Heist Time: Season 1 Review
Netflix has a knack for picking up obscure, yet intriguing content from all over the world, and throwing enough money at it, until it becomes a spectacle of epic proportions, with millions of people across the world holding on to the edge of their seats, waiting to see what’ll happen next. The same happened with this well-written, if somewhat unknown show from Spain, called La Casa De Papel (House of Paper), which soon became the worldwide Emmy winning phenomenon that we know as Money Heist. Even as it became the most-watched non-English Netflix show in history, a lot of people weren’t aware of this action drama, most probably owing to the crappy subtitles, and even more horrible English-language audio. Yet, as the corona pandemic has put a halt to our lives and forced us inside, giving off a similar feeling of being a hostage in our own homes, a lot of people have begun breaking down to the increasing peer pressure of its dedicated fan base and begun watching what is now one of the most trending shows on Netflix, even in the certainly non-Spanish speaking India. I am one of the unfortunate victims of this trend and am therefore here to present to you my thoughts about the very first season of this exciting tale, even as the rest of the world is busy binging on Season 4. To keep things interesting, I am also limiting this review to what Netflix has repackaged as the 1st season, with just the first 13 episodes, as they perfect the cliff-hanger ending format that has become the calling card of this series. I know it might seem like too much, especially if you’ve already binged the entire series in a sleep-deprived zen state; but then again, this isn’t about you, but the thousands of poor souls like me, who are just starting out on the adventure, with bated breaths and an already budding hatred for Arturo.
Like most crime shows the plot revolves around an ambitious robbery and an even more ambitious escape plan. The target is the Royal Mint of Spain, a prestigious organisation that is literally turned into a money printing machine for the robbers. This simple fact alone subverses most movie and TV show plots about robberies, since the goal is not to just grab as much as they can and run away, but instead to turn the fortress into their own personal workhouse, using the very hostages as labour to make it all happen. This involves anticipating all the moves of the cops, the very talented lead negotiator, and all other interested parties; while prolonging the siege as much as they can. Each episode revolves around the traditional tropes of crime stories, and the brilliant methods they use to not only thwart the attempts of the cops, but also push them into a stalemate that eventually makes them look bad amongst themselves, and the world at large. Whether it is the obnoxious and overzealous senior officials looking to end it all with a quick entry and forced disarmament, the subtle undercover work of the well-meaning subordinates which ends up in a Trojan double-cross, or even the straightforward negotiations of an overworked but idealistic officer who gets caught up in external politics; each move is marvellously counteracted by the mastermind’s grand scheme, which takes into account every possible eventuality, except for the cruel twist of fate itself. This is what adds to the excitement of the journey, as the most nerve-wracking moments happen when the unknown and unwitting actions of selfish third-parties throw a wrench into this perfectly moving machine, which seemingly happens every few minutes, unravelling key pieces of the puzzle, and heightening the tension as we wonder how our protagonists will get out of it. Even the biggest loss of the season, which results in one of the robbers hanging at the door of death, happens at the hand of an incredibly selfish and stupid man, who doesn’t even capitalise on his own plan over a sense of almost ironic outrage over his mistress taking a younger lover. Netflix did a marvellous job by splitting the season to incorporate the current cliff-hanger ending, as it truly punctuates the unending sense of dread and frustrating helplessness that comes with the premise.
As with any successful TV series, the characters are what make it all worth it, and this show is full of interesting and unpredictable ones. We follow the narrative through the forlorn voice of Tokyo, a complicated woman who fluctuates between flashes of a woman driven by her passions, and a petulant child who chases after one shiny thing after another; unaware of the destruction she leaves in her wake. She seems to be the most devoted to the cause, yet breaks every single rule starting from the first, by taking a lover in the young and naïve, Rio. If there was ever an embodiment of the innocent audience, enamoured by the high-risk life of crime, it would be Rio. He is ready to follow Tokyo to the ends of the Earth, even as he stumbles along the way with his lack of ruthlessness towards the hostages, even getting disarmed by the meek-looking key hostage, Allison Parker, who is on her own complicated journey of disillusionment and empowerment. His inability to control his own emotions even leads to the cops gaining their first lead, in his very identity, which they subsequently use to try and emotionally blackmail him. The virtual opposite of Rio is the psychopathic master-manager in the form of Berlin, a dead-man-walking who cares more about his own image than the life of another person, whether he is in the trademark red jumpsuits, or in an expensive three-piece suit. Despite being a repulsive figure, you have to almost grudgingly respect his tactics, as he perfectly carries out the entire plan, right down to his subtle manipulation of the unnerved Ariadna, into his very own errand girl and willing victim. Often clashing with his orders and methods are the father-son due of Moscow and Denver, who play the quintessential role of the elder thief who regrets his mistakes, and the hot-headed youngster who is hell-bent on surpassing his own father in notoriety. They both confront their worst fears in the face of an execution order given by Berlin, which sets them on an entirely different trajectory from the rest of the group; filled with love, and the responsibilities of fatherhood, something which neither of the men considers themselves worthy of. In the face of their inherent flaws and stupid mistakes, the characters of Nairobi, Helsinki and Oslo almost seem like passive onlookers, even though they get their own moments of nuance, which fleshes them as interesting characters that are more than their actions and perceived eccentricities. But the one that truly shines through and holds our attention throughout is the Professor, and his evolving relationship with the lead negotiator, Inspector Raquel Murillo. He is the one man who always stays one step ahead of everyone, even though his own short-sightedness in understanding the emotional conflicts of human relationships often becomes the undoing of his perfect plan; whether it is in underestimating the cunningness of a desperate man like Arturo, or the jealousy of a simple man like Angel, or even his own inability to go through with what needs to be done to keep things on track. The fact that he is challenged at every corner by the brilliant and determined Inspector just adds a whole new layer of intrigue on top of a storyline that is already filled with expected twists and unexpected turns. Even the cliff-hanger where the detective finds his farmhouse lair just goes on to showcase how even the most meticulous planner can get thwarted by the single-minded focus of a woman who will not give up for anything or anyone.
All of this adds up to a thrilling journey, where we as an audience as held as captive as the hostages, who are themselves trying to survive the unwarranted situation they find themselves in, one day at a time, with quiet defiance that is both admirable and irritating, depending on which side you root for. Although, one thing we all can probably agree on, is that Arturo needs to die soon. Stay tuned for the Season 2 recap, to see if our hopes and prayers are answered, and how.