As the pandemic has continued ever onward and I’ve consequently been forced to spend more and more time at home, I’ve found myself eating through media material at a much more furious rate. Time that was once devoted to a long commute can now instead be dedicated to entertainment. As a result, I’ve been casting my net far and wide for new shows that might be of interest to me, which I tend to barrel through at a rate of one episode per night. It should be no surprise to readers of this page that I don’t limit myself to only material produced in the United States, or in English. After so many years watching anime and the like, I’m perfectly comfortable viewing a subtitled series. In some ways, I almost prefer it, as it’s the only other way that I know of to duplicate the particular pleasures of reading comics (where one is actively scanning and absorbing the language on the page while passively absorbing the visuals–thus, utilizing both hemispheres of the brain at the same time.) And that means that I occasionally come across a show about which I want to write a bit.
MONEY HEIST is a show whose own path parallels that of the narrative in a peculiar way. It’s an underdog story. Originally, it aired in Spain as LA CASA DE PAPEL (House of Paper) where, despite an auspicious launch, it failed to pull in and maintain an audience, and ended after two seasons. International streaming rights were famously purchased by Netflix for two dollars (one for each season, one assumes) and it was added to the platform without any sort of promotion or fanfare–it was just tossed into the mix along with everything else. Netflix did ask for one adjustment, however: the original show had been 15 episodes, each of which was approximately 70 minutes in length. For streaming, the episodes were entirely recut, transforming them into 22 shorter pieces of about 50 minutes each. This insane magic trick meant that new cliffhangers for episodes needed to be found, and the flow of each installment was dramatically changed. They also retitled it, in an attempt, perhaps, to reflect the contents on the package a little bit better. They also dubbed the series into English, figuring that in many countries it was more likely to be viewed in that fashion.
Whatever the case, MONEY HEIST became a huge hit on Netflix. Stipped of commercials and bingable in a way that the LA CASA DEL PAPEL had not been as there had been a week between each broadcast episode, viewers flocked to binge the series. it became something of a water cooler show in the last days when water cooler chatter was possible before everybody was forced to work from home. Internationally, it sat at the top of the viewership charts. This led netflix to approach creator Alex Pina about producing a follow-up, backed by access to much more extensive amounts of money and resources than the original show had possessed. Despite the fact that LA CASA DE PAPEL had gone out in a blaze of glory, with some characters not surviving the climax, Pina gathered the cast together again, and a further three seasons were created, the last half of which dropped just before the Christmas holidays. I’m kind of glad that I hadn’t scoped out the series before that, because the wait for the final episodes would have been interminable. Apparently, a Korean remake is on the way, which i will certainly follow.
MONEY HEIST is about just what the title implies. It’s a caper show, one that takes entire seasons to play out the events of a complex heist. A mysterious and brilliant criminal mastermind known as the Professor assembles a disparate team of criminals with nothing to lose for a job years in the planning: they are going to take over the Royal Mint of Spain, hold that ground for 11 days by taking hostages, and print their own money: 2.4 Billion Euros in brand new, unmarked currency that they will escape with. To insure anonymity, each member of the gang assumes an alias based on the name of a city: Tokyo, Berlin, Rio, Nairobi, Moscow, Denver, etc.–similar to RESERVOIR DOGS. They also adopt a uniform comprised of bright red overalls and concealing face masks in the image of painter Salvador Dali. The criminals force the assorted hostages to wear similar attire and to carry replica weaponry so that the police won’t be able to tell the gang and the hostages apart.
it takes the show two seasons and 22 re-edited episodes to bring the initial heist to an apocalyptic conclusion. What makes the show work more than anything is its unrelenting velocity. One of the reasons that it was possible to successfully edit 15 episodes into 22 is that the number of clever twists, reversals, suspense moments and crazy action sequences is enormous. It’s a show that never slows down for very long. Also, for all that its lead characters are all career criminals, even the worst among them winds up being characterized as the good guys; there are underlying themes of loyalty and found family that cause them to be viewed sympathetically, despite the fact that they are the aggressors here. It helps that the forces of law and order that they are up against are often working in the service of the banks or politicians, and are far from above being dishonorable, duplicitous or outright evil in their pursuit of the gang. In this way, the crew is recast as Robin Hood-style heroes–especially in the eyes of the world. Public relations, it turns out, is a big part of the Professor’s plan. In later seasons, during the second heist, they deliberately style themselves as the Resistance, even adopting the partisan anthem “Bella Ciao” as their unofficial theme.
This all said, it’s also not a show that entirely operates in anything resembling the real world. In particular, the production team is constantly leaning on the fact that events are transpiring so quickly that the viewer becomes as inured to the passage of time just as much as the hostages are. It’s not an infrequent occurrence for a character to become wounded in a life-threatening way and then be back on their feet in two or three episodes, even though at most a day of time has gone by. But this all falls into the same catch-all as the fact that all firearms in film and television have unlimited ammunition (which is clearly the case here as well.) In this, MONEY HEIST is like 24, where the conceit of the show forces it to stretch or compress time wherever necessary, and almost nobody gets to sleep or go to the bathroom. Other countries can be journeyed to almost instantaneously just by cutting away and then back to given characters.
The cast is uniformly great, and the main reason why all of this works. Ursula Corbero, who played the Baroness in the recent SNAKE EYES film, is the ostensible lead character, Tokyo, who narrates the events of each episode. In a bit of clever storytelling, Tokyo proves to be something of an unreliable narrator at several points, leading the viewer to believe something is about to happen when the opposite is true. She’s great and multi-faceted in the role; at once dangerous, vulnerable, self-destructive, manic and charming. She’s saved from being arrested after a botched heist that killed her lover by Alvaro Morte’s The Professor, who becomes a sort of guardian angel to her. Morte really becomes the glue that the show coalesces around–I get the impression that he wasn’t intended to be quite as central a character as he became in the execution, especially given that he’s guiding the action remotely and isn’t present within the Mint itself. Morte is wonderful at capturing all of the Professor’s assorted angles as well. He’s a genius, clearly, a bit megalomaniacal and self-aggrandizing while also clearly being a socially awkward geek who somehow is able to start up a relationship with Inspector Raquel Murillo, the lead negotiator on the case, while the heist is taking place. As often as not, Morte’s true identity being in jeopardy or him being placed in a position where he cannot help the others as a huge crisis descends upon them forms the backbone of a lot of the suspense of the show.
It becomes too difficult to talk about the strengths of the cast because absolutely everybody on all sides gets a chance to shine at some point. This goes for the hostages as well, including the newly-pregnant Monica Gaztambide (Esther Acebo) who winds up switching sides and throwing in with the heisters (her code name, of course, is Stockholm.) and Arturo Roman (Enrique Arce) , the selfish and weaselly manager of the Mint who goes from comedic to tragic to loathsome and back again across the course of the show. Of particular note is Berlin, played to perfection by Pedro Alonso (who will reportedly be the main character in a proposed spin-off prequel series.) For most of the first two seasons, he’s depicted as a bit of a sociopath, which makes it all the more strained that the later seasons attempt to couch him as a principled romantic with a certain joi de vie despite his criminal tendencies. You sort of need to squint to allow his character off the hook for bad behavior undertaken before people realized just how crucial to everything he was going to become. Alonso, though, is able to carry the viewer through that transformation without losing them.
MONEY HEIST is also wonderful in that it isn’t all that precious with the lives of its characters, and it’s completely comfortable torturing them, both physically and emotionally. Though I’m attempting not to give away too many spoilers here, not everybody makes it through the two heists in one piece, and I was amazed by at least one narrative choice to kill off a principle character along the way–a move that wouldn’t have thought possible and which still winds up feeling inevitable once it arrives. Later additions to the gang to replace some of the fallen players including Palermo, Manila, Marsais and Bogota all get equivalent development, while the show still services the original cast strongly.
The entire series is available on Netflix now, and I’d recommend it highly. The one thing I will say is that, looking back at the early episodes with the knowledge that they were initially structured differently, it becomes a bit more obvious where the episode breaks were intended to be. As a result, at least for me, the show doesn’t really get going until the second episode with the introduction of an opposing force in the person of Inspector Murillo. So I’d advise trying two episodes if you’re still on the fence after one. Additionally, the influx of capital and the start of a new plan in the later seasons brings a greater energy to the series–it grows increasingly larger and more ambitious as it goes along. But for those episodes to completely resonate, a viewer really needs to go through the journey of the earlier ones.