Interview Television

NOC Interview: Benjamin Lobato on the Final Season of ‘Queen of the South’

Benjamin Lobato is co-showrunner of USA’s Queen of the South, which is currently airing its fifth and final season. The popular series tells the story of Teresa Mendoza, a woman who is forced to run and seek refuge in America after her drug-dealing boyfriend is suddenly murdered in Mexico. New episodes air Wednesdays at 10/9c on USA Network.

Lobato is the only writer who has been on the show for Queen of the South‘s entire run. He is an award-winning triple threat: a writer, director, and producer, as well as one of the few Mexican American showrunners working today.

I got to ask Lobato all about what’s coming in the final season, representation in the entertainment industry, the show’s ending and evolution, what shows he’d like to work on in the future (hint: it involves teaming up with Pedro Pascal in a galaxy far, far away), and so much more. Read below to see what he shared!

Mark Atteberry

Queen of The South just started its fifth and final season, what can you tease for fans about what’s in store?  
Benjamin Lobato: This is so tempting! There is so much I’d love to tease, but it’s tough to do without spoilers. I can only say that in season five we’ll see Teresa in a whole new light. She finally comes into her own as the Queen while at the same time her personal life becomes increasingly complicated. People can try and read between the lines, but no one will see what’s coming… 

Do you have any favorite moments from the episodes that have already premiered from the fifth season? 
The opening of episode 5×01 is probably one of my all-time favorites of the series. The Queen flash-forwards are always the most difficult to create. On the surface, they can be taken as pure wish fulfillment, water cooler moments that tease the audience with a promise of what’s to come. But they are much more complicated than that. We use these flash-forwards to introduce a larger theme that will be explored over the course of the season. In episode 5×01, we see the Queen face off with her old self, the flannel shirt Teresa from the pilot. The moment perfectly illustrates Teresa’s internal struggle and the dramatic question of the season. Who will prevail? Will it be the cold calculating Queen who murdered a lover in a prior flash forward, or will it be the girl from Culiacan, the woman who would risk her life for a stranger? Both these women represent aspects of Teresa’s personality, but only one can survive.  

Another of my all-time favorite moments played in episode 5×02. It’s the scene where Kelly Anne announces her pregnancy to Pote in the middle of cleaning up a murder. Coming into the season we knew we were going to write this scene, but we didn’t know what it would look like, or where it would land in the story. So we started with a simple question. What’s the most interesting and dynamic version of this scene? Pregnancy storylines are a familiar trope in television, but on Queen of the South, our goal is to explore familiar situations through the lens of a cartel family, where the stakes are always life and death. So even in this moment, when we announce a new life, the specter of death looms heavy in the scene. The dead bodies in the car perfectly illustrate the stakes for this couple. What’s more, it’s an implication of Pote and Kelly Anne as parents. They are killers who will be tasked with caring for an innocent life. At the same time, Pote’s proclamation about children earlier in the episode is still ringing in our ears. Speaking to James about Tony’s death, he says that he let his guard down and it cost Tony his life. “Children don’t belong in this world,” he says. They make you weak and vulnerable. “Never again,” he says. Shortly after uttering these words, Pote learns that he, in fact, will become a father. The moment is full of conflict and contradiction; and of course, Hemky and Molly were absolutely incredible in this scene, their performances are breathtaking.

Skip Bolen/USA Network

Have you had an ending for the series in mind already or is there a process that you’re currently going through to come up with a satisfying ending? 
Our ending is something that we’ve been working toward from the beginning. In the pilot, we’re introduced to the Queen, who over the course of her monologue announces that she’ll be dead in thirty seconds. A bullet follows shortly thereafter. The specter of Teresa’s death hangs heavy over the entire series, forcing us into a series of choices. We knew we had to address the opening, but how we addressed it and the circumstances surrounding that moment are something we wrestled with for a very long time. Ultimately, I believe we landed in a place that felt both surprising and inevitable. A thrilling end to a dynamic story arc and one that we hope will not only satisfy our fans but become one of the great series finales of all time.

You are one of the few Mexican American showrunners in today’s industry. What does that mean to you, and what do you want to say to anyone that wants to pursue a career in the industry?
Being a Mexican American showrunner is a huge responsibility. Not only are we examples to the next generation of storytellers, we are examples to the studios and networks, of what we can accomplish when given the opportunity. At the same time, we carry a burden for our community. We strive to represent our people with truth and honor. That doesn’t mean that we present them as saints. It means that we write them with truth and honesty, the beauty and the flaws. That’s how you show honor. Creating living breathing three-dimensional characters that people can identify with, and hopefully learn from, as they watch these characters make mistakes, overcome obstacles, and eventually grow. That is the highest purpose of drama. 

To the next generation, I have one simple piece of advice: Know your why. Why do you want to do this? Are you drawn to the bright lights, or is there something deep within your soul, that’s crying out to the world? What is it that you have to say? That is the why. If you know your “why,” then the “how” will become irrelevant. If you keep your “why” as your true north, it will guide you through the hills and valleys of this crazy, sometimes maddening industry, and you will find a way to succeed, one way or another. 

Skip Bolen/USA Network

You are also the only writer who has been on the show for the series’ entire run, what has been your favorite part of seeing the series grow and being part of that evolution? 
Nowadays, it’s rare to have a show go beyond a few seasons. Often this means a show ends before the characters have the chance to fully arc. That isn’t the case with Queen of the South. As the show comes to an end, I can honestly say that we’ve mined all the emotional territory we wanted to explore with Teresa’s character on her way to becoming the Queen. Being there from the beginning, I’ve had the rare privilege of not only witnessing this transformation but also helping shape her arc. 

Do you have a favorite plot you’ve done on the show so far and why was it your favorite? 
The Javier storyline from season four is one of my all-time favorites. It perfectly encapsulates the Sophocles quote: “All a man’s affairs become diseased when he wishes to cure evils by evils.” In the case of Javier, he broke Teresa’s golden rule for New Orleans and killed a man. But not just any man, the judge’s nephew, and he spends the rest of the season digging himself deeper and deeper into a hole trying to cover this sin. Ultimately, he fails and it not only costs him his own life but the life of his lover. At the same time, his crime backs Teresa into a corner and forces her to make a decision that mars her soul and propels her one step closer to finally becoming the Queen. 

Patti Perret/USA Network

Is there something specific that the show has taught you either message-wise or career-wise? 
I think Teresa’s rise to power is emblematic of what every person of color experiences on their journey toward success, whether a CEO of a Silicon Valley start-up, or in the case of Teresa Mendoza, a cartel queenpin. No matter how much you accomplish, it seems we are always underestimated. Teresa was never handed anything. She was forced to fight for every gain, yet she never wavered in her confidence or conviction. Along the way, she’s had to ignore the naysayers, even well-meaning loved ones, who didn’t see her vision, or feared she was moving too fast. Sometimes the people around us fear our ambition, or we are judged for wanting “too much,” or not being satisfied. Teresa never allowed other people’s opinions, or lack of vision to get in the way of what she wanted to accomplish. 

You wrote and directed episode 5×08, which has been chosen to represent the series for Emmy consideration this year, what is your favorite part of taking on both roles? 
I’ve been watching these actors perform their magic on screen for the past five seasons, so to have the opportunity to collaborate with them as a director, was truly a gift and one of the highlights of my time on the series. Also, when you write a script, you envision the way an episode will play out, every beat, and inflection, everything that unfolds in front of the camera. But then you hand it off to a director and they add their own vision, and hopefully, elevate what’s on the page. However, due to production constraints, and a million other variables, the episode always turns out different than what you envisioned. Sometimes better, sometimes worse. Because I had the privilege of directing an episode I wrote, I was finally able to fully execute my vision. Not only execute but working together with our amazing cast and crew, it was elevated.

Patti Perret/USA Network

What inspired you to go into writing, producing, and directing? What is the biggest challenge you faced when it came to these roles? 
I’ve always been a storyteller, even from a young age. But the thing that put the fire in me to pursue this career was simply a lack of representation. Growing up, I rarely saw people on screen that looked like me or came from my background. Hollywood just wasn’t telling our stories, or at least wasn’t doing it in a way that felt honest or consistent. I just didn’t see anyone that represented my unique experience and I wanted to change that. Also, I’ve lived a pretty colorful life, and I felt I had something to share, not only about my experience but what I’ve gained from both the pain and the triumph. Ultimately, I wanted to bring hope and redemption to storytelling about our community and the Latino experience.  

The biggest challenge in all of these roles is fighting for the opportunity. Each title comes with a unique set of challenges and responsibilities, and no matter how good of a writer you are, it’s still a fight to become a producer and showrunner. It’s the same for directing. You may be a great writer and producer, but that doesn’t mean they’ll trust you behind the camera. For me, every one of these positions came through a hard-fought battle. Luckily, I have great partners both at the studio and the network, as well as fellow producers; Dailyn Rodriguez, David Friendly, and Alice Braga, who’ve all been amazing advocates. When we support each other collectively, we are unstoppable.  

What do you hope the show teaches audiences in terms of representation?
This is a show about a Mexican woman who runs a cartel, but it isn’t stereotypical. Teresa Mendoza is a living breathing character with hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Just because something may seem familiar doesn’t mean it’s stereotypical. There’s a lot of thought that goes into creating these characters in a way that the viewers can relate to and identify with, not from a place of criminality, but of determination and resilience. 

There is also an interesting phenomenon in television right now. There are a number of shows set in the world of cartels. Many people are decrying the prevalence of the “stereotypical” depictions of Mexicans. And to an extent, I agree. There should absolutely be a more diverse array of offerings depicting Latinos on television, and particularly Mexicans. But there’s another part of me that believes this moment is necessary, in order to move our stories forward into the mainstream. The African American community went through their own era of blaxploitation in the ’70s. They emerged from that decade more integrated not only in pop culture but television as a whole. In many ways, I think Latinos are in a similar time now. The hope is that we too emerge into a new era that is both more inclusive and varied in our portrayal. 

USA Network

Do you have any favorite storytelling techniques? 
I love starting episodes with a flash-forward sequence, where we introduce the audience to some arresting image or scene that happens twenty-four hours prior. Then we go back in time to reveal how we arrived at that moment. When executed successfully, we turn the viewer’s assumptions on their head, so they’re shocked and surprised when we finally arrive back at that moment. The viewer realizes that what they thought they had witnessed in the opening isn’t what actually occurred.

Are there any memorable moments or stories you can share? 
There are lots of memorable moments, but I’ll share a funny story about our beloved King George. Ryan O’Nan pitched the character of King George and we immediately fell in love with the idea of this zany pirate running around in a gold speedo. When it came time for casting, I encouraged Ryan to audition. After all, he created the character, and at that time, no one else could write his unique voice. To no one’s surprise, Ryan won the part. The only problem was, Ryan didn’t exactly fit the description. In fact, he was about fifty pounds light. So Ryan, being the dedicated artist he is, went about gaining weight. He went from salads to french fries and instead of afternoon coffee, he’d have chocolate ice cream. I’ll admit I joined him on more than one occasion, and I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn when I say I wasn’t the only one on staff who put on a bit of sympathy weight. But it was all worth it. Ryan “grew” into the part just in time for the cameras to roll, and he cut a dashing figure in that gold speedo. The rest is history. Unfortunately, I’m still trying to lose the weight. I blame it on King George. 

How do you stay positive with everything currently going on in the world?
First I pray, and then I try to focus on the beauty in front of me. That includes my wife and two daughters, as well as the community around us. So much has happened to our world in the last year. It can be scary and disconcerting at times. But I’ve also witnessed people coming together and supporting one another in ways that wouldn’t have occurred without this period of collective suffering. These small acts of kindness, the things you don’t see on the news, are what give me hope.

Patti Perret/USA Network

Best piece of advice you’ve received? 
Be a servant. If you learn to put your own needs and ambitions aside, while serving others, you’ll unlock the key to your own success. That piece of advice has never failed me. Job descriptions are put in place for people who need guidelines. For me, job descriptions are a starting point. Those are the minimum requirements for the position. But they don’t define a person with initiative. I was always looking for a way to make my boss’s job easier, to go the extra mile. This is the key to becoming invaluable. I am where I am because I am a servant. 

Is there anyone you hope to work with in the future or any shows you’re a fan of and would like to work on?
The list of people I’d love to work with is endless. In terms of shows, I’m in love with the Mandalorian, and I’d be thrilled to do anything in that world. Like a lot of people, Star Wars had a huge impact on my childhood. But now it’s having an impact on my daughters. They aren’t old enough to watch daddy’s ‘bad guy’ show, as they like to call it when teasing me about my work. But they are fans of Star Wars and it would be amazing to produce something that I could watch and enjoy with my girls.  

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