How 'Narcos' Killed Off Pablo Escobar
Narcos returned this weekend with a (lethal) bang. After blazing through Colombian druglord Pablo Escobar's decade of dominance in Season 1, Netflix promised to kill off the cocaine kingpin by the end of a second 10-episode run. The show's breathless Season 2 finale did not disappoint.
That's not a spoiler; Netflix spent all summer teasing the villain's death (plus, you know, it happened in real life). But the marketing move placed an unusual amount of pressure on the show to get the scene right -- especially given the controversy surrounding Escobar's actual demise. Here's how Narcos put it all together, based on interviews with the producers and cast, as well as leaked behind-the-scenes photos. Escobar's family might disagree with the portrayal, but the DEA thinks it's pretty damn close.
The real and fictional backstoryPablo Escobar died on a rooftop in Medellin, Colombia, on December 2nd, 1993. This came after a 20-minute shootout involving himself, his bodyguard Alvaro de Jesus Agudelo ("El Límon"), and several members of the elite police task force known as the "Search Bloc." Escobar was on the run for over a year when the operation went down, following his escape from La Catedral, the luxurious "prison" he constructed himself, in June of 1992. The police nabbed him by tracing a call he made to his teenage son, Juan Pablo.
Narcos had been building to this bloody demise since the Season 1 finale, which set up Escobar's jailbreak from La Catedral. Although Escobar's rise to the top of Colombia's cocaine empire could have easily filled four or five seasons, the Netflix show confined it to a single stretch of episodes. Then the creators outright promised an Escobar death in the new season, turning Season 2 into a turbulent grace note.
The first hints came courtesy of the Season 2 premiere announcement, which flashed Pablo's death date in bold numbers. Then, during the Television Critics Association summer press tour, the cast straight-up spoiled it. Wagner Moura, who plays Escobar, confirmed that his character would die in Season 2. "This is definitely the last season for me," he announced. Almost to underline the point, a new trailer touting the hashtag #WhoKilledPabloEscobar dropped a month later.
Despite the upfront marketing strategy, the cast and showrunners remained tight-lipped about how the death would go down, leaning into the the murky details of Escobar's fatal shootout. The public still doesn't know exactly who shot him, and some of his family members even insist he shot himself to avoid capture. But Narcos did the best it could by approaching the scene with an almost fanatical attention to historical accuracy.
Producers executed the scene with accuracyNarcos writers once again consulted with real-life DEA agents Steve Murphy and Javier Peña (played by Boyd Holbrook and Pedro Pascal in the series) on the death scene details. Both men shared accounts of the operation to help construct a timeline of the Escobar hunt. While Peña was not present for the actual shootout, Murphy was on site, and extremely forthcoming with the Narcos staff: he even allegedly revealed which officer fired the kill shot.
With firsthand accounts in hand, the Narcos team set out to secure a location -- with one specific one in mind. The showrunners hoped to shoot the scene on the exact Medellin rooftop where Escobar was killed. That turned out to be impossible; executive producer Eric Newman claims the real roof had been built over, while the tabloids insist the homeowner wouldn't give permission. But the crew was allowed to shoot on top of another Medellin building, so it cut its losses and replicated the original location.
Escobar died wearing an aggressively early-'90s two-toned polo shirt, jeans, and flip-flops, which he quickly lost in the skirmish. The Narcos costume designers put Moura in an identical outfit for the big scene, though they didn't force their leading man to run the roof barefoot. As leaked photos from the set show, Moura was outfitted with some freaky-looking fake feet, so he wouldn't cut up his real ones.
Then came the staging. The way Narcos orchestrates the takedown, El Límon was killed by police snipers almost as soon as they reached the roof. Escobar fired off several rounds before the snipers hit him twice, which sent him down. The team of police and DEA agents on the ground surrounded him, before one especially incensed officer shot Escobar point blank in the head, yelling, "Long live Colombia!" The operatives then gathered around his dead body for a trophy photo. The series flashes the actual photo taken in 1993.
At least some of these details are verifiable. The task force certainly celebrated; witnesses reported that the team fired their guns in the air screaming, "We won!" immediately after killing Escobar. But in the end, the show had to make some conscious choices in telling this version of the story. As Pascal told CBS This Morning, "How he dies, who kills him, is a mystery. You'll get so many different answers in terms of who fired the shot. Or shots. We have our interpretation… Narcos doesn't believe [he committed suicide]. The DEA doesn't believe that as well."
Where does Narcos go next?The king of cocaine may be eliminated, but the show's season finale also set up a worthy successor in the Cali cartel. Cali kingpins Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela and Pacho Herrera became powerful players this past season. They silently stole Escobar's monopoly on Miami, conspired with his fellow enemies Judy Moncada and the Castaños brothers, and pressured his widow to hand over the remains of his empire in exchange for her safe passage out of Colombia. And now the brand-new Season 3 trailer is pretty explicitly pointing fingers at Orejuela as Escobar's heir.
"From the very beginning, from our earliest days of talking about this, it was Medellin, into Cali, into Mexico," Newman told IndieWire. "The band plays on. We certainly look at parallels in the world with terrorism, where we never deal with the source of terrorism. We deal with 'let's cut the head off this monster' -- in the most recent case, Osama bin Laden. By the time he's gone, he's already out of the game and there are new guys who are even worse. That's really what the show is about."
Peña could also return for this new Cali-focused chapter in the drug war saga. The finale showed him getting called into a new DEA mission, and Newman has hinted it could involve Herrera and Orejuela. But seeing as Season 3 is a year away, Narcos still has plenty of time to figure out its next move. Only one thing is clear: Pablo, and all of his fantastically lame sweaters, will not be back for the ride.
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.