Criminal Record #2 – Populist TV, Populist Authority in ‘Money Heist’ (2017)

From police procedurals to heists, American film noir and French policiers via South Korean serial killers, Criminal Record is a column delving into the rich and heady cinematic history of crime film and TV. This week, a look at the success of Netflix’s Money Heist

“O partigiano portami via / o bella ciao bella ciao bella ciao ciao ciao”

According to the streaming giant’s often-secretive viewing numbers, La Casa De Papel (or The Money Heist in English) is Netflix’s most-viewed series globally, counting on a huge, multilingual fanbase. It’s easy to see why. It’s an incredibly well-mounted and well-produced TV series, geared towards binging and ‘just-one-more’ cliffhangers, mashing together the action and thrill of a bank heist, the melodrama of telenovela, and a handful of populist themes centring around inequality in the post-2008 financial crash. And of course, it’s absolutely the perfect subject for a column on crime films.

For those unfamiliar with the show, now in its fourth ‘part’ on Netflix (which is just a smug way of saying series), it follows a ragtag band of bank robbers, codenamed after cities such as Tokyo (Úrsula Corberó), Rio (Miguel Herrán), Denver (Jaime Lorente) and Helsinki (Darko Perić) and led by the mysterious El Profesor (Álvaro Morte) as they, well, rob banks. Series one and two originally premiered on Spanish TV in 2017, covering the heist of the Royal Mint across 15 episodes – the twist being that the robbers print their own money instead of stealing it. Netflix picked it up at the end of 2017 and recut the episodes into 21 chunks. Series three and four shift the action to the Bank of Spain three years later, as the robbers launch another heist to rescue one of their own who has been kidnapped.

The first two series suffer from a bit of bagginess, perhaps a result of Netflix’s re-editing, but they succeed in delivering a heist loaded with intrigue and romantic subplots (in spite of Profesor’s golden rule delivered to his compadres as they start planning the heist: “no personal relationships”, which becomes something of a running joke whenever another pair of characters start to catch feelings for each other). Series three and four ramp up the melodrama, intricacy and backstabbing up to 11, benefiting from shorter series chunks of eight episodes each and aided by a bigger production budget, whilst also making the show’s populist themes more upfront.

Series three and four are also more morally black-and-white. Whilst our sympathies as an audience are broadly on the side of the robbers, in the Royal Mint heist we get plenty of detail and nuance on the part of the Inspector Raquel Murillo (Itziar Ituño), leading the charge for the cops, whilst the robbers themselves make some ugly, malicious, decisions. But in the Bank of Spain heist, the state and the police are principally scenery-chewing baddies, and the robbers modern-day Robin Hoods – and in this case it’s all the better for it. La Casa De Papel doesn’t do nuance all that well. It does thrills and opera.

Money Heist

Again, it’s worth returning to just how slick and well-produced the series is. Although the cinematography is often a bit drab (the show’s red/white/black colour scheme gets dry quickly), the editing and narrative criss-crossing is exceptional, switching between the heist, Profesor’s omnipresent handling of it from outside, and the group’s time in the countryside bonding and planning the robbery in the months beforehand. There’s something intensely satisfying about watching a character as smart as the Profesor planning for every eventuality and outsmarting everyone every step of the way, but there’s also satisfaction in how his gang find equally smart ways to respond to each situation (exceptions go to Tokyo and Rio, who seem to make the stupidest possible decision every time without fail, but I suppose that’s because they’re the youngest and least experienced).

And the show goes to great lengths to give you reason to care about each member of the heist, piling them with foibles and flaws that throw wrenches into Profesor’s plans, aided by being a far less male-dominated show than your average heist flick. The end result is that we get to spend time with a group of human but glamorous characters, pure fantasies but just real enough to be believable.

The show’s element of pure fantasy is closely tied to its themes. The gang don’t see themselves as bank robbers, but as revolutionaries. They’re not just robbing the Royal Mint and the Bank of Spain. They’re protesting the bailouts that the banks got in the post-2008 crash that entrenched inequality across much of the world, particularly keenly felt in Europe’s southern countries like Spain, Greece, Italy and Portugal, who all had debt defaults. They’re protesting the authoritarianism of neoliberalism too; a key subplot in the Bank of Spain heist is not just the gold they’re stealing, but the state secrets too. The gang are predominantly working-class or from the margins. Serbian migrants in Helsinki and Oslo (Roberto Garcia), single-mother Nairobi (Alba Flores), disenfranchised youth like Rio and Tokyo, the miner Moscow (Paco Tous) and his son Denver, the welder Bogotá (Hovik Keuchkerian). The gang sing Bella Ciao, the Italian anti-fascist song sung by partisans in WWII. Tellingly, the two anti-heroes functioning as the Profesor’s deputies on the ground in each heist, Berlin (Pedro Alonso) and Palermo (Rodrigo de la Serna), are both associated with higher-class, expensive tastes in wine and luxury. They’re also the most dangerous, the most selfish and the most malicious.

This populism across the series has helped supercharge its international success – it clearly resonates deeply with audiences in Spain, France, Greece, Latin America, and well, pretty much everywhere where capitalism exists. Because ultimately, the show delivers on something which we all dearly want to see, allowing us to act out and live vociferously through those fantasies: we want to see the rich suffer.

And yet, despite that populist, revolutionary charge, La Casa De Papel is anything but revolutionary. All that anger and fury at the inequality and injustice in the world are ultimately in the service of a deeply commercial product, designed to be binge-watched and hooked on. Every episode ends on a cliffhanger and the various melodramatic twists that keep us watching – which is not intrinsically a bad thing.

As an audience member, you are here to consume. And consume you shall. The show’s lack of nuance is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness, but the structure of the show, the need to keep audiences watching, the need to keep you focused on the many bells and whistles of the plot, is itself an authoritarian distraction, directing and manipulating your thoughts. Just as banks load us with debt to keep us on a treadmill from which we cannot get off, so streaming services load us with content infused with Skinner-Box tricks to keep us watching, and we keep running on that treadmill.

It would be a cliché at this point to describe it as an irony, because it feels more like it’s absolutely emblematic of capitalism’s self-perpetuating nature. The popularity and success of the series is down to the fact that it gives the people what they want and its ability to allow us to live out a fantasy that we would all dearly love to be part of, a mirror reflection of our most attractive, beautiful selves. And tragically, there are few things better at building that mirror image of ourselves than capitalism.

In the end, it seems that if we want to watch the rich get thrown to the lions, we’ll have to pay for it with our subscriptions and movie tickets.