Creator: Alex Pina
Streaming on: Netflix
If there’s one thing Money Heist has perfected since its Netflix debut in 2017, it is the art of repetition. Part after part for four years and counting now, the Spanish heist series has basically duplicated the same sequence of events over and over again. If you tune into the middle of any season, you’re likely to see an approximation of this: A red-faced Colonel Tamayo (Fernando Cayo) and his colleagues being outsmarted, crooked Arturo (Enrique Arce) inspiring another failed rebellion of hostages, a stand-off between bad army commandos and good robbers inside the bank, Palermo (Rodrigo de la Serna) getting power drunk, a sudden explosion followed by a reaction shot of Professor hearing it on his earpiece from his den and asking “what was that?” (the camera tracks into his face with the exact same velocity too), a crowd of Madrid citizens omnipresent outside the bank and cheering for the robbers, and the death of a primary character triggering the Professor’s trembling outpour of grief. That’s all there is. Time after time. Throw in a chaotic terrace set piece intercut with a desperate child-birth scene (the former involves humans jumping into a womb-like opening, the latter…you get the gist), and we have Money Heist 5.
Yet, somehow, it never gets old. We see the conceit, we know the tropes, but it’s irresistible for all the right and wrong reasons. That’s the enduring genius of Money Heist: By the time the next part hits Netflix, the world and its dog are nostalgic about the previous one. The discourse has widened. The scale is slightly bigger. But Tokyo is still horny, Rio is still scruffy, Stockholm is still curly, Berlin is still dead, Helsinki is still hairy. Nobody minds watching the newer model – with more flashbacks of deceased characters, more everything-is-planned twists, more eliminations, more violence and, well, more Professor. Personally, I’m in my John-Oliver-thirsting-for-Adam-Driver phase with Alvaro Morte.
Volume 1 of Money Heist 5 – comprising five episodes – plays out like a Greatest Hits cassette of all the editions so far. The fourth part ended thus: Heavily pregnant ex-Inspector Sierra (the enchanting Najwa Nimri) goes rogue and finds the Professor, Nairobi is no more, Lisbon is air-dropped into the Bank of Spain, and Colonel Tamayo is at his wit’s end. Absolutely nothing changes in these five new episodes. We see a flashback of Berlin taking his illegitimate son Rafael – who is expected to appear later in this season – under his wings and executing a heist in Copenhagen. And another lead character dies in a series cliffhanger, but that’s that. The final set of episodes drops in December, and till then, there’s no real way to judge the legacy of this curtain call. But I will say this. It’s hardly surprising to see the ruthless Sierra warm up to a trapped Professor in his rathole. His beard and glasses – his all-knowing geeky charm and urgent brilliance – push her into labour. I get her. I’d be breathing hard, too.
So instead of reviewing Money Heist 5 Vol. 1, it might be more productive to explore why the series is so popular. What is it about Money Heist that captures the imagination of people across borders, races, time zones and languages? For starters, Money Heist is a master of narrative inertia. It accumulates time unlike a quintessential long-form thriller. Its ability to evoke a sense of forward motion through character arcs – even when the plot stays static – is second to none. An appropriate analogy would be that Money Heist keeps scaling a mountain – vertically – but provides an illusion of running the horizontal distance of a marathon. In that sense, it can go on forever and viewers will still be left gasping for air. A reason for its inward momentum is the dramatic language of exposition. The exposition is aesthetically elemental to the treatment. For instance, the moment the robbers reach a dead end inside the bank – and they reach many – the flashback of the Professor accounting for precisely this unlikely mistake is so campy that it’s almost seductive. The editing style – the frantic (and at times random) intercutting between multiple mini-storylines – gives the series the rhythm and pace of a perpetual crescendo. The sound design is meticulous in how it almost forms a symphony of pain with the background score. The flashbacks fit in as sentimental, bond-building breathers. Given that the characters are in eternal danger, the life-flashing-before-eyes template works well.
And then there are lines like “In heists, love is multiplied because every moment can be your last”. This permanent state of crisis makes for a strangely sensual cocktail of humanity and animalism. If nothing looks rational or practical, it’s because nothing is supposed to be. If every character represents a different organ of the human body, it’s because the stunning reception to the series made them grow into these identities. (Not to mention the fact that the city names of these characters only intensify the longing for travel in the lockdown era – I haven’t yet visited Nairobi, Rio, Palermo, Denver, Helsinki and Moscow).
But the true power of Money Heist lies is rooted in its themes. Beneath all the flashy action and endless combat and intellectual one-upmanship, Money Heist taps into the divisive mood of our times. It represents the fairytale battle of two sides in an increasingly volatile world: the rebels v/s the system. The system is full of pro-establishment and chest-beating fascists, none more than the Colonel and his star soldier, Gandia. But the rebels – mostly bitter liberals – aren’t flawless. They are errant and desperate consequences of a skewed status quo. Heroism is only their message and medium. The crowds cheering for them outside the bank are regular citizens sick of their corrupt government – this cheering and nationwide hysteria are what drive the robbers to believe that they are symbols of defiance and wokeness. It reinvents their sense of purpose and image in their own eyes. They never set out to be the resistance. This tone has developed over time. For example, Berlin was a deplorable man in the first part – he even raped one of his hostages. (Back then, he was the ‘villain’ on the inside, likely because the series was never expected to extend beyond the first season). But in the latest part, we see an enraged Bogota challenging Gandia to a bare-knuckled fight, beating him to pulp and declaring “I’m going to kill you because you’re fascist, sexist, homophobic and bigoted!” – echoing the fantasies of many a frustrated social media liberal. Gandia’s retort (or sly tweet) is: “Use a gun to defend your country and everyone calls you a fascist”. This isn’t a good-against-bad narrative so much as a right-against-left one.
The makers cleverly introduced the political subtext back at the end of the first season, when Berlin – the most extremist of all – repackaged Bella Ciao as the new-age hymn of freedom. At first, it felt like a weak attempt to justify the anarchy of their heist. But the death of Berlin has allowed Professor and his merry gang to develop their own reactive ideology. It’s not always convincing, but the series has made a conscious effort to reflect the decay of democracy in the most kinetic way possible. It has listened to the environment enveloping its meteoric rise and adapted to it. The course correction is endearing. The genre – featuring a bunch of people robbing a bank for personal gain as well as cultural statement – is all-encompassing. There is something for everyone. At times, there’s too much for no one. But the global craze for the show is more indicative of the era we occupy than the actual craft. That it must be reproduced year after year – only for its fandom to exponentially multiply in between – is telling of the revolution in our heads. It is telling of our binary beliefs, with no room for nuance and greyness. Money Heist tries its very best to be one of us. But the reality is that we are all of them. The gold is incidental.