Triumph ahead of the final destruction. That is how you can sum up the discourse and the feelings conveyed by Álex Pina on his emotional return to “the scene of the crime.” He is speaking to EL PAÍS from the sets of Money Heist, located in the Madrid city of Tres Cantos, before they are destroyed forever once the fifth and final season of the global hit show is complete.
The production – famous for its thieves who wear Salvador Dalí masks, tout an anti-system spirit and are named after world cities – began its life over two seasons on Spanish network Antena 3, and sees the gang of criminals assault the Spanish mint. In a recut version, the show found a worldwide audience in 2017 thanks to Netflix, and the plot moved on in subsequent episodes to an assault on the Bank of Spain – with hostages included.
[Warning: Spoilers ahead]
“The show works better when it’s being consumed compulsively than when it’s broken up,” Pina explains, speaking back in July about how it can be binged now its on the popular streaming service. “Commercials and waiting from week to week take away that anxiety created by the time passing in the show, meaning that you don’t get so caught up in it. What’s more, Money Heist works in very short times. The experience for the viewer is much more intense when it’s consumed compulsively, and much more addictive of course.”
But there is something else there, something that they discovered bit by bit – a result, perhaps, of the power of Netflix all over the world. First, the actors in the show – called La Casa de Papel in its original version – noticed that their followers on social media shot up exponentially. Second, they were unable to film on location in cities (for this last part in Copenhagen) without attracting a crowd of admirers. Then came the Monte Carlo Television Festival, which saw the city plastered with imagery from the show, and later the appearance of protestors all over the world donning the distinctive red overalls and Dalí masks worn by the characters when at demonstrations.
The virtues and the excesses of the show are heightened even further in this fifth season, which is more violent than ever. Pina admits that he and his team opted for the war genre for the last episodes, which Netflix will be releasing in two batches of five episodes: one available from today, September 3, and the other in December. “We are a country with a major inferiority complex with fiction,” he argues. “Money Heist is crazy because these guys could never be locked inside the Bank of Spain because they would wipe them out, but you have to do something that has other components, with its own internal rules, which have to be coherent, and not with reality, which is contemptible from the point of view of fiction. And when you do it, they say to you, ‘Where are you going with this?’ Well, gentlemen, there we have Marvel, which has been the most-watched thing in cinemas for 10 years and just keeps on getting bigger.”
The “lyrical vision” of violence seen in other seasons, with the Italian revolutionary song Bella Ciao as a theme, makes way for something that’s tougher this time around, a shift that Pina defends. “We try to sublimate the violence in esthetic terms because it seems to form part of the vision of the show to us,” he explains. “A show has an editorial line, like a newspaper does. There are things that you can and can’t do.”
TV fiction in the 21st century has gone through a revolution, as has the concept of what is and isn’t allowed. Pina, who was behind other Spanish TV hits such as Los Serrano, Periodistas and Los hombres de Paco, knows what he is talking about. Plots, for example. “Viewers have changed a great deal. When we worked in TV in the 1990s and the 2000s, there was a kind of guardian angel who protected the viewer, who knew that his protagonist was not going to get killed, and even if things got bad, it would all turn out alright in the end. But the experience for the viewer is much better when things go bad. We killed [character] Nairobi, and so now when someone has a gun pointed at their head, you say, ‘Jesus, they’re going to kill them!’”
What’s more, protagonists can be designed to be likeable, even if you can also hate them. “Ten years ago they would say to us, ‘The character has to be clean because if he’s a bastard no one will want them in their homes.’ But now the perversion of the villain is very attractive,” Pina confesses. He is mainly referring to Berlin (Pedro Alonso), the member of the gang who is homophobic, narcissistic, egocentric and cruel, but is also one of the favorite characters among the viewing public. He has disappeared from the plot now, but still returns explosively in some opportune flashbacks. “We’ve had a lot of fun with him,” Pina admits.
In the first two episodes of the fifth season – which EL PAÍS has been able to see ahead of their release – the jealousy, disagreements, egos, love and desire still exist between the gang members, all of which have been an essential part of the show’s success. “What people want is to be entertained, and we have added an idiosyncrasy of Latin affectivity to a genre such as the perfect heist, which used to be very cold and mathematic. We have created a hybrid that worked the world over, perhaps because there was a demand for emotions, something that ran hotter,” Pina continues.
“Checkmate, you son of a bitch [...] Your conviction is our salvation,” utters police officer Alicia Sierra (Najwa Nimri) to the mastermind behind the heists, the Professor (Alvaro Morte), during the first minutes of the fifth season, when several of the characters are on the ropes.
There are few limits left for these characters, and that was noticeable among the team, Pina admits, which has clear red lines. “We were working on episode two in the midst of the pandemic, online, and I could see that we didn’t have the immediacy, that spark, and so we threw it all out to create an experimental episode, without fragmenting time, and where there is even a different protagonist. And we did it as if it were a season finale.” But it isn’t. There are eight more to go.
Fans of the genre know that the perfect heist, from classics such as The Killing or The Asphalt Jungle, to the more recent Heat, Heist or The Town, never goes completely to plan. The first ending planned by Pina and his team ended up in the trash. We will have to wait and see what happens to Lisbon, Tokyo, Denver, Bogotá and co. when these 100 hours of imperfect heists, which have already become a part of television’s recent history, finally come to an end.
English version by Simon Hunter.