A gang of colourful personalities in Salvador Dali masks and red overcoats strides into the Royal Mint of Spain in Madrid in broad daylight. They take hostages, a tense police standoff develops, and a meticulously crafted game of chess involving telenovela-levels of human drama and an obsessively planned out bank robbery ensues. This was the hook of the 2017 Spanish television heist thriller hit that aired on Netflix in late 2017/early 2018, La Casa De Papel (‘The House of Paper’, a much, much cooler name than the English version that we have been given). When I reviewed the show back in the summer of 2018, I described it as ‘the most addictive viewing experience I’ve had in a long time. It is slick, stylised, edge-of-your-seat stuff that mixes pure genre thrills with deep and involved forays into human emotion and interaction.’ I said that:
By the time you get to the end of the first chapter the show has its hooks in you so deep the episodes start to fly by at obscene speed and the line between them blurs completely. It becomes impossible to watch ‘just one more’. In fact consider this a warning: If you give Money Heist a chance, time will go soft. Your arse will go numb. You might forget to feed the cat. It will probably hate you for it.
And it is 100% worth it.
I wasn’t the only one who thought so. The show proved a massive hit, both in Spain and—thanks to Netflix’s reach—abroad. The show’s principal players became bonafide global stars. As a result of this explosion it wasn’t long before a formidable, simmering hype began to build up around a potential third season. When this third season launched on Netflix earlier this year, that hype apparently paid off. According to Variety (and taking into account well-founded scepticism around Netflix’s obscure figure reporting):
“Money Heist” - Part 3 was watched by 34,355,956 Netflix household accounts over its first seven days after a July 19 global launch, Netflix confirmed to Variety on Thursday.
That’s the best first-week global result ever for a Netflix non-English-language series. As importantly, as Netflix drives ever more into original series production around the world, “La Casa de Papel” Part 3 also broke records as the most-watched Netflix series or film of all time in any language, including English, in many key territories around the world.
Big numbers. Big words. La Casa De Papel, it would seem, is now a genuine blockbuster property for Netflix.
The big question is: Does the quality of the third season justify such adoration—and indeed its very existence, considering the quite satisfying ending that viewers were left with prior to it?
The short answer—for those of you who may have not watched the first seasons and don’t want anything spoiled—is: Yes, for the most part. La Casa De Papel season 3 continues to do what made the first two seasons great: Pairing the methodical joys of seeing a maddeningly complex heist being carried out with the emotional hooks of riveting character drama. What it does differently mostly amounts to adjusting the EQ balance on that mix, and upping the overall volume. So while the heist this time (yes, there is another one) is even bigger than the one that the gang attempted before, there is less attention paid to the step-by-step of it all, and proportionally more focus on the characters. The story also veers more often towards melodrama (for the latter) and—let’s be generous and call it this—heightened reality (for the former), than it did before.
The scale and stakes are bigger in season 3 in every way, and while I personally think that the story being told here would have been better served with a longer run time—with perhaps two more episodes being added, or fewer moments of indulgent slo-mo in the current number—in order to better fill out certain details and motivations, it’s undeniable that there is a certain kinetic propulsion that drives proceedings here that means the show remains as addictive as ever. If you are just now thinking whether or not to start the show from the very beginning and wondering whether season 3 is worth carrying on with after you finish the first heist, don’t fret. It is. The quality does dip a fair bit—and quite frankly I think the show as a whole would have been far better with the ending it received before this season, as there is more than a little whiff of fan service behind this extension, rather than story necessity—but overall it is a worthy continuation.
The slightly longer answer is contained after the incoming spoiler warning.
SPOILER WARNING: FROM HERE ON, HERE BE SPOILERS FOR SEASONS 1, 2, AND 3 OF LA CASA DE PAPEL. MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE FORMER, MINOR ONES FOR THE LATTER.
Here’s the thing about crime stories: The bigger they get, the harder they are to do. The same goes for mystery/horror stories. The more you scale up the crime or the threat, the more difficult is it not only to ground the characters, but to keep the practical realities of the situation believable. Think of Stranger Things. The first season worked so well because it kept things local. A small town in the middle of nowhere. A gang of kids confronting a looming threat in the shadows that no-one else knows of and that threatens really only their immediate surroundings. There is magic in that sort of intimacy. Then, as the demands of sequel narratives so often dictate, everything got bigger, and messier as a result.
When it comes to crimes being committed or mystery threats emerging to menace someone, to me the question is always: ‘Well couldn’t the army just be called in to deal with this?’ If the answer is ‘yes’, then we’re on tricky narrative ground, and the story we’re telling becomes a vastly different one. I’m not one to nitpick the practical details of a story. I’m usually concerned about things like emotional verisimilitude and character consistency, but sometimes a story gets so big that the question of, ‘Why isn’t the army being called in to deal with this?’ becomes unavoidable, and that’s when it gets hard to focus on anything else. (Obviously this only really applies to those aforementioned genres. Though now I think of it, ‘Why isn’t the army being called in to deal with this?’, would be one hell of a solution to the huge fight in Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight.)
Another way of framing this is, ‘Is it making national news?’ A fictional microcosm can be created in our world, but the larger it gets, the more risk there is of the real world—with all its understood norms and rules and procedures—becoming enmeshed in its story, and the more explaining the story-tellers have to do of how things fit together. It’s a different kettle of fish if you set up a fully parallel reality like in the John Wick movies for example, but if you’re otherwise aiming to tell a story taking place in what we understand to be our world, it gets tricky. In its first two seasons, La Casa De Papel boldly embraced the national stage of the real world, and it made its rules and procedures almost another character in its story. In staging an incredibly audacious day time robbery of the Royal Mint of Spain, genius mastermind El Profesor’s (Álvaro Morte) gang made national news an integral part of their plan from the get-go. Playing on the anti-establishment sympathies of the public was key to their strategy. And I can’t remember now whether the actual army was called in in the first two seasons, but enough tactical police forces were so as to barely make a difference. The show handled it all quite excellently, making the heist just big enough so as to spill out into the wider fabric of real world Spain, but not so large that it transcended borders.
In season 3, La Casa De Papel throws that restraint out the window. The gang doesn’t just go after the Royal Mint and its printing presses, it breaks into the Bank of Spain and goes after the country’s very gold reserves (as well as some other, even more valuable, surprising treasures hidden within the Bank’s vault). The army is called in. The Spanish Prime Minister gets involved. Hell, the season starts with Rio (Miguel Herrán) getting captured by Europol after using his satellite phone on an island off the coast of Panama to call Tokyo (Úrsula Corberó)—who, ever restless and unsure of their relationship, left him to live a more social life on the mainland. Because, yes: Following their escape at the end of season 2, the other surviving members of the gang paired up and scattered to places like Indonesia and Argentina. Even as the season begins, the scale has gone not just national, but global.
It is Rio’s tactical blunder and subsequent capture that leads El Profesor to summon the remains of his surrogate crime family from around the world, as per the meticulous emergency protocols that he crafted for the gang. Barely evading capture herself, Tokyo is the first to join him and to alert him to Rio’s predicament. Tokyo does not find El Profesor alone, of course. What we know and she only finds out then—much to her initial chagrin—is that the nominal antagonist of their heist of the Royal Mint, Chief Inspector Raquel Murillo (Itziar Ituño), ended up switching sides, as well as forming a romantic relationship with El Profesor. In the heist that is to follow, former Chief Inspector Murillo becomes ‘Lisbon’. After Tokyo comes Denver (Jaime Lorente) and former hostage Monica (Esther Acebo), now ‘Stockholm’—with baby son in tow. And finally, the perfect duo that is Nairobi (Alba Flores) and Helsinki (Darko Peric), arriving late and speeding down a jetty on a rickety motorbike after the gang’s departing boat. Once all united, El Profesor and the gang travel to a remote Italian monastery. Three additional members join them—Bógota, Palermo, and Marseille—and the training for the Bank of Spain heist begins.
Just like in the first heist there was an element of the intensely personal (it being a sort of homage to El Profesor and his brother Berlin’s deceased father’s dreams of robbing the Mint), so too is the assault on the Bank of Spain not just about the loot. The plan was initially concocted years earlier by the late Berlin (Pedro Alonso) in tandem with Palermo (The Motorcycle Diaries’ Rodrigo de la Serna). Palermo was incredibly close to Berlin: They were partners in crime but Palermo also loved Berlin, though Berlin had worked his way through a series of failed heterosexual marriages. El Profesor and Palermo’s execution of the heist is in a way a tribute to their loss. But the central motivation—and the one that brings the gang all together to unite behind this insane and impossible plan—is to spring one of their own. The Spanish state had never forgotten about the embarrassment it suffered at the hand’s of El Profesor’s gang, and so it now takes its rage out on the captured Rio, subjecting him to indefinite detention and torture. The gang intend to use the robbery to free Rio from his shackles.
The hook is an effective one, emotionally speaking; we know these people well enough now to believe that they would give up their hard-won comforts to risk it all for one of their surrogate family, and to get one back at their enemies. Practically, though, the plan is even more far fetched than the one in the first seasons of the show. The writers and directors make a convincing enough case for how this could all be pulled off, but it’s at times a little bit too much to take this time round, and it’s the entertainment and drama that the third season of La Casa De Papel mostly rests on, rather than the details of the plan. The move-countermove dynamic between police and robbers here remains gripping and entertaining—helped in great part by another strong female police commander role in the captivating, idiosyncratic, heavily pregnant Inspector Sierra (played by the half-Navarrese, half-Jordanian actress Najwa Nimri)—and the flashback structure, though at times relied on excessively as a story-telling and tension-building crutch, works for the most part too.
What I really loved about the first seasons of La Casa De Papel was the twin pillars of heist logistics and telenovela-worthy human drama—often, it must be said, quite delicious melodrama). That combined with the slick presentation and memorable characters really kept this lover of heist movies and character dramas very happy indeed. As the heist logistics have been pared down a bit here I am not surprised that I was not quite as taken with this season as with the previous entries. I still enjoyed the ride, and was very much hooked, but it didn’t work nearly as well for me as before. The characters do by and large remain as compelling as they were—with Nairobi, Helsinki, and Denver being the easy highlights—but the show suffers a bit from the casualties of the heist of the Royal Mint. The avuncular warmth of Moscow and the nihilistic yet poetic (if occasionally repugnant) presence of Berlin—though felt here in flashbacks—are both missed greatly. The newcomers are good, but they cannot make up for what came before.
It’s a shame, too, that two of the best characters on the show—both of whom happen to be women—have a role here that is greatly diminished from the prior seasons. Alba Flores’ Nairobi was one of the absolute standouts in the first seasons—warm, fierce, funny, and protective. Here her character is significantly underserved by the plot—and especially by one really jarring, lazy decision that involves Helsinki, and that undercuts their otherwise wonderful dynamic. Just as Nairobi deserves a better showing than the one she gets here, so too does Lisbon. Chief Inspector Raquel Murilla was one of my favourite parts of the first season of La Casa De Papel. Itziar Ituño’s portrayal of a strong yet vulnerable, highly competent, charismatic individual operating in a profession overrun with macho nonsense was just wonderful. Here she is unfortunately reduced to yet another El Profesor’s genius machinations. She is still a great character played wonderfully—as is El Profesor—but I couldn’t help but pine after what the first two seasons of the show did. Another misstep in this season from a successful dynamic previously established is the lack of distinct characters in the hostage roster. The first seasons devoted a great amount of time to the people caught in the gang’s scheme, as well as the relationships that developed between the two groups. That is quite notably lacking this time round and it robs the narrative of a good deal of richness that it previously had.
There was an element of anti-establishment tropery in the first seasons of La Casa De Papel that is here brought further to the fore. Season 3 taps into a timely anti-establishment sentiment and makes it more overt, and a part of the narrative’s spine, in a few moments quite directly channelling V For Vendetta. It’s not exactly deep, but if that’s the sort of thing that presses your buttons—and for me it very much does—then that is something to consider when thinking about whether or not you will enjoy the latest outing from the show. By the end of the season El Profesor and the gang are on the cusp of waging a mini-revolution against the state. Things get very large and very personal at the same time, with the season ending with Tokyo’s voiceover pronouncing—following one extremely dramatic turn—that, ‘Then, it was war.’
Picture a flotilla of gigantic zeppelins emblazoned with the gang’s iconic Salvador Dali caricature raining down millions upon millions of Euros on central Madrid. That image from the season’s second episode in many ways sums up the third season of La Casa De Papel as a whole. Perhaps too bombastic, but enjoyable. With the added proviso that the already announced fourth season may well lend extra weight to the proceedings here, the third season of La Casa De Papel is definitely worth your time, even though for me personally it suffered somewhat when compared to what came before, and felt a little bit unnecessary after the ending of season 2.
And just once more for those in the back: There is a lot of slo-mo. Like, a lot. Just fair warning.
(Note: Though I have referred to seasons 1, 2, 3, and 4 here, La Casa De Papel is officially described as having two seasons, each split into two parts. So while I have called this a review of ‘season 3’ it is actually a review of the first part of ‘Season 2’, in other words: ‘Part 3’. Netflix have reportedly already wrapped filming on the second part of the second season (‘Part 4’), and that is expected to hit the streaming service in 2020.)
Header Image Source: Netflix