‘Money Heist’: From ‘Don Quixote’ to ‘Lazarillo de Tormes’

Money Heist returned to Netflix with its final season at the end of 2021 to absorb viewers into an excess of action, tragedy, and tension, amplifying the self-consciously over-the-top and at times unconvincing elements of the series. In the first season, an eclectic group of eight robbers, led by a criminal mastermind called the Professor (Álvaro Morte), carried out a plan to print €2.4 billion in The Royal Mint of Spain and escape with the money through a tunnel. In the second and third seasons, the thieves return to Spain with their new plan to not only steal the national reserve at the Bank of Spain but replace it with gold-coated brass to prevent Spain’s bankruptcy. 

At the very end of the final episode of the series, Lisbon (Itziar Ituño) reflects on the idea behind having a national reserve of brass: “It’s the Spanish picaresque! Lazarillo de Tormes was not written by the English.” This wasn’t the first time the makers tied the show to Spanish literature. “To rise up against the system is reckless and idealistic – [it’s] Don Quixote!,” said Álex Pina, the creator, about the series in The Guardian. In addition, a Don Quixote mask was designed before deciding on the Salvador Dalí mask as the symbol of resistance in the series. Placing Money Heist in the same framework as Don Quixote and Lazarillo de Tormes –  around the themes of revolt, criminality, and morality – helps demystify the popularity, the moral compass, and motive of Money Heist.

Pedro Alonso as Berlin stands in front of his team, their guns drawn. He, like them, wears a red jumpsuit. He looks on pensively.
Image courtesy of Netflix

Inspired by chivalric romances himself, Don Quixote famously dresses up as a knight in a commitment to bring justice to a disjointed world. His absolute detachment from reality convinces those around him that he is mad, but his view of the world is coherent in itself, and it leads to an examination of social reality. This is the Quixotic imagination of the creators of Money Heist, which many viewers have dismissed as unrealistic and impractical without considering its critical potential. Money Heist exaggerates almost all aspects of reality, in turn challenging the economic and political status quo. In the final season, the robbers fight the bank’s chief of security, Gandiá (César Gandía), who is a monster devoid of all humanity, while the Special Forces consist of killing machines that seem impossible to defeat. Yet, in the enthralling imagination of Money Heist, these soldiers embody the evil of the entire system of banks and government that the characters are fighting. It recalls Don Quixote imagining that he is jousting with giants, while he is really attacking windmills. Nothing about printing €2.4 billion in The Royal Mint of Spain or replacing the national reserve with brass is believable, and yet, these absurdities construct a point of view that challenges the economic status quo that we misconstrue as being entirely natural.

Considering the show’s attachment to the themes of madness, romanticism, and defiance inspired by Don Quixote, its allusion to Lazarillo de Tormes in its final episode is startling. The picaresque genre in literature emerged in the lower classes of 16th century Spain. Considered to be the origin of the picaresque genre, Lazarillo de Tormes depicts a lower-class protagonist called Lázaro who endures abuse and inequality in a corrupt society, surviving only by means of roguery. Unlike Don Quixote, who openly challenges the values of his society and creates his own reality, Lázaro aims to survive in the existing system of inequality through various tricks he learns from his cruel masters.

While this goes against the spirit of idealism in Don Quixote that seems to have inspired Money Heist, it helps to illuminate the moral ambiguity in the show, as Lázaro is considered the first great antihero of Western literature. In a sense, Lazarillo de Tormes justifies the last (and grandest) deception of the Professor’s master plan, which is replacing the stolen national reserve with brass. At the very end of the series, Lisbon (Itziar Ituño) directly refers to Lazarillo de Tormes to convince the colonel Tamayo (Fernando Cayo) of the validity of the Professor’s plan. 

Actually, the series has been working towards justifying this plan since the beginning of the season. Earlier in the season, the Professor explains the underlying rationale of this deception by pointing to the liquidity injections performed by the European Central Bank in 2011, 2012, and 2013. Drawing a similarity between the liquidity injections and his final deception, he justifies a criminal act as a reflection of the capitalist economy. In Lazarillo de Tormes, Lázaro gradually adopts the tricks his abusive masters play on him and improves on them to become an even more successful fraud than his masters. The novel hardly displays any act of conscious resistance or defiance by Lázaro, instead, it simply displays the social reality of its time and how the roguish acts of Lázaro directly mirror the moral corruption of the society. Consequently, the reader identifies with the antihero and excuses a level of immorality and delinquency. The Professor evokes a comparable viewer response in his addressing of the conduct of the European Central Bank.

Money Heist certainly embraces the spirit of defiance and idealism found in Don Quixote, but that was not enough to make the show the global phenomenon it is today when it was first streamed on Spanish TV with no rating success. A few months after Netflix acquired global streaming rights in December 2017, the series became one of the most-watched TV shows in the world and the most-watched non-English language series on Netflix; a global symbol of capitalism that it seems to criticize in its message. 

It is true that Money Heist is a product of the culture industry. It meets the market demand with its clichéd formula, mashing up action and romance to create a binge-worthy thriller. Netflix’s classification of content and personalized recommendations highlight what Theodor Adorno criticized as the standardization of the culture industry. Adorno, a famous cultural critic who wrote about pop culture, believed that the uniform products of the culture industry are tools of political control which ultimately reinforce the status quo. Not only does the personalized content of Netflix absorb the viewer into an echo chamber, but Netflix collects data to respond to demand by creating shows that follow similar schemas. 

Four Money Heist characters stand against two opposite walls of a dirty compound, shooting at people off-screen. They all wear red jumpsuits, some with black t-shirts.
Image courtesy of Netflix

On the other hand, Theodor Adorno’s more optimistic contemporary, Walter Benjamin, saw pop culture as a possible site of resistance. The show’s reference to the picaresque genre at the very end suggests that the series is bound by the system, not only in the internal narrative of the show, but in its external context and social impact. The internal narrative shows the mirroring of institutional misconduct by the individual, the way Lázaro mirrors the immorality of his masters. In its exterior context, the series gains popularity on Netflix through its perfect compliance with the structures of the culture industry even though it prompts criticism of the economic and political foundations of this very structure. The creator of the show casually expressed this as well in The Guardian, saying that “[t]he action genre used to be considered shallow and superficial, and social movies as boring. Why not put these two concepts together?”

While the show’s conformity to the formula of the culture industry is obvious in every aspect, it also had the potential to incite social reflection in those who sat down after a long day of work to watch an entertaining heist show. The symbols of resistance it employs, like the Salvador Dalí mask and the song “Bella Ciao,” have inspired many and have been globally used in protests against authoritarianism, capitalism, and police violence as reported by Vox. As Lázaro resorts to various tricks that challenge the system from within, Money Heist maintains a spirit of resistance from within the all-too-familiar formula of the culture industry and the commerciality of Netflix.