Warning: This contains minor spoilers for Part 1 and 2 of La Casa de Papel.
“Sometimes things happen with irreverent obscenity and there’s nothing you can do.” That’s Tokyo in Netflix’s Money Heist (La Casa de Papel) talking about the titular robbery, but she might as well have been talking about the show overall. The Spanish thriller has become a veritable phenomenon over two seasons, the most-watched non-English-series on Netflix – the inspiration of an escape room in Madrid and waxwork figures in Paris – and the kind of binge-ready series that should come with an addiction warning.
The heist itself is simple: eight thieves take hostages and lock themselves in the Royal Mint of Spain, where they plan to print the money they’re going to steal. It’s an inspired idea, one that means the longer the inevitable police siege continues, the more time they have to print more money. Much of the show’s appeal lies in seeing such a cool concept being carried out, but, of course, things are more complicated than that, and the show maintains its appeal by repeatedly finding new twists and turns to make the robbery less likely to succeed.
To enable that, creator Álex Pina smartly follows events from both sides, hopping between our criminals on the inside – each named after a city, including Tokyo, Berlin and Moscow and Oslo – and the detectives cracking the case on the outside. In the middle of the two stands The Professor (Álvaro Morte), the mastermind behind the whole endeavour, who has a knack for predicting what the fuzz will do next and thinking several steps ahead.
Morte is fantastic to watch, balancing the arrogance of an intelligent ego with the righteous conviction of a man who doesn’t see himself as a villain. That’s balanced out with his growing attraction to Detective Raquel (Itziar Ituno) who is just as determined to come out of their showdown on top – their interactions become crucial to making both characters sympathetic, as well as driving suspense still higher. Will she cotton on? Would she let him get away with it? Will he be distracted and make a mistake? Will he have anticipated their latest breakthrough?
Their cat-and-mouse exchanges are also vital to the show’s very delicate balancing of right and wrong: at Money Heist’s heart is a thesis that these criminals aren’t criminals at all, and are just re-enacting the bailout that took place following the financial crash. Robin Hood but for the 21st century, it challenges us to root for the rebels as much as the system they’re rebelling against (they even sing an Italian revolutionary song, Bella Ciao, which plays out over the credits). Season 2 extends things further, heightening the stakes as our players debate whether to implement “Project Chernobyl”, while also giving each person behind a Dali mask a chance to flesh out their characters – even if you’re watching with the (surprisingly competent) English dub, you get a real sense of how distinct each gang member is, especially as they become more entwined with the people they’re keeping prisoner.
But for all its careful plotting, Money Heist is not a subtle show, and the first two seasons are peppered liberally with slow-motion shots, dramatic voiceover and sex scenes and other sequences that are rather male-gazey. The latter, at least, is partly balanced by pointed comments from our narrator, Tokyo, that call out the male characters for their macho nonsense (Pedro Alonso as Berlin, the sadistic ringleader behind bars, is having notable fun playing the unlikeable bully). The rest, meanwhile, is swept along by a relentless pace that doesn’t let up for 22 episodes, racing from each new fling between hostage and prisoner, each new risk of The Professor’s hideout being discovered, each new absurd new declaration from a man keen to go down as a revolutionary. That takes him from his desk, surrounded by maps and plots, to dustbins off remote roads where he tries to start fires, with everything from romantic drinks at far-flung bars to hidden tunnels stuffed in between. It’s an exhilarating ride that finds just the right level between smart, winding thrills and contrived, trashy fun. With every new irreverent obscenity – Season 3 switches things up for a mission of a different sort – there’s nothing you can do but keep clicking “next episode”.
Money Heist is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.