La Casa de Papel (or ‘Money Heist’ as it is known on most Netflix international platforms) is a rare thing – a gutsy, testosterone-fuelled, multi-layered drama that has had incredible success during its three-year run. If you haven’t explored this series yet, it traces two meticulously prepared heists led by the rather generically titled ‘Professor’, (sounds bland, and yet the character is FAR from being a one-dimensional geeky mastermind trope). The initial target is the National Royal Mint and subsequently, bolstered by the crew’s nascent camaraderie, chemistry and cohesion, the radicals subsequently set their eyes on the biggest prize of all: a raid on the Bank of Spain. The series was initially intended as a limited series to be told in two parts, airing its original run of 15 episodes on Spanish network Antena 3 from 2 May 2017 through 23 November 2017, whereupon Netflix sniffed an expansion opportunity, ploughing some of their enormous resources into a renewed second season in 2019/2020.
While exploring the impact of this phenomenon (and continually improving my Spanish by watching the show with subtitles – remember, dubbing the native language out is a NO-NO in language learning), I am reminded that the series premiere eliciting rather sombre and dull reviews. It overcame this initial stumble, as all good series do, and gradually an appreciation of the premise and plot nuances gained significant traction, garnering highly positive reviews and high Nielson ratings (the method of measuring the watching public) during the broadcast of the second section of season one. Timing is everything. I would speculate that this possibly owes to a general radical mood in the nation’s psyche around the middle of 2017, with the news dominated by pressing events of national import such as the Catalan Secession Crisis and the fierce debate surrounding the possible removal of General Francisco Franco’s remains from his burial location at Valle de los Caídes (Valley of the Fallen) outside of Madrid.
Perhaps its escapism (and what good, intense, gritty drama does NOT offer a sense of escapism, and the notion that any of us can engage in either delicate criminal activity or be an adept thwarter of such?) but there is more to it than that. Like many Europeans, Spaniards enjoy watching big-budget US dramas, though quite often dubbed into castellano, and such viewing can certainly be bracketed as escapism; however, when a domestic series latches onto some unknown need, some intangible craving that can satiate the national viewers, then we have another beast entirely on our hands. For a successful series, wherever it is produced, to be so effective, a number of elements must synthesize, and trying to pinpoint these is often a matter of subjective bias.
I might argue that the majority of actors are hugely talented and, through their great character work, forged an incredibly engaging unfolding story arc (both for individual characters as well as their collective group arc). And then there is much to admire in the writing – we are introduced to the characters not by their birth names, but their pseudonyms assigned to them by the Professor (uniquely enough – all bear the title of a capital city). The mystery surrounding the ‘real’ lives of the characters is well teased, and we only garner their real names later, usually in more intimate scenes as the interpersonal relationships grow stronger. In this aspect, it helps tremendously that there is a female cast of characters as strong, diverse and engaging as their male counterparts, if not more so.
All of this is just fine, but then there is the SUPREME element of the series, and another stroke of genius by the writers, and this goes as follows: every group of thieves or hijackers needs a cover, and not just an assumed name, but usually a disguise. And while the group are distinguished individually by their own unique abilities and assigned city names, collectively they dress in a red onesie (a onesie being a kind of work suit, easy to pull on and off). The choice of red is no accident, as these folks want to incite fear, but also reflect their passion, as individuals and a group. And what kind of mask do they use to conceal their facial features? A rudimentary hoodie, or a balaclava? No. In fact, they have produced a plastic, durable mask of one of Spain’s most famous and beloved 20th Century artists, SALVADOR DALÍ.
Born in 1904, Dalí dazzled the post-world war two art world with his distinctive personality and style. He is loosely defined as a Spanish/ Catalan surrealist painter and sculptor, celebrated for his technical skill, precise draftsmanship and stunning imagery. Dalí died in January, 1989 and left behind a legacy defined concretely by two museums in his honour, one in Florida, U.S.A. and the other in his hometown of Figueres, northern Catalonia, within the walls of which the great man is buried. Dalí grew up in this picturesque, idyllic border town, whose old theatre was burned down during the Spanish Civil War and remained in a state of decay. In 1960, with enough fame and clout built up over the past decade, Dalí and the mayor of Figueres decided to rebuild the shelled building as a museum, and the results subsequently thrilled and delighted the nation. Dalí said of his vision for the spectacle “I want my museum to be a single block, a labyrinth, a great surrealist object. It will be [a] totally theatrical museum. The people who come to see it will leave with the sensation of having had a theatrical dream.”
Salvador Dalí liked to don a moustache, but not any ordinary one. The twisted, upturned facial sensation must have taken lots of daily grooming, but what’s not to like about a man who looks after his appearance? And the fellow was certainly photogenic; in the days before instant camera technology, for Dalí any and every shot of him was important, and an overriding sense of joy and mischief pervades the pictures of the man. The producers and writers of La Casa de Papel picked up on this, and instructed their magnificent design team to fashion a mask in his likeness, and the results reflect a sense of awe, danger and impudence that characterised the man himself. In fact, to chart Dalí’s incredible life in full would be the work of at least one other full blog, but I think there’s little doubt that wherever the man’s soul or spirit resides today, he must be happy that his image and memory is preserved as such.
The series is not over. Here in Spain (and perhaps beyond) we are all still picking up our jaws from the stunning season-break finale, and word from the producers is that the next instalment will indeed be terminal in the life of the series. However, the show will live on indefinitely. Not only have many young people dressed in full Casa garb in attending costume parties or music festivals, La Casa de Papel has inspired Escape Room-themed amusement throughout the country. It’s a big hit across the board, and when the producers encountered a request from former FC Barcelona star Neymar to appear in a cameo, they duly obliged in season 2 (before Neymar left for Paris, and the part was so small that it did not significantly disrupt the integrity of the acting or the world of the show). So whatever your inclinations, I will be cautious and recognise that not everybody will laud the show, and some are nonplussed or simply not interested. And that’s fine, but for travel abroad, and for English-learners going to foreign countries, perhaps its an idea to reflect the pride you have in your nation by not merely donning a Spanish football jersey (well, might you do that this year, as it’s the 10th anniversary of ‘La Roja’s football world cup triumph) but instead bring along a shirt and mask of this show. And if that doesn’t elicit at least SOME small talk, then you may call me a bad teacher for suggesting it!