'Narcos: Mexico' Showrunner Eric Newman on Evolving the Series
June 13, 2019
With Pablo Escobar and Javier Peña gone, Netflix’s Narcos had a reset when it launched as Narcos: Mexico last fall. The latest installment of the drug drama focuses on the story of DEA agent Kiki Camarena (Michael Peña), who moves his family to Mexico for a post in the DEA’s Guadalajara office in 1981. While the reset, which included a time jump backwards, might’ve surprised fans of the series, showrunner Eric Newman says that following the “flow of cocaine” from Columbia to Mexico was always part of the plan.
“We always planned to end up there. From its earliest incarnations, the show was always going to find its way to Mexico, since that’s currently the front line, or ground zero if you will, of the current ‘war on drugs,’” he says. “What changed in our thinking was what time we would start.” Jumping from Columbia 1996, which was when Narcos season three ended, to 1980s Mexico where Narcos: Mexico begins, was born from the show’s research. It also “led us to conclude that in order to understand the drug war in Mexico, was to understand what happened in Guadalajara and the depths of Kiki Camarena.”
Newman says the story and death of the Mexican-born Camarena, a former Marine, had left an impact on him as a teenager.
“What appealed to me about Kiki was that there’s an amazing immigrant story there. I think the fact that he was born in Mexico—a Mexican American—was what led him to Guadalajara in the ‘80s. I don’t think he was led by shame, but I think by serving in the Marine corps, he felt a responsibility to take this thing on.” Newman continues, “I also think if he had been a white American, they wouldn’t have killed him.”
Camarena’s presence has been felt throughout the entire series thus far. He was mentioned in the first season of Narcos, and he appears at the end of season three. Newman says that while he always wanted to feature Camarena, he didn’t necessarily plan to have an entire series centered around his story. “That was born from the realization that in order to understand how the drug war started, we had to tell that story,” Newman states.
It’s not surprising to learn that when it comes to prepping and outlining a series like Narcos: Mexico, it all starts with research. Lots of research. Newman says there are aspects of working on a show that’s so research-heavy that actually makes it easier; mainly, so often truth is stranger than fiction. He also finds it tends to be more exciting.
“In our case, there is so much material to draw from. So many absolutely absurd things that happened.” Three years of reading about the drug war, meeting with experts, and prepping the other seasons of Narcos helps. Newman, who reads about the drug war in his spare time, says the team comes into the series from a great advantage, “because we have the experience and we’re genuinely interested in it.”
But, he admits, it can also be limited in terms of storytelling. “You can’t go left when the facts take you right,” he says. “All of the things that you can’t possibly know from reading a book or an article, like what the characters are thinking, which you will never know because most of them are dead, or in jail, or aren’t willing to talk to us.”
However, Newman also concedes that any story of any kind, including documentaries, is subjective. “You can watch two documentaries on the same subject and each will have completely different, if not oppositional, points of view. Even though so much of Narcos is true, the significance of that truth, the thoughts and the agenda, and all of the human feelings that precipitated those moments, we’re left to wonder about. So as much as we are sticking to the facts of the story as much as we possibly can, there will always be that human factor of why people did what they did.”
Newman adds, “Even if we could talk to Pablo Escobar and ask him why he became a drug dealer, it wouldn’t be entirely true. He might not even know. There is the reason he might give and that other unknowable reason he can’t or won’t face. There’s that thing about human beings that we are constantly dealing with ourselves, even if we’re not aware of it.” Newman says one of the biggest challenges of writing a show like Narcos is trying to humanize people who do very bad things.
“I think we’ve been doing it effectively because we try to uncover and understand their motivations. I believe that in storytelling, bad guys don’t know they’re bad. Everyone in their own mind thinks they are the hero or the victim of the story, and that’s true of drug traffickers, corrupt police officers, and politicians. Those who don’t have a code believe they have a code.”
In terms of figuring out the series, Newman says he and his writers take three or four months of outlining and re-outlining and throwing things away before they even start writing. “With so many characters and stories, it’s a big undertaking,” he says, sharing that they use “something of a map” that helps. “I think we spend a great deal of time mapping out the chronological journey—where it starts, where it stops—and we’re always looking for these big changes in the drug war,” he says. “For example, the death of Camarena being this sort of defining moment in the drug war, and that becomes the end of our season.”
For Newman, the death of Camarena is a tragic irony which, he says, is always an interesting component in storytelling. “He’s both the right person for this mission and the wrong person. I think his martyrdom had a much greater effect than he would’ve anticipated. It’s not necessarily the right effect. It’s a very complicated world. If you think of the sacrifice of his death, and what it’s yielded—and what it hasn’t yielded.”
Narcos: Mexico has been renewed for a second season, and like Escobar before Camarena, the show has proven it can continue on without its main character.
“What is rewarding for me is that we’re able to constantly reinvent the show and do it successfully,” says Newman. “As much as I loved Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar, the show lives on without him. As much as I loved Pedro Pascal as Javier Peña, the show lives on without him. To me, that is a high degree of difficulty to achieve successfully, and I think we pull it off. I find satisfaction in that.”
He adds with a laugh, “I also love the fact that my teenage daughter, who watches the show, has to read subtitles. It’s a show that you actually have to watch and you can’t look at your phone, and I think that’s an unbelievable accomplishment.”
Written by: Brianne HoganBrianne Hogan is a freelance writer currently based in Prince Edward Island. A film studies graduate from NYU, her byline's been featured in Creative Screenwriting, ScreenCraft, The Huffington Post, among others. "Jurassic Park" is unashamedly her favorite movie (at this moment). You can follow Brianne on Twitter via @briannehogan