(As with most of my reviews, the following is pretty much entirely spoiler-free.)
If the first one grabbed you by the hand and thrust you face-first into an exhilarating, near-perfect, emotionally complex thrill ride, and the second was a sweaty turning up of the volume dial that resulted in a loss of some of the rich nuance and clarity of purpose of the first, then the third feels very much like a continuation of that gentle downward trend. Make no mistake: Season 4 of Netflix’s La Casa De Papel (or, if you insist on the much lamer English title: Money Heist) is huge, bombastic, populist entertainment; incredibly slick, visually rich, well-acted, and cleverly written. But where that first season (which was actually two seasons in one, hence the occasional confusion over numbering) backed up all its slo-mo, pop-scored fireworks and exhilarating heist dynamics with rich, consistent characterisation and a refreshingly feminist perspective, the fourth part is streamlined in many ways even further than the entry before it. ‘Simplified’ might be a better word, if one felt less generous. ‘Dumbed down’ if one had a rough morning and frankness was a method of catharsis. The most balanced, fair way to put it would probably be to say that the formula is starting to show signs of wear. Think of it as that ageing thrill seeker friend you might have. Still wild-eyed and red-faced and up for it all, yet now undeniably starting to show signs of mortality, and despite that or perhaps because of it constantly insisting they’ve still got what it takes, so now they’re always upping the ante on your group adventure weekends away. You still have a blast, for sure, but sometimes you walk away from a few activities exhausted, and you’re worried about them at night when you spy them limping off to bed early, one hand on a hip, eyes a little bit distant.
All that being said, that might just be me, and your mileage may vary. See, I like endings. Conclusions, closure, stories tied off properly—I love all that. I love the flip side of that coin too: Leaving some things unsaid, unexplained, forever left in a state of speculation and poetic uncertainty in the hearts of the viewer, resonating there powerfully for what can be, if it’s all done right, a lifetime. Whatever. As long as the story ends, I love all that (there’s only one story that’s allowed to just keep on going forever). When Netflix’s other Spanish-language sensation, Élite, finished its third season run a few weeks ago, it teased another entry to come, but in many ways it was also a very definitive ending. There were a few loose threads left to tie up, yes, but that was filigree. The tapestry, overall, was finished. Statement, made. This season of La Casa De Papel does the opposite. Over the course of eight episodes, as the twisty narrative ebbs and flows in a series of emotive bursts, flashes of machine gun fire, and melancholy flashbacks, it does for a not insignificant amount of time feel like it’s all heading towards a final bow. Then, as you notice that you are halfway through the last episode, the realisation crystallises: There is still way too much ground to cover. No way is this ending now. And sure enough, rather than a final bow, in swoops one motherfu**er of a cliffhanger, foisting you up by the neck and out of your seat, demanding that you scream for more, right here and right now. It is done very effectively, and I was eating out of the palm of its hand, but once the dust had settled and the ending rendition of ‘Bella Ciao’ had stilled I felt a little bit empty. Yes, I yearned for more, but I was left wondering: Was this story being extended because it made internal sense, or because the production team knew I and millions of others would keep watching? I suspected the latter.
To very quickly recap (and here there be minor spoiler territory): The story of La Casa De Papel (so far!) is the story of two insanely ambitious heists. The first, of the Royal Mint of Spain. The second, of the Bank of Spain. Both are masterminded by El Profesor (Álvaro Morte), in conjunction variously with Berlin (Pedro Alonso) and Palermo (Rodrigo de la Serna, who played Alberto Granado in The Motorcycle Diaries). The fourth season is a direct continuation of the events of the third, picking up directly where the latter left off. Both heists are also given an additional, personal motivation apart from the obvious monetary, and though they veer slightly into (and I say this fondly) ridiculous melodrama, the extra emotional heft they lend to the proceedings do enhance the narrative, and our involvement in it. Melodrama is a word that applies to the series as a whole. I’ve applied the word ‘telenovela’ to it in the past, and I’ve been far from the only person to do so. The show does this intentionally. It wears its national identity and cultural specificity on its sleeve, and that makes it a breath of fresh air in a genre generally saturated with macho individualistic American norms and tropes. La Casa De Papel borrows liberally from the greats of the genre of course, but it injects into that mixture a whole lot of idiosyncrasy, much to its benefit. The heists are the backbone of this story, but the interpersonal drama is the moreish substance on that skeleton that has made this a huge global sensation and the biggest show on Netflix not in the English language (healthy skepticism of Netflix’s self-reported viewing figures aside). La Casa De Papel is a tapestry of interweaving love stories, redemption arcs, and tragic figures; as well as timely politics, cultural critique, and, yes, explosive, madly methodical heists. Unfortunately it felt to me as if by this season’s end there had been a marked shift of emphasis from the show’s beginning, and the delicate balance had been thrown off. The methodical heists became more dependent on shocking and less believable twists, rather than internal logic. The politics and cultural critique felt a bit more heavy handed and less integral to character. And the love stories and redemption arcs felt more shoehorned in, more nakedly functioning as a means to an end rather than character-consistent drama. I won’t spoil anything here, but much of the drama around (otherwise entirely justified) fan-favourite Nairobi (Alba Flores, uniformly excellent) felt the most egregious in its almost mercenary ‘let’s increase the stakes here’ plot function. Nairobi is in many ways the heart of this show. She deserves defter, deeper writing.
It must be said that almost every single character in the main ensemble deserves praise for their performance, even when the writing sags somewhat under the strains of plot perpetuation. These people are why La Casa De Papel is as huge as it is. We have bonded with these characters intensely over the past few years, and it’s in some ways understandable why the creators would want to keep them in our homes for longer. I’ve already mentioned Nairobi as the heart of the show, but though it might feel like a disservice to a universally great ensemble, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also highlight Darko Perić’s Helsinki—the hulking, gay, Serbian ex-soldier—as a shining example of what this show does best. In fact Nairobi and Helsinki’s professional and personal connection is in many ways the show at its very best and worst: Exciting, refreshing, deeply empathetic, but also—at times—inconsistent and unbelievable, with wonkier character work and unearned emotional payoffs. The negatives can not be laid at the feet of the actors at all—I’ll say again that they perform wonderfully—but rather at the shakier foundations maintained by an increasingly struggling script.
The fourth season of La Casa De Papel does innovate its formula in some ways, and it concludes with a sky-filling burst of plot fireworks that will leave you frantically craving more, but the character work here, as well as the themes—of rebellion against a callous capitalist system, of the life-saving and enriching capabilities that ad-hoc families can have—does now feel strained, and in need of that most magical of things: A strong, dramatic end. It will hurt to see these characters go, but a life without goodbyes is one devoid of meaning and poetry.
Header Image Source: Netflix