John Singleton’s ‘Snowfall’ Series Is a Crack Origin Story That Doesn’t Ignore the CIA-Contra Connection

'Snowfall' Season 2, Episode 1: "Sightlines". Carter Hudson as Teddy McDonald, Sergio Peris-Mencheta as Gustavo Zapata, Emily Rios as Lucia Villanueva. Photo by Byron Cohen. Courtesy of FX

There’s a moment in the first episode of the second season of Snowfall that stuns for its outlandishness. It doesn’t involve guns or violence, though there’s plenty of that in this 1980s Los Angeles-set show. Instead it just features two Mexican-American women talking business. Even as they’re dropping racial slurs (who needs the n-word when you can use “mayates”?) about their business rivals, the conversation turns to what really concerns Lucia Villanueva (Emily Rios): her people. She has big ideas for them. “Empowering Mexicans in this country. Ensuring we have a voice that cannot be ignored.” That’s why she’s so focused on getting a start on this new endeavor: “I believe this drug is the future,” she intones. Taken out of context, Lucia’s words all but demand a laugh. Yet it speaks precisely to how the period drama about the rise of crack cocaine reminds us that the history of United States in the late-20th century is the history of drugs.

Lucia may be deluded into thinking growing a drug empire in Los Angeles is a way to empower Mexican-Americans. It’s clear she’s thinking mostly of empowering herself. But that move to think broadly about the social repercussions that crack can and will have on minority populations ends up being prophetic. Therein lies what makes this FX show, created and produced by legendary director John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood), so unexpectedly timely. In fact, after catching the New York City red carpet premiere of that very first episode, I couldn’t shake off the way what I’d watched on the big screen was speaking to the news I’d just been reading earlier that day.

For Snowfall doesn’t just follow Lucia’s ascent to drug kingpin (like a 1980s Queen of the South). In the vein of that other drug war period drama Narcosit also gives audiences a look at the global scope of drug dealing.  The main character may be Damson Idris’ Franklin, a young African-American weed dealer who soon starts moving cocaine and later crack through his neighborhood. But Singleton’s drama also has us follow CIA operative Teddy (Carter Hudson), whose secret drug ring funds insurgents in Nicaragua. That’s right, if you wanted a mini-history lesson on the Reagan administration’s wholly illegal meddling in that Central American country’s politics via their support of the Contras, this crack origin story is here to deliver it for you.

In fact, the opening scene of season two is a series of TV news clips from the era showing Ronald Reagan talking to the American people “about a mounting danger in Central America that threatens the security of the United States” and his need to get Congress to continue approving their funding of rebel groups in the area. Just as quickly, though, Snowfall tracks just how this connects to Franklin and Lucia’s story: bags full of cocaine from airplanes coming from Central America drop in the Mexican desert where they’re smuggled through Lucia’s produce company, pass through Teddy, and later into Franklin’s hands where it’s cooked into crack to be sold out of an ice cream truck in his neighborhood. US foreign policy, the show reminds us, is intimately tied to United States’ growing drug problem, both in terms of supply and demand.

With season two looking to show what happens when the Reagan administration has to go off-books when it comes to funding the Contras and tracking as it does the way the crack epidemic in the African-American community got started, Snowfall is the kind of history lesson-turned-must-see TV we need more of. The kind that isn’t content with telling violent and bloody stories of drug dealers. The kind that asks us instead to see those stories as mapping larger socio-political issues. Where “empowering Mexican-Americans” can have both a celebratory ring to it and also hold a dangerous promise.

Snowfall airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on FX.