“Can Narcos continue without Pablo Escobar?”
Now that Netflix has officially announced the cartel drama will be returning for two more seasons, showrunner Eric Newman no longer has to answer that hypothetical question.
“I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone to learn that we’ve been thinking about this and working on this for a long time,” Newman tells The Hollywood Reporter about the two-season pickup. “The show certainly leaves some obvious follow-ups and stories that we can tell.”
THR spoke with Newman after the news to discuss his vision for the future of Narcos, while also taking a look back at the biggest moments of season two (which bowed Sept. 2). Newman delivered on his promise with the sophomore season: The finale recreated the death of Escobar — to authentic and never-before-told detail — while setting up a third-season focus on the Colombian kingpin’s successors in the drug trade, the rising Cali cartel.
The showrunner, who took over from creator Chris Brancato after the first season, revealed what it was like to say goodbye to leading man Wagner Moura on the actual Medellin rooftop where Escobar was gunned down in 1993, why he decided to humanize the narco-terrorist and how, with the help of the real DEA agents portrayed on the show, Steve Murphy and Javier Pena, they brought Escobar’s infamous final moments to life.
Congrats on the two-season pickup. It’s official: Narcos will go on after Escobar.
Yes. Just looking at the history of cocaine in Colombia, the natural conclusion that you would draw happened in reality: the Cali cartel aided in the dismantling of the Medellin cartel and benefited by going from being No. 2 to No. 1. They were then taken apart over a period of two years and another cartel rose up in their place. So there’s a revolving-door aspect to narco kingpins and we’ll certainly exploit that. From the beginning when we decided to call the show Narcos and not Pablo Escobar, I had always had in mind to tell the continuing story of cocaine. Jose [Padilha], Doug [Miro], Carlo [Bernard] and I wanted to tell a story about the drug war and never just about one person or organization. We had always planned on continuing on.
The announcement video (below) replaced Escobar with the Cali cartel’s Gilberto (Damian Alcazar). Is he the new villain?
We don’t want to replace Pablo Escobar. We are going to look deeper into the systemic effects within Colombia of cocaine and corruption. Unlike Escobar, who had positioned himself as an outlaw, Cali was very much a part of the system. They had bought their way in and they enjoyed a different kind of protection than Pablo did. Pablo was protected by the people who loved him and Cali was protected by a political and economic system that they had rather ingeniously built. It’s a different kind of villain. While Escobar was a single-cell organism, they were a complex, multi-celled organism.
There are four Cali godfathers: brothers Gilberto and Miguel (Francisco Denis), Pacho Herrera (Alberto Ammann), all of whom we’ve met, and then there is a fourth named “Chepe,” who is a sort of fascinating and colorful guy. It wouldn’t be surprising to anyone to know that they met bad endings, but I think as we learned in season two, it’s getting there that’s fun. They’re certainly going to be a big part of season three.
Will seasons three and four be a two-season arc, similar to Escobar, or will three focus on Cali and four move onto what came next, the Mexican cartels?
Perhaps. I could talk a long time about the Mexican cartels and their story is fascinating, their origin stretching into today. Cali was the cartel that really utilized the smuggling routes through Mexico and the Mexican heroin smugglers who were already incredibly successful. They very much got the Mexicans into the cocaine business, so there is sort of a natural evolution there. As to whether or not I would move directly into Mexico, it’s certainly a possibility.
Do you look at season three as a reinventing of the show, or picking up where you left off?
I view it as a schematic sequel in that, what Escobar did and what the authorities did to capture Escobar changed the game. A guy like Escobar was going to be replaced by, in some ways, a more pervasive and more insidious organization like Cali, that had a corruptive influence that went way beyond the outlaw. They bought the presidency of Colombia in 1994. They were insiders, and it’s very much a response to the level of violence that the hunt for Escobar brought to Colombia. We’re inheriting an administration in government and populous in Colombia that were tired of the violence and that changed the way they were going to wage the war, so it’s a more complicated environment in ways. It’s difficult to tell the good guys from the bad guys.
How many returning castmembers will be back?
We’re working on that now and as many of them as dramatically makes sense is the rule that we live by.
The finale pretty clearly hints that Pena will be back to chase Cali. But in real life, Murphy left Colombia shortly after catching Escobar. Would you take creative license with that to keep one of your main stars?
One of the things you have to consider is: Is his story over? I am really proud of Murphy’s story and the evolution of this sort of naive, stars-in-his-eyes, America’s great guy who finds himself in a situation where there are no good guys. It’s much more complicated. He’s magnificently played by Boyd [Holbrook] and I think that we leave him at the end of episode 10 as a guy who basically went away to war and will come home changed, but he did it on his terms. Where he starts and where he ends up, even in season two as a guy who goes down a dark path and realizes it and comes back, he almost finds religion in a way through the good, old fashioned police work, and that’s how they catch him. As much as Los Pepes contributed, at the end of the day, the cops caught him. It’s something that Colonel Pinzon says: It has to be a cop who catches him and not a vigilante. And that’s what we believe happened.
How many new castmembers are you looking to add?
A fair amount. I think there will be a pretty good mix of new and old. I’d liken it to season two in that there were a lot of new characters that were added. We like telling the story of some of the unknowns in the drug war, the people who were touched by it. The Limon-Maritza story really resonated with people and I’m proud of that. It’s a multiple narrative so there will be a number of new stories that hopefully will be captivating.
Is the two-season renewal the end, or can you go on after season four?
I made a deal to be with the show for another two years as showrunner. I love it. It’s the best job I’ve ever had. I’ll do it as long as they let us.
How many seasons do you think it would take to catch up to El Chapo?
That’s funny. It depends on where we start in the Mexican timeline. Chapo was there at the beginning, in a way. He was one of the younger guys in the Guadalajara cartel before it splintered and he and another guy were given Sinaloa as territory. In our timeline currently, that’s already happened because that was in 1985. So it depends. If we take our time, it could take a while. If we jump right into it, it could be really soon.
Now let’s talk about season two. What has the reaction been for you about the season and how you handled Escobar’s death?
People seem to love it. Anytime you’re dealing with something that actually happened, and with which you take some dramatic license, there are always people who feel we didn’t cover one aspect of it to their satisfaction. But in this case, we’re really getting a lot of praise and that’s nice.
Tell me about recreating the rooftop shootout and filming the final scene with your character, Pablo, and star, Wagner. Ahead of the season, you said viewers would be conflicted over his death. Was it hard for you to say goodbye?
We filmed it at the building where he was actually killed. It was strange. It was also the last thing we all filmed with Wagner, so it was emotional. It was emotional for him and it was a strange goodbye. Here we are with this character that we’ve spent two very intense years with in Bogota, Colombia, doing this amazing thing that we were so fortunate to be able to do, so it was pretty heavy. It’s the death of this character, but it’s also the end of this great period in our lives where we got to make this show that we love with people that we love. Watching Wagner, who is so unbelievable. I think he’s one of the best actors in the world and he’s also one of the best guys in the world. So, for me, I clearly come down on the side of the viewer that doesn’t want to see Pablo go. I have a different vantage point, but it’s sad. And I think it’s such a beautiful sequence.
Did you shoot it in one day?
That actual sequence was a day, yes. That actual bit on the roof. Big day.
What was it like to also recreate the famous photo of Murphy and the Colombian police posing with Escobar’s corpse?
That was always something I wanted to do. That was in my mind since season one, that we were going to recreate that photo and take that photo. It’s a haunting image. It’s almost a hunting trophy. I like to think that the smiles are slightly born of post-traumatic stress disorder, a little bit. It’s ugly. I’m glad he’s dead, but it’s a strange thing to celebrate anyone’s death, particularly when it doesn’t change anything.
I remember in the earliest pitch meetings, I likened Escobar to Osama bin Laden. In the sense of: Here’s this guy that we invest tremendous energy into bringing down, and by the time we bring him down, he’s not the problem anymore. Generally, it allows ISIS to rise because we’re focused on al Qaeda. Similarly, the Cali cartel was rising because we were focused on Medellin. It’s the spider and the fly. Eventually, you’ve gotten into business with the people who are no better than the guy you want to take out.
You’ve called Narcos a 50-50 dramatization and interactive for viewers, who can take to Googling the events of the episodes. The cop who pulls the trigger, Trujillo (played by Jorge Monterrosa) — how come when you Google his name, it doesn’t come up?
He is based on a real character. He ended up joining remnants of Los Pepes and chose a pretty checkered path. When you’re dealing with depictions of real people, you have to be careful if you don’t have their rights so we changed his name for legal purposes. If they’re not named, if you can’t find them, they’re always based on someone. Fernando Duque is a lawyer named Guido Parra. Colonels Carrillo and Pinzon are both based on Colonel Hugo Martinez, [the original commander of the Search Bloc who is alive today]. In reality, Martinez and his son catch Escobar, but we liked the idea of killing Carrillo. I wanted to kill him in the season one finale and I’m so glad and I didn’t and got to keep him. Carrillo’s death, in episode four, is my favorite, I hope it really surprised people.
There are theories about who fired the final shot. Did you know who pulled the trigger before sitting down with Murphy, who was there that day, and Pena?
I didn’t know who until Murphy told us.
So this falls into the “never-before-told details” that you promised ahead of the season.
This story isn’t out there. There are conflicting accounts. The first is that Escobar killed himself. That’s ridiculous. The second is that a Delta Force sniper killed him. They weren’t even in the country at the time, and that’s silly too. And the third version was that Los Pepes actually came and killed him, that they got there first. Many of the Search Bloc guys were working with Los Pepes and Los Pepes were probably very close by, but the guys that were on the roof were these cops that are in the photograph. We’re pretty confident. We’ve talked to a lot of people, whether they were there or they were actually paying very close attention at the time, and we’re pretty sure we got it right. He’d been shot twice, non-lethal, and then there was a shot right through his ear that was fatal. So he was shot while laying on the ground.
Did you try reaching out to the other cops in the photo, aside from Murphy?
Most of them are dead or in jail. They all went on to do continued law enforcement or went on to cocaine, one became a big trafficker and partnered with Don Berna. They are all very, very hard to reach. We had Murphy and we had Martinez, briefly. They shot a guy on the ground. It served them and I think it served Colombia for him to be killed and not to be taken alive. We’d seen how that worked.
Season two also detailed the alliance of enemies who brought Pablo down and the CIA’s involvement. Is that what you called season two’s big “expose”?
This guy got some of the worst people in the world to work together to bring him down. Escobar’s right when he says, “They’re raiding me all the time and they can’t even catch these guys who are murdering my friends and family.” Did he deserve it? Yeah, he certainly made his bed. But you can’t look at that and not think there’s a real injustice there. With the CIA, it’s about, what’s really at stake? It’s never just about cocaine. It’s about money way before it’s about cocaine. Anytime you bring in the bigger agenda and when you can actually get inside of the tent or on the other side of the door when they’re discussing: “Okay, great. We’re going to get Pablo Escobar, but what happens when he’s gone? And there’s a vacuum for his cocaine, who’s going to get it?” When you start realizing that the only way we can do this is if we accept the help of the devil, but it protects American interests — all that stuff is really interesting to me.
Have you had any communication with Pablo’s surviving family members? Did you even care to?
Not directly. The guy who made the movie Sins of My Father offered to put us in touch with [Escobar’s son] Juan Pablo. I asked Murphy and Pena what they thought and they were really against it. They basically said, “Look, this kid was on tape threatening people. He was there for tortures and murders. He ran the show when his father was in hiding. If you guys want to get into business with him, then we can’t really be in business with you.” They were pretty firm about it and, in fact, the DEA had continued to restrict Juan Pablo’s ability to travel to the States as recently as a few years ago, when he wanted to come to Sundance for the film’s premiere. They think he’s a bad guy.
We purposely never pass judgment on him in our show. But we also wondered what value he might add, given his understandably biased vantage point. It’s difficult for people close to Escobar to speak ill of him. He was, to his family, a loving husband and father. It’s one of the reasons we kept Juan Pablo a child the whole way through the show. He shouldn’t be expected to have taken some morally outraged stand against his father. Pablo fooled a lot of smart people into thinking he was the victim. Fooling your own child wouldn’t have been hard. We have enormous sympathy for Juan Pablo and thought the most generous thing to do was to depict him as the naive child he most certainly was, regardless of his age, rather than revisit what must have been a horrible period in his life and pass judgment on what he did or what he should have done and likely didn’t do.
By slowing down the timeline, you got to spend more time with characters like Tata. Did you have any information on Victoria Escobar during those 18 months?
We don’t know much about Victoria Escobar, but we like to imagine that as the walls were closing in on her, her duties as a mother began to overtake her duties as a wife. Did she actually question what he was doing? She definitely tried to get out of the country. But did she consider trying to get him to surrender? Probably not, but that felt like the kind of thing that we could do in the context of our story without straining authenticity. How revelatory Paulina [Gaitan]’s performance is as Tata Escobar. We were able to actually slow down and live with her.
Was the episode nine storyline of Escobar hiding out with his father based on truth?
That was invented in terms of the content, but he did pre-decease his father. His father was alive, and he and his mother had separated, and I think she wore the pants in the family. He was a farmer. But we invented that entire sequence, which I’m really proud of. I really liked their relationship.
That episode is a great example of how you humanized Escobar this season. Why was it important to show that, at the end of the day, he is human?
But you can’t forget — and we’ll remind you — he’s a murderer. In the case of Escobar, there have always been dozens of projects out there. I started developing this as a movie 17 or 18 years ago and the challenge was always that in two hours, you can really only show slightly limited facets of someone’s character. If you’re doing this cat-and-mouse law enforcement versus Pablo Escobar in two hours, you really only have time to depict that Escobar is evil. We don’t live in the Scarface world anymore — and I love Scarface, but it came out before cocaine had the stigma it has and is a pre-crack drug dealer movie. With what crack has done to America, and what these derivatives of cocaine have done to America, it has changed the way people see cocaine. In the case of pitching this show, it was great to say: We have 20 hours and you can really get to know this guy in 20 hours. And there are going to be things that you like about him, there has to be, he’s a human being.
It’s very dangerous to draw a picture of someone as inhuman. That he is a monster, that Osama bin Laden is a monster. Because if you do that, you deny the human side of these guys, which is what allows them to happen. If you convince yourself that every once in a while some monster is going to spring out of the womb and become a supervillain, you’re really, I think, dangerously ignorant of how these people are created. How was Escobar made? He was made because someone said, “Hey, you can make a lot of money.” Which, for example, is what America is all about and what the capitalist system is all about. “You can get the power you always wanted. You can become legitimate in a class-conscious society like Colombia where, if you’re born on the wrong side of the tracks you can never cross over. All you have to do is harvest the stuff that comes out of the ground and ship it to America, and all your dreams come true.” That’s very hard to resist for some poor, ambitious Colombian kid.
Narcos season two is streaming now on Netflix (head here for more info) and keep up with all of THR‘s show coverage below.