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‘Narcos: Mexico’ Boss Explains Cyclical Series Finale: The Ending Could Never Be “Neat and Tidy”

Carlo Bernard, co-creator and showrunner, speaks to The Hollywood Reporter about the third and final season and lingering final scene: "The phenomenon of the drug game continues, and there is no end to it."

[This story contains spoilers to the third and final season of Netflix’s Narcos: Mexico.]

The final season of Narcos: Mexico delivered on a promise made at the very beginning: This story doesn’t have a happy ending. In fact, it doesn’t have an ending at all.

After three seasons of Narcos tracking the origin of cocaine trafficking with Pablo Escobar in Colombia, followed by two seasons exploring the rise and fall of Felix Gallardo in Narcos: Mexico, the final season in the decades-spanning franchise concluded its story by focusing on the Mexican cartels that shape the global drug trade today.

The third season of Narcos: Mexico, which is now streaming all 10 episodes on Netflix, zeroes in on the emerging bosses of the Juárez, Tijuana and Sinaloa cartels in a bid to capture the changing of the guard that would usher in the chaotic and violent modern world of drug trafficking. The bulk of the season explores the notorious narcos in 1990s Mexico during a time of increasing globalization and deregulation.

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“This is a period where violence on a much more operatic level becomes the norm, unfortunately,” co-creator and showrunner Carlo Bernard tells The Hollywood Reporter. Up until this point in history, the corruption that fueled the drug trade had “existed in the shadows where it should be,” he says. But events like the 1993 shootout at the Guadalajara airport, which is captured in the season, changed all of that: “Cartel violence being done on a more public level [feels more] like the world we inhabit today.”

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Scoot McNairy as Walt Breslin (second from left). Juan Rosas/Netflix

The third season follows familiar characters, like DEA agent Walt Breslin (Scoot McNairy), who continues to struggle with more losses than wins. But instead of focusing Walt’s obsession on dismantling one cartel boss, the landscape shifts when Juárez boss Amado Carillo Fuentes, known as Lord of the Skies (played by José María Yázpik), becomes the biggest cocaine trafficker in history, partly thanks to having a key Mexican General on his payroll. Meanwhile, the Arellano Félix family in Tijuana and Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán (played by Alejandro Edda) of Sinaloa wait eagerly in Amado’s wings.

Beyond the main narco storylines, the franchise features its first female narrator in Luisa Rubino, who plays journalist Andrea and serves as a gateway to exploring how the “shadow of the drug industry cast over society feels bigger” in 1990s Mexico, as well as across the border in the U.S.

“American consumption is the battery that gives life to this entire drug trafficking situation,” says Bernard, reiterating a point that Narcos has been making now for six seasons. “Mexico doesn’t have a drug problem; Mexico has a corruption problem and a poverty problem. America has a drug problem.”

Below, in a chat with THR, Bernard discusses the systemic failures in the drug war (“You’re sort of trying to put out a fire with a squirt gun”), notes how the final scene of the series — the lingering question around Amado’s mysterious death — represents the “lack of black-and-white answers in the drug trade,” and explains why the cyclical (and cynical) ending to Narcos could never be a neat and tidy one.

You took over as showrunner for Narcos: Mexico season three, and it was later announced that the third season would be the last. Did you know the show was ending when you took over?

We were pretty sure. There was a sense coming into it that this would probably be [the last season]. And then, as we were still in the writing phase, things became official. We did three seasons of Colombia [with the original Narcos]. It was not a done-done decision as I knew it, but I think it was definitely close to that and soon became a final decision.

So, as you were working on the story, it just made sense to end it here?

Yeah. And things are always hard. We definitely don’t want to repeat ourselves, ever. At least personally, this season, we had a chance to tell an emotional story that would have some sense of resolution for our characters but wouldn’t feel overly neat and tidy. Because, unfortunately, the phenomenon of the drug game continues, and there is no end to it. There’s no end to poverty, desperation, corruption. Those things are with us. But it felt like we had a chance to tell a story with a sense of resolution where it didn’t feel like we were going to tie it into a bow because that doesn’t reflect the world that we live in.

As co-creator, you’ve been a key member of the Narcos creative team since the Netflix franchise launched in 2015. How did becoming showrunner for the final season raise the stakes for you?

Honestly, after six seasons and working with our amazing cast and crew, I just didn’t want people who work on the show to feel like the last season wasn’t worthwhile. You want to live up to the reputation of these people that you’ve come to respect and value. There was a heightened stake in wanting to feel ambitious and that we took a swing, and like we’re still trying to do and say things. There is definitely that added pressure.

What challenges did the pandemic present when filming Narcos: Mexico season three?

You might notice a few more phone calls in the second half of the season. And, if you didn’t, that speaks to our crew. I felt bad for Wagner Moura [who played Pablo Escobar in Narcos], who came back to the show to direct episodes three and four. Those episodes already had two of the biggest set pieces we’ve ever done on the show, so he was already being saddled with these huge logistical episodes. We shot episodes one and two and were midway through episodes three and four when the pandemic hit, and we were two days away from shooting an interior nightclub scene with about 500 extras. The shutdown came, and like everyone else in the business and in the world, we were just trying to figure it out as we went along. But then coming back, the flipside of that particular sequence — which is the big nightclub sequence in episode three — is that we ended up finding an outdoor location that had a beach feel to it and was actually a visually more dynamic version than what we were going to shoot the first time around.

And that’s not to say that every change and shift we had to make yielded a creative win. I definitely leaned into having phone calls as opposed to shying away from them because of the limits of how many actors could be in a room and that kind of stuff. But obviously, like everyone in the world, we faced challenges with shooting, and we were all sort of figuring out as we went along what the protocols would be, how it would work, the added aspect of shooting the show in Mexico City. There were a lot of issues that had to be figured out as we were on the move.

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Tijuana cartel leader Ramón Arellano Félix (Manuel Masalva, left) with Arturo “Kitty” Paez (Narcos newcomer, rapper Bad Bunny), a member of Ramon’s gang called the Narco Juniors. Juan Rosas/Netflix

I imagine it helped that you had groups set in different locations, with the major storylines focusing on the Tijuana, Juárez and Sinaloa cartels.

Yeah, that’s a good point. This season, we had to have something called “COVID cover.” We normally have “weather cover,” where if it rains, we’ll pivot to an interior scene. Our producers did an amazing job designing, essentially, contingencies so that if one actor tested positive, what would we pivot to? Certainly having this many storylines was a challenge, but I think one component that it did help was that we would have options to pivot to in case one storyline was impacted by COVID. There were many spreadsheets!

This season focuses on the leaders of those cartels: Amado Carillo Fuentes (José María Yázpik), of Juárez; Benjamín (Alfonso Dosal), Ramón (Manuel Masalva) and Enedina Arellano Félix (Mayra Hermosillo), of Tijuana; and Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán (Alejandro Edda), of Sinaloa. It also catches up with the original Narcos timeline by taking place in the mid-1990s, giving you the opportunity to return three of the Cali brothers for cameos and include flashbacks of Pablo Escobar’s (Moura) death and Felix Gallardo’s (Diego Luna) entrance. Why include those moments?

Revisiting Pablo Escobar’s death was actually in the episode that Wagner directed. That was one of those budget-friendly decisions where we repurposed footage from the season two finale, cut it and reframed some things. It’s an amazing sequence that Andy Bais, who is one of our key directors, had done in the season two finale. We took that sequence and wanted to present it in a slightly newer way where you don’t have any context, and you don’t realize what’s going on until the end of the scene. The Felix scene was also repurposed footage. Again, we sort of reframed it, so it felt like a slightly new point of view, as opposed to just cutting and pasting the scene from earlier. I wanted it to feel like the scene was being played from a different point of view than it was played originally.

The cameos help put into perspective the story timeline since Narcos and Narcos: Mexico criss-cross and involve a lot of the same characters. How challenging was it to tie up all of the stories for the final season in the franchise?

There was definitely a sense of just emotionally wanting to visit one more time with some of those characters that we all love. I’m an enormous fan of Don Neto and Joaquín Cosio as a performer and actor. And Alberto Ammann, who plays Pacho Herrera, and even getting in Escobar; it did feel important to me in sort of a homecoming way to be able to see those faces one last time. Thankfully, we were able to achieve that. Without feeling like it was creative cameos, I did want to speak to the show’s lineage and these characters we’ve spent time with and who are really important to the fans.

Narcos: Mexico shows that by the end of the Narcos series timeline, cocaine was being trafficked into the states via Mexico in a big way. How much did the U.S. role in terms of supply and demand feed into your decision to focus on this time period?

That was important to Eric [Newman, showrunner of the previous five seasons] as well. We’ve always tried to remind people that American consumption is the battery that gives life to this entire drug trafficking situation. Mexico doesn’t have a drug problem; Mexico has a corruption problem and a poverty problem. America has a drug problem. And so there’s this kind of dysfunctional relationship between the two countries and the border. America is certainly a huge participant in the problem. In the ’90s, there was this increase in cross-border trade; NAFTA comes along, there’s this huge sort of uptick and economic expansion between Mexico and America that was done with an eye really toward big business, more so, than: What would the impact be potentially on drug trafficking? That was certainly a factor in this uptick that you see in the mid-’90s. It’s always important for us to feel like geopolitical decisions, economic decisions, American consumption — these are all things that are fueling this phenomenon that certainly isn’t just a one-sided story.

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Luisa Rubino, who narrated the season, as journalist Andrea. Nicole Franco/Netflix

This season has Narcos’ first female narrator. How did you go about casting Luisa Rubino, who plays journalist Andrea Nuñez, and finding her voice?

We knew that we wanted to tell a story about a journalist. One of the things that this season is also about is that the drug industry expands, and the shadow of the drug industry cast over society feels bigger. I wanted to expand the narrative scope to tell more stories that have different types of characters who maybe weren’t influenced directly by the drug trade but who were definitely impacted. Luisa plays one of those characters who is certainly impacted — the stories Andrea pursues are related to the drug trade and are fueled by the drug trade, but she’s not directly involved.

And then, we thought it would be interesting to have the character do the voiceover. We thought it would be interesting to have a female narrator, but also to have a Mexican point of view doing the voiceover for the first time. Everyone kind of immediately thought it was a cool idea. We’ve never had a narrator do more than two seasons. It’s not such a hard, fast Narcos rule, but it just felt like it was a chance to refresh things and have the season feel a little bit different but still deliver the components that fans like about the show. The practicality of casting an actress who could work in Spanish and then do the voiceover in English was a challenge, but we found Luisa. She worked really hard on the voiceover; she worked with a dialect coach. Her English is perfect, but voiceover is different. Even if you’re having a conversation with somebody and your English is perfect, to then hand them a voiceover script is a little bit of a different thing. I thought she did a great job.

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Juárez cop Victor, played by Luis Gerardo Méndez. Juan Rosas/Netflix

The season also explores the femicide happening in Juárez in the ’90s. Why did you want to highlight that through the character of Victor (Luis Gerardo Méndez)?

This time period is when this tragedy came to light. It felt like if we were doing a story about Mexico in the ’90s and about the upheaval and trauma caused by the drug trade, to not touch on that would be a missed opportunity. It’s not directly tied to the drug trade. But the corruption and the American-fueled drug money that exists in Juárez undermines law and order. And the corruption that exists then has this corollary effect where when these women were being murdered, there was no existing law enforcement mechanism to really address it — and that is one of those unintended consequences of the drug trade.

Enedina Arellano Félix (Hermosillo) is the first female boss to rise to the top that the series has explored. In reality, she’s running the cartel today. What can you say about her mark on Tijuana?

The today part of it I probably couldn’t speak to as accurately; our research was most focused on the ’90s. For us, it was a really compelling story to have this character who has a complicated relationship with her brothers in feeling that if she were born a man, she probably would have been running the thing from the very beginning. And then this season, she is forced to step forward and guide her family toward this very dark and violent phase, as the Arellanos themselves are sort of under assault; and to have Enedina leading that wartime fight for survival felt really interesting. Also, I’m such a huge fan of Mayra as an actor, so it felt like a great opportunity to see her wearing that heavy crown. To have a female character being the one who is living under the weight of all that pressure.

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Enedina (Hermosillo) steps up in the Arellano Félix family after the death of her husband in Narcos: Mexico season three. Juan Rosas/Netflix

The death of her husband, Claudio (played by Claudio Lafarga), was invented for the storyline, right?

Correct. You do research, and this stuff is oftentimes not hard and fast in terms of what happened and what didn’t happen, and then you’ll hear something that will inspire an idea. There was a story that Enedina had a boyfriend who had been killed, and that was sort of the backstory of [the Arellanos’ relationship with] Sinaloa. We took that notion, which I’m not sure if it’s true or not, but we came across it in research and framed her story. Also, we had the idea of starting her off this season in a very happy place. She had turned a corner; the family business is doing great, she’s worked out her issues with her brother and has found some sort of little piece of happiness. And, because it’s Narcos, it doesn’t last.

This season further shows the rise of El Chapo, with the narration calling him a minor player until his arrest. What were your conversations with actor Alejandro Edda about how you wanted El Chapo to be portrayed, and what do you attribute to the real El Chapo gaining infamy?

There’s a French prison movie called The Prophet that I’m a huge fan of that’s the story of a young, naïve inmate who, by the end of the story, emerges as a boss. And it’s kind of the education of a criminal through this journey in prison. So for us, Chapo had always been a very kind of entertaining character. But he’s been a more junior guy. In talking with Alejandro, we thought it would be interesting to tell the story of how Chapo goes from the guy who seems, in seasons one and two, to be more fun and younger, to someone who acquires the lessons it takes to be a boss. And have that journey where, by the end, he’s matured and taken on a slightly more serious mantel.

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Alejandro Edda as El Chapo in season three. Juan Rosas/Netflix

By the end, people see, “Oh, that’s how Chapo goes on to become the legendary Chapo that the world knows.” You see that journey from a guy who started off as a driver and bodyguard. When he goes to prison, he wasn’t a huge player. It was really his arrests and then his later, subsequent escaping that are some of the things that make him a legendary figure. We tackled the character’s journey by essentially showing a kid who was still a boy becoming someone who emerges as more of a grownup at the end of the season. [Where the series ends], going forward, Mayo [played by Alberto Guerra] and El Chapo go on and forge a very successful partnership. Those two guys turn Sinaloa into what it was and what it still is.

Each season shows corruption within the police force and tracks a helplessness among the “good guys.” In the end, when Walt confesses to Andrea about the torture and death of Alex Hodoyan (Lorenzo Ferro), Walt says he’s coming forward because, “We’re not the good guys. I’m not a good guy.” What does this say about America’s role in the drug war?

It kind of lays it out. Our role in the drug war and the DEA’s role in the drug war, while it makes a lot of sense and you have to take the action of trying to stop the flow, the core issues that fuel the thing really aren’t being addressed. You’re sort of trying to put out a fire with a squirt gun. The story of Alex Hodoyan this season was one where we wanted to try to deal with the morality of the drug war or lack thereof and try to address or dramatize those choices that make sense for the participants at the time, but you see lead to really dark places, and dark choices that don’t really improve the state of the drug situation in a meaningful way — but do lead to broken lives. That’s always sort of the highly shaded legacy of the drug war that the show is trying to strike.

Amado Carillo Fuentes, who first appeared in season three of Narcos, is a major character here. From the start, he’s been a character who has been easy to root for. This season, he gets a backstory and a love story. Why humanize him in this way?

I thought it could be interesting to have a character we’re familiar with who we know and like — we’ve seen him now for four seasons — but to sink deeper into him as a character and as a person. I can’t promise you that it’s true, but in our effort of researching Amado — he’s very mysterious — we found reference to a daughter who passed away, reference to a woman and maybe an entire family in Cuba. So those were the things that sparked ideas. We wanted to take a character who has always been very cool and has this sort of dry, humorous eye toward things, and we want to knock him down and put him in a more vulnerable and damaged place. It was an opportunity to take a character who we know and sort of turn it inside out a little bit. [José María Yázpik] has always delivered one of my favorite performances on the show, so I was excited to be able to utilize him in a slightly different way. I remember when Eric [Newman] cast him back in season three of [Narcos]; he was always great, and he always did so much with however much or little he had.  It was exciting to pull the hood back and get into some deeper, more emotional stuff.

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Amado Carillo Fuentes (Yázpik), known as Lord of the Skies, with girlfriend Marta (Yessica Borroto Perryman) in Cuba. Juan Rosas/Netflix

The real circumstances around Amado’s death have been questioned and are questioned in the final scene. By showing Amado’s toy plane and two glasses of wine waiting in Chile with girlfriend Marta (Yessica Borroto Perryman), Narcos: Mexico seems to imply that Amado was alive after the news of his death.

Yes, we wanted to have a slightly playful nod to that. I can’t speak for José María, but I think he is pretty certain that Amado didn’t die in that operating room. We wanted to speak to the mystery and lack of clarity that the drug trade seems to always elicit. And, certainly, Amado’s end speaks to that.

The DEA confirmed Amado’s death at the time, sparking questions about whether he was an informant.

But then the body disappeared. And what Walt and Kuykendall (played by Matt Letscher) talk about on the park bench [in the finale], which is true, is that the doctors who were in the operating room when Amado passed away turned up dead themselves later. The lack of witnesses, I think, somewhat fuels the speculation over his death.

After your research and conversations about how to portray it in the show, what does the Narcos team believe happened?

I think these things are always fuzzy in that the official story is oftentimes … there are always things that you know you don’t know about it. I don’t know what we don’t know, but I’m sure there’s something about it that we don’t know. I think I may be a little less convinced than José María, but I still thought it would be a way to speak to the lack of clarity and the lack of black-and-white answers in the drug trade by playing into some of that: Is he or isn’t he?

The series ends with Amado’s exit and the anticipation of a power struggle in his absence. How can you describe the impact of that moment in time in the drug war?

Amado was certainly one of those first generations of guys who worked under Felix Gallardo, and Amado really was the biggest of all time. What he controlled in the ’90s, in terms of market share, I believe it’s still the biggest to this day. His demise in the ’90s sets off a battle for Juárez because it is such an important, key plaza situated right across from El Paso, Texas, and it sets off a violent struggle for control for that plaza, which I think has been going on and off for the last 20 years.

This season focuses on the big bosses getting out and learning lessons from Escobar and Gallardo before them. How is this generation of narcos different than that one that comes up after them?

The reason that Amado felt like a compelling character to have that self-awareness is because we had known him for multiple seasons. He had seen Felix Gallardo put the game together and then betray his partners. For me, Amado, similar to Don Neto, represents a slightly wiser and maybe more self-aware [generation]. Coming up in the ’80s, it was really more about marijuana, and the Colombians were still in charge. I think that generation that comes after Amado is the one where the chaos of the world that we inhabit today really comes from. There are a couple of really spectacularly public, violent incidents this season that really had an impact on Mexico in the ’90s because it was the first time when the drug trade really became a public matter. Prior to that point, prior to the death of the Cardinal [Posadas Ocampo] at Guadalajara airport, it had been sort of in the shadows; it was corruption that existed in the shadows where it should be. Cartel violence being done on a more public level in a way that couldn’t be denied, that really raised questions about the ability of the government to enforce the law and to keep people safe, is where it felt like the world became a little more dangerous and feels like the world we inhabit today.

Narcos: Mexico ends violent and deadly. Ramón, La Voz editor Salgado (Alejandro Furth) and Victor are all shot at in a matter of minutes. But the final scene is a quiet one with Walt, back to using Alcoholics Anonymous for undercover leads, looking out a diner window with a sad acceptance as if to say: The cycle continues. Why end the series on this bleak note?

How do you resolve the narrative without it feeling overly neat and tidy? Those deaths and those shootings, all of which some version of took place in real life, felt like the only just conclusion. You follow these characters, and some of them aren’t going to get out of this alive, and you always sort of know that. We certainly couldn’t present something that felt like a whole bunch of happy endings. I think there are certain characters who have some aspect of growth, or whatever it is — resolution — that feels like they’ve earned some sort of happiness. But that’s not going to exist for most of the characters because of what they’re caught up in and because of the increased violence and stakes of all of this in the ’90s. In the ’90s is really when the drug trade gets globalized and deregulated, sort of in the same way that big business did in the ’90s. This is a period where violence on a much more operatic level becomes the norm, unfortunately.

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DEA agent Walt Breslin (Scoot McNairy) in the final scene. Juan Rosas/Netflix

In Walt and Kuykendall’s final conversation about the war on drugs, Walt says, “Pretty sure the drugs are winning.” What message do you hope to leave with viewers?

The choices we’ve made, the things our society and government has prioritized, have a consequence. And the sort of inherently flawed critical approach to the drug problem is going to just keep eliciting these more and more absurd, tragic consequences. Obviously, the show’s point of view has always been that there is very little that is cut and dry or simple, in the drug game, in general. And, certainly, the ’90s takes that to a new level. With that level of moral decay and complexity, there’s a lot of unintended consequences that reverberate across peoples’ lives as a result. And it just felt like it was an opportunity to communicate that, hopefully in an emotionally compelling way, and also use that to serve as the moment to step back. You hope that presenting the raw, moral failure of some of this stuff in hopefully a compelling way does sink in on some level.

Narcos opened up storytelling about the drug trade. The bilingual series also became a U.S. and global hit. As you reflect, what do you make of the explosion of international hits throughout the show’s run?

We always felt like if the show was compelling enough, people will roll with the subtitles. Wagner’s performance as Escobar is one of the greatest things, I think, on TV in the last 20 years. And the fact that reading it as English-speaking Americans didn’t inhibit our ability to connect is because the performance was so strong. I’ve always been pleasantly surprised by the show’s popularity. I thought it would inhibit the show’s reach, but it didn’t, which is really exciting because there are compelling stories. Whether you are watching a Korean show or a Norwegian procedural, we have access to those global shows, and, for me, the authenticity and the veracity of having the real language is really important. It makes me, as a viewer feel like I’m seeing something more real. And I think that’s a big part of the show’s appeal, that it feels it has a sense of authenticity and veracity in part because it’s half in Spanish. I remember the first two seasons, we had to be cautious that there was enough English per episode. But this last season, it didn’t even come up. There were a couple of episodes that were pretty heavily tilted towards Spanish. It’s nice that even that went away as something we had to keep our eye on.

On a personal note, how do you feel saying goodbye to Narcos (in the era of reboots, at least for now)?

It’s definitely bittersweet. It’s been an amazing run. You don’t often get the chance to work on material like this. You certainly don’t often get the chance to guide your exit. It’s a gift to be able to control and participate in how the show is saying goodbye. I think we all feel really appreciative and humbled by that. It is an amazing cast and crew that’s worked on the show for years, a lot of them from the first couple seasons up until this sixth and final season. I genuinely feel really fortunate to have the chance to work on a show for this long. I think we’re all aware that things like this don’t come along very frequently and that a certain degree of luck is involved and, obviously, a lot of hard work. It’s sad, but it’s also, I think, really nice. It’s like graduating high school where you’re going onto other stuff, but you have very fond memories of these relationships that are going to be with you for the rest of your life.

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The final season of Narcos: Mexico is now streaming on Netflix.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.