with TWO eye scars?). 

I will say this, though: One character who could be a bit more fun is Tony Bravo himself. It's a common plight among tough-as-nails action heroes, and I don’t blame Bravo for barely cracking a smile considering the pressure he’s under, but sometimes I can’t tell whether the characters around him are super charming, or just appear that way next to his taciturn exterior.

Either way, we're four episodes in: It’s time to rule on the future of Matador. I mean, the show will go on without us whether we choose to watch it or not. So, too, will the world. But for my money, Matador has been a fun way to spend four hours, with each episode expanding the show's universe in satisfying directions. I'm always wary of arguments for art where people are like, "It's not trying to be anything great!"—that is reductive to those who've invested their time, money, and energy, and also it implies that there's one set of standards that applies to all sorts of genres. What I'm trying to say here is that Matador may wear several different cheap disguises, but it's fully aware of the face underneath. And that face looks gooood.

What do you think of Matador so far? Does the series pass your 4-Episode Test?

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