Creator Álex Pina and others on the appeal of the Spanish series, which comes to an end on Friday
Four years of schemes, schematics, bullets, blasts, anti-capitalist allegory, remarkable contingency planning and wildly ill-advised workplace romances will come to an end on Friday with the release of the final five episodes of Netflix’s blockbuster Spanish series La Casa de Papel.
The drama, known to English-speaking viewers rather more prosaically as Money Heist, follows the adventures of an inevitably motley crew of robbers who dress in red overalls and Salvador Dalí masks to plunder the Royal Mint and then the Bank of Spain.
Armed with guts, grievances, labyrinthine plans and the odd heavy machine gun, the robbers rob, fall in love, squabble, play cat-and-mouse games with the police, and somehow endear themselves to a public sick of austerity, corruption and Spain’s political elites.
The first series, which was shown on the Spanish TV network Antena 3 in 2017, was picked up by Netflix the same year and soon became a global phenomenon and the platform’s most-watched non-English language series.
As well as winning an international Emmy award for best drama in 2018, La Casa de Papel (literal translation “The House of Paper”) has been touted as socioeconomic fable for our times and even served as a Halloween costume inspiration for the many Spanish children who have marched door-to-door in red overalls, demanding sweets at the end of a plastic assault rifle.
Despite its success, however, even its creator finds its appeal difficult to pinpoint.
“It’s really complicated, because you never really know what’s going to happen – just look at Squid Game,” says Álex Pina. “But I think there are a few things that explain it: you’ve got very pure entertainment combined with characters whose personal and emotional relationships are almost as important as the heist itself.
“And the robbery works like a football match because two teams are playing and one has to win and the other has to lose. You really want to know how it’s going to end: will they get the gold out of the Bank of Spain or not?”
Pina, whose other hits include Sky Rojo and White Lines, also suspects the show’s underdog protagonists struck a chord with viewers in Spain after the suffering, anger and austerity that followed the 2008 financial crisis.
But he points out that in the past few years there has been “a real scepticism about all the institutions, central banks and governments” across the world.
Natalia Marcos, who writes about TV for the Spanish newspaper El País, agrees that the show’s social and political backdrop may have appealed to audiences living though harsh times in Spain, Latin America and the Arab world. But she attributes much of its success to “a narrative rhythm that lends itself well to binge-watching”, to word of mouth, and to its design.
“It’s a very visual show with its own iconography,” she says. “It pops up on the Netflix menu and straight away you see the Dalí masks and the red jumpsuits and you get pulled in.”
According to Pina, La Casa de Papel also arrived at a time when viewers were beginning to move on from US and European fantasy shows and the woollen bleakness of Nordic noir.
“It’s been great for Spain – we’re seeing about a threefold rise in what was being made before and we’re getting close to the UK in production levels,” he says. “That was unthinkable before – as was the idea of Netflix bringing a production hub to Spain.”
Diego Ávalos, Netflix’s vice-president of content for Spain and Portugal, describes La Casa as “one of the first shows that truly opened up and levelled fiction from a global perspective”. Not only has the series “solidified the position of Spain as a true leader in the audiovisual space – particularly in fiction,” it has also helped pave the way for the likes of Lupin and Squid Game.
All three shows, Ávalos suggests, demonstrate there is “an appetite for content regardless of language and country of origin that can be able to be loved and consumed everywhere in the world”.
And all three examine privilege and power in their own way. “Lupin couldn’t be more French, Squid Game couldn’t be more Korean, and La Casa de Papel couldn’t be more Spanish,” he says. “But all three are meant to be for the general audience, and all three are meant to be enjoyed by the maximum number of people within those countries.”
Or, as Pina puts it, people will always hunger for something a little novel and idiosyncratic.
“The world of fiction is a bit of a bubble, but there was a feeling last year or the year before that everything was a bit similar,” he says. “If you manage to do something different, then people are very grateful.”