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Say the words “female prison drama” to someone and they’ll immediately think of Orange Is the New Black. Locked Up (or Vis a Vis, as it’s known in its home country of Spain) appears, on the surface, to be a similar beast. It’s even available in the UK on a streaming service: All 4’s Walter Presents. But Locked Up has a colour all of its own.
That’s evident right from the off, as we’re dropped into Cruz del Sur, a prison full of convicts in bright yellow jumpsuits. That acid yellow burns through the screen, on the railings, on the walls, on the floors. When given community service as punishment, the prisoners even have to paint it on the concrete themselves. There’s an immediate sense of location, claustrophobia and how the prison’s surroundings affect the people within it.
We observe that through the eyes of Macarena Ferreira (Maggie Civantos), who is screwed over by her lover and boss, leaving her struggling to adjust to being behind bars. A white protagonist giving us a window onto a diverse prison population? The surface similarities to Netflix’s flagship prison show are undeniable, but where Orange Is the New Black often aims for humour, Locked Up is a thriller; the Ladies of Lichfield use their time, in part, for philosophy or whimsy; the ladies of Cruz del Sur use to it get their hands on the €9 million stash left buried by a dead inmate. It’s grittier than Orange, more visceral, more sexual (the Spanish title is a nod to conjugal visits) and it doesn’t let up for 16 episodes.
The more time Macarena spends behind bars, the tougher she gets, learning how to manipulate, deceive and even kill to survive. But Civantos’ superbly sympathetic performance means that, as Macarena goes from wide-eyed innocence to narrow-eyed resilience, she’s never unlikeable; we’re not watching a criminal kingpin climb the power ladder, we’re watching a woman simply trying to survive.
The main obstacle to that goal is Zulema (Najwa Nimri), who runs the joint from her cell, complete with servants, a sinister boyfriend on the outside (“The Egyptian”) and a serious drive to grab that cash before anyone else does. The pair have a ferocious chemistry, forming the kind of antagonists that could keep a series running for years – and it becomes disturbingly apparent that they will push their opponent to any extreme, as they clash time and time again.
The scripts come up with an impressive number of ways to face its characters off against each other, with fights breaking out over broken TVs, badly ironed clothes or even hostage situations. Head guard Fabio (Roberto Enríquez) attempts to keep the peace, but he inevitably gets caught up in the web of emotional relationships too – not least thanks to a spark between him and Macarena. Indeed, the threats come from both sides of the bars: Dr. Sandoval (a superb Ramiro Blas) is as despicable as prison doctors come, never missing a chance to exploit, abuse or intimidate his patients. In between them, you just feel sorry for poor guard Palacios (Alberto Velasco), who may be the only decent, kind staff member in the building.
All this would be enough to drive a satisfying season of telly, but Locked Up is thinking bigger than that; it’s confident enough to take us outside of the prison to follow more supporting characters, without losing any of the intensity of the interior excitement. That also gives us a chance to get to know a deceptively complex male character: Macarena’s father, Leopoldo (Carlos Hipólito). At once fiercely protective and emotionally vulnerable, the former cop finds himself going head-to-head with The Egyptian, so the family can use that money to help fund Macarena’s defence. Like his daughter, he’s pushed to new extremes with every episode – and he (and Román Ferreiro – Daniel Ortiz) surprise us by how ruthless and violent they can be, before stepping back and being shocked themselves.
Every person on screen has that kind of complexity and depth, which is testament to the quality of both the writing and cast. Berta Vázquez makes a huge impression as Rizos, who wants to become Macarena’s girlfriend, while María Isabel Díaz’s mama bird, Sole, is hoping for a heart transplant to save her life. Both bring comic relief and a heartfelt sincerity to the ensemble – while Zulema’s vicious number two, Saray (a scene-stealing Alba Flores) is a source of pathos as much as peril.
Throughout the season, the directors frequently employ mini-talking head interviews with the characters, giving them a chance to offer their own take on events to an unseen documentary crew. It’s a shame that format isn’t more explicitly explained in the plot, but they act like a string of soliloquies in a play – and the stylish visuals and rapid pace are enough to let them slot alongside the action without distracting from it.
The result is a moving, gripping series that delivers heart-in-mouth twists and gut-wrenching blows right up until the final episode. The show brilliantly balances day-to-drama cellblock drama with an overarching plot that is all the most nerve-wracking because it is fundamentally unavoidable: whether they’re mothers in waiting, partners blackmailing or just friends supporting each other, everyone in prison wants to get out. In one hugely satisfying episode, a fateful trip to the laundry takes away the hope of freedom from Macarena before teasing another kind altogether – a reminder that, whatever happens in the future, the decisions these women have to make are only going to get harder, and no matter how far one might dream of travelling, the claustrophobic effects of prison only cling tighter. When it comes to powerful, funny, diverse TV, Orange Is the New Black. But if it’s nail-biting tension and arresting thrills you want, yellow is the new orange.
Season 1 and 2 of Locked Up are available to watch online and download on Walter Presents.
For more information on the other foreign-language shows available, see our Walter Presents TV guide.