Money Heist: What to Know About the International TV Phenomenon
With Netflix poised to release the fifth and final season of Money Heist, we looks at the global movement behind the streamer’s Spanish hit.
If you haven’t tuned into Money Heist yet, you’ve been missing one of the hottest series on Netflix right now. It’s sexy, absurdist fun, an action soap opera like no other, so addictively bingeable that it has stolen the hearts of a worldwide audience. But it’s more than escapist fare. Money Heist has also become a rallying cry of resistance that is changing the world.
It almost didn’t happen. Netflix picked up Money Heist entirely by chance. If they hadn’t, the original series might have easily vanished into obscurity for English-speaking audiences. Once Netflix got it, it blew up and became their most watched non-English series.
Money Heist was originally broadcast on Spain’s Antena 3 channel in 2017 under its native title La Casa de Papel (The House of Paper). The first season was 15 episodes, told in two parts. The initial part garnered a healthy 45 million viewers but viewership plummeted when the second part was broadcast. With only half the audience remaining and the story complete, the show seemed at its end. Netflix acquired the series as part of an international catalog of titles, re-edited it into 22 shorter episodes, re-released it internationally later that year. The streamer didn’t even bother to promote it when they added to their queue. Nevertheless, it found a huge audience outside of Spain and viewership skyrocketed.
Season 1 is about a meticulously planned heist of the Royal Mint of Spain. The Professor (Álvaro Morte) is a criminal mastermind who assembles a gang of thieves. Each thief adopts the name of a city to conceal their true identities from each other, akin to the robbers in Reservoir Dogs. The story is told from the perspective of Tokyo (Úrsula Corberó), a brazen spitfire femme fatale who steals every scene she’s in. The thieves capture the Mint, taking dozens of hostages. Their plan is to print millions in unmarked bills. Meanwhile, the Professor plays a cat-and-mouse game with Inspector Murillo (Itziar Ituño) who is hot on his trail.
Don’t Fall in Love During a Heist
Through Tokyo’s narration and copious flashbacks to the planning of the crime, Money Heist tells a gripping story of the ultimate anti-heroes. As tensions mount, the gang is at one another’s throats while navigating the Professor’s deceptive instructions. The Mint is surrounded by cops and time is running out. Gratuitous shots of ticking clocks increase the pressure, the same device deployed by original Mission: Impossible TV series to heighten suspense. Stockholm syndrome takes hold as the hostages fall for their captors. In classic Money Heist style, the main hostage who joins the gang adopts the name “Stockholm (Esther Acebo)”. The Professor and the Inspector engage in a deliciously dysfunctional romance. It’s all exceedingly sexy with the beautiful actors often scantily clad, and has a subversively sharp sense of humor.
Despite its ludicrousness, Money Heist is so addictive in many ways. First off, it masters the cliffhanger. The suspense is relentlessly palpable and no matter how ridiculous some of the deus ex machina resolutions are, they’re still great fun to watch. Just like Game of Thrones, this show is merciless. Beloved main characters die in shockingly poignant death scenes. This keeps the suspense very real. You never know if your favorite character is going to make it. Of the seven thieves that enter the Mint with Tokyo – Berlin (Pedro Alonso), Denver (Jaime Lorente), Helsinki (Darko Perić), Moscow (Paco Tous), Nairobi (Alba Flores), Oslo (Roberto Garcia Ruiz) and Rio (Miguel Herrán) – three don’t make it out.
Secondly, it’s about those characters. The ensemble cast delivers great performances across the board. Every role is rich, complex, and well-developed. Everyone has his or her strengths, weaknesses, and back stories and their emotional journeys resonate deeply. No one is entirely innocent. You can’t help yourself from rooting for them, even the villains.
And third, Money Heist has style. Its passionate soundtrack has captured the ears of the world. The use of color, particularly red against darkly composed frames, is exquisitely captivating. Money Heist is a thrilling roller coaster ride that just has to be experienced.
Enjoy It Until the Party is Over
The global following shocked the cast and crew. After season 1 wrapped, the show seemed finished. As the cast watched their social media following grow exponentially (an experience catalogued in Netflix’s documentary, Money Heist: The Phenomenon), they knew something was up. By 2018, Money Heist garnered several nominations and wins across the European awards circuit and even won the coveted Best Drama Series at the 46th International Emmys.
Consequently, Netflix reassembled the cast and crew for a second season, this time with a much bigger budget. Even though season 1 was self-contained, the show’s creator Álex Pina dreamed up a second season, one that was on a much grander scale, thanks to Netflix’s backing.
The second heist is in four parts. That may sound confusing because the upcoming season 5 will be split into two parts as well. Season 5 is actually parts 3 and 4 of the second heist story arc. “Heist 2” is already 16 episodes deep and it’s only the halfway point.
For the second heist, the gang must reassemble to rescue one of their own after Tokyo makes another grievous mistake. And that rescue hinges upon robbing the Bank of Spain. New gang members join the survivors of the first robbery, and another more ruthless adversary, the pregnant Inspector Sierra (Najwa Nimri). Sierra is a more ruthless opponent than Murillo was for the first heist. When it comes to the Professor’s psychological chess game, Sierra flips the chess board upside down. Season 3 (Part 1 of the Bank of Spain heist) debuted exclusively on Netflix in the summer of 2019. Season 4 (Part 2) was released almost a year later in April 2020, and it was seen by 65 million households. That’s a million more viewers than watched Tiger King when it ran around the same time.
Realizing they had a bankable hit, Netflix released Money Heist: The Phenomenon. The documentary showcases the astonishment of the cast and crew as they navigate their new found popularity from a show they thought was done. A season 2 opening scene, filmed in front of the historic Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral in Florence, Italy, was almost ruined when rabid fans rushed the crew. However, do not watch Money Heist: The Phenomenon before seeing the show because it drops some major spoilers.
We Are Dali
To hide their identities, the gang wears masks based on the famous Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dali, replete with a red hooded jumpsuit. They force their hostages to wear the same costume to confuse the police. This Dali mask has become a new symbol of international rebellion, supplanting the Guy Fawkes mask from V for Vendetta on a global scale. Beyond Comic-Con cosplaying, the Dali mask has been appearing on protestors and in effigies around the world. Footage from these real life demonstrations appear in the show.
Money Heist has had a profound effect on international football (“soccer” for we Yanks). Massive displays of Dali mask banners appeared at Saudi Arabia soccer stadiums. At the Karaiskaki Stadium, Greek soccer fans unfurled a huge Dali banner too. After their team won, they rushed the field wearing Money Heist costumes. Brazilian soccer superstar Neymar de Silva even makes a cameo in season 3 as a monk who wryly comments about his disdain for soccer. Silva claims Money Heist is his favorite show.
There were even real life copycat heists. France fell victim to a shop hold-up and a hotel robbery where the perpetrators wore Dali masks. A 2019 daylight heist of the Mexican Mint was thought to have been inspired by the show. Perhaps the best one was when Justin Bieber’s five-billion-view music video ‘Despacito’ was hacked on YouTube. The hackers replaced it with an image of Money Heist in full Dali regalia with guns pointing out, accompanied by a call to ‘Free Palestine.’
Consequently, there has been some backlash. Cyprus banned Dali costumes for Carnival. Turkish journalists and politicians have admonished the show, describing it as rebel propaganda. The Professor describes it best in season 3. “The mask has become a symbol throughout the world of resistance, of indignations, of skepticism. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that it has inspired many people.”
Ironically, Money Heist pilfered Dali’s image. The Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation never gave the show its blessing for the use of the artist’s likeness. There’s no doubt that Dali is spinning in his grave for not getting paid royalties, but he must appreciate the surrealism here.
Beyond the now iconic Dali mask, Money Heist also revived a rebel ballad, the Italian protest song Bella Ciao. Bella Ciao means ‘Goodbye Beautiful’ and it was the anthem of anti-fascists of the Italian Resistance during WWII. Originally about toiling in rice fields under an oppressive boss, the lyrics evolved to describe the Resistance’s commitment to the cause with their lives. When translated from Italian, the lyrics end with “This is the flower of the partisan who died for freedom.”
The Professor’s grandfather fought in the Italian resistance so he sings it with Berlin, his older brother, and teaches it to the gang. The song is frequently reprised throughout the series, most tellingly during the season 1 part 1 finale end credits. A montage of black-and-white footage decrying the evils of money fades to red as Bella Ciao plays.
Since Money Heist, over a dozen new versions of Bella Ciao have climbed the charts across Europe, with the Professor’s rendition placing first in Austria, second in Germany, and in the top twenty in Belgium, France, and Switzerland. It’s been covered by several EDM DJs like Steve Aoki and Hardwell. Bella Ciao has become a common chant at soccer matches, and was heard at the 2019 World Cup. When Open Arms rescued a boatload of fleeing immigrants docked in Lampedusa, the refugees sang Bella Ciao to celebrate their newfound freedom.
The Last Times are Beyond Comparison
What might the finale hold? When we last left the gang, they were reunited in the Bank of Spain and determined to win ‘the war’ in honor of their latest fallen comrade. But Inspector Sierra got the drop on the Professor. With a gun to his head, she declared “Checkmate, son of a bitch.” Anyone who knows the show understands that it is volatile and unpredictable so it’s anyone’s guess what happens next.
It’s clear that this is the end. When production wrapped on May 14th, Netflix tweeted “Thank you to all the fans for being part of La Resistencia! We can’t wait to show you how this story ends.” However, Netflix is never one to kill a goose that lays golden eggs.
Money Heist creator Álex Pina already launched another Netflix series, Sky Rojo. Season 1 premiered back in March 2021 and season 2 is slated for July. It’s the story of three women on the run, somewhat reminiscent of Thelma and Louise, only the threesome are prostitutes. It’s stylish and sexy, and received some critical acclaim. But it has nowhere near the impact of Money Heist.
A Korean adaptation of Money Heist is in the works with Kim Hong-sun directing. Cast as the Professor is Yoo Ji Tae, who is most remembered for his mastermind role in Oldboy, and also had a part in a Korean TV adaptation of The Good Wife. Playing Tokyo will be Jeon Jong Seo, aka Rachel Jun, a newcomer with two feature films under her belt.
This summer, an immersive event “Money Heist: The Experience” is set to tour London, Miami, Mexico City, New York, and Paris. Each city will get a different version of the experience, adapted to the venue, and the venues won’t be announced until just prior to the events open. This is another collaboration between Netflix and Fever, who previously staged “Stranger Things: The Drive Into Experience” in Los Angeles.
Most of the cast of Money Heist were too engaged with filming the final season under pandemic restrictions to take on any new projects. The notable exception of Úrsula Corberó. Corberó is cast as the Baroness in the upcoming G.I. Joe Origins film, Snake Eyes.
Money Heist held the title of Netflix’s most watched non-English series until a French show, ironically also about a heist, stole the crown. Lupin robbed Money Heist of the title in January 2021 racking up 76 million views. Lupin Part 2 debuted on June 11. When Money Heist returns, will it steal back Netflix’s most watched non-English series crown? Hopefully so. For Nairobi!
Money Heist, Parts 1-4, are available on Netflix now. Season 5 Volume 1 debuts on September 3, Volume 2 arrives on December 3, 2021.