Review: Netflix's 'Elite' is a Madly Addictive Teen Soap Opera Murder Mystery with Poignant Class and Racial Overtones (And Will There Be a Season 3?)
It is quite likely that should you give it a watch, you will hate 90 percent of the characters in the two seasons so far available of Élite.
There’s Guzmán (Miguel Bernardeau), the strutting and arrogant son of a rich and corrupt construction magnate. There’s Lucrecia (Danna Paola), the daughter of a wealthy Mexican diplomat, Guzmán’s partner and scathing mean girl. And then there’s Carla (Ester Expósito) and Polo (Álvaro Rico). She, the bleach blonde ice queen progeny of a marchioness and corrupt businessman; he, the spineless yet conceited son of Spanish arts and media royalty.
I could go on, but I think you get the picture. There are some common threads there. Not just eye-watering wealth, but truly repugnant personality traits—often, it must be said, those commonly associated with such levels of material means. Élite, Netflix’s Spanish-language hit, the first season of which debuted in October 2018, the second of which landed a month or so ago, takes place at Las Encinas, Spain’s most prestigious private school, and the characters that roam its halls are loaded and incredibly easy to hate. Las Encinas doesn’t actually exist in real life, but variations of it abound throughout the world—little oases of incredible wealth, windows into the halls of power—and they are populated by similar personalities as those on show here: Entitled, two-faced, psychopathic. And future masters of the world.
Which begs the question: Why the hell would you want to watch a show featuring people like this? Especially now? That was certainly what I found myself wondering when I first paused on its thumbnail on my Netflix homepage late last year and let the trailer run. I paused initially because I saw a familiar face or three in the thumbnail image. Élite shares a number of actors with one of my favourite shows of the moment, La Casa De Papel, and that was enough for me to linger and to let the trailer do its thing. Familiar faces or not, what I saw in the trailer would usually be enough to put me off immediately: Verdant and shiny school halls, house parties in ludicrously designed villas, interpersonal drama the likes of which can only ever exist when the every day pressures of normal life are simply not a concern—who even has time for Dangerous Liaisons-esque sexual games when you’re working two jobs just to put a nutritiously deficient dinner on the table for f**k’s sake?
So usually, faced with the surface trappings of what Élite seemed to be offering, I would’ve scrolled right past and carried on to more relatable stories about illiterate janitors and men who roam sewers with them searching for rings and coins. But I didn’t. There was something in that trailer that apparently called to me, which made me let the first episode play, and which led to me bingeing the first season of the show shortly after it was released last year and eventually doing the same for the second season last week. Why? What was it in this superficial-seeming narrative about horrible people who belong to a class I despise that got me so hooked?
There are some clues in the elevator pitch, which for Élite goes something like this: When the main building of their school collapses, three working-class kids get awarded scholarships to attend Las Encinas, the most prestigious private school in Spain. The scholarships are sponsored by the construction company to blame for the school’s collapse. At Las Encinas, the three kids—soft-spoken Samuel (Itzan Escamilla), boisterous Christian (La Casa De Papel’s Miguel Herrán), and studious Nadia (Mina El Hammani)—quickly find themselves thrown into a world of aristocratic intrigue, backstabbing, and sexual mind games unlike anything they have seen before. At the same time, the viewer is treated to a series of flash-forwards, to a detective conducting one-on-one interviews with all the students of Las Encinas, in the process of investigating the murder of one of their classmates—popular girl Marina (María Pedraza, also from La Casa De Papel’s), mercurial personality and daughter of the construction magnate responsible for the school collapse. As the school year winds on and the three kids get drawn inexorably further into the world of Las Encinas, we get closer and closer to discovering who might have murdered Marina, and why. The first season of the show revolves around this fulcrum, with the follow-up exploring the aftermath of the act, as well as the apprehension of a suspect and another mystery added to the mix.
So then the answer as to why Élite is so supremely watchable, despite the many repugnant personalities on show, is threefold: 1. The murder mystery is compelling as hell, 2. The class (and racial—Nadia is Palestinian and Muslim) commentary is scathingly critical of the powerful, and 3. The writing—especially as it pertains to the characters—is fantastic. Overall the story being told is at times gripping, lurid, touching, devastating, and cathartic.
The generic structure of the show unfolds thus: Each episode is framed by and intercut with the flash-forwards to the investigation into Marina’s death, with the body of the plot taking place in the present day, slowly weaving the three working-class kids into the fabric of Las Encinas. Personalities and motivations are slowly teased out. Marina is one of the first of the snobs to actually talk (and not talk down to) the new arrivals, and Samuel finds himself falling for the (to him) exotic free spirit. (A quick reassurance here: Marina is no Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She has a fully fleshed-out backstory and personality that exists quite independently of Samuel. In fact the show’s depiction of Samuel’s infatuation is closer to the generous interpretation of 500 Days Of Summer: Delusion, entitlement, and toxic masculinity feature heavily.) As Samuel falls further for Marina and as Nadia and Christian find themselves coping in their own ways with their burgeoning dramas, the usual social orbits of Las Encinas shift around these disruptors of the norm. They are disruptors purely by virtue of their class status, of course, but also thanks to the way they exercise their agency and refuse to be cowed one way or the other by this hive mind organism seeking to asserts its superiority. A sprawling web of complex motivations and allegiances and romances is gradually teased out, and as the end game nears, the show plays with your sympathies and suspicions in such a way that you might as well be a student caught in the middle of all of this too—I guarantee your main suspect for Marina’s murder will bounce from character to character almost hourly. There are reveals, counter-reveals, red herrings, and slo-mo, pop-scored shocks aplenty here.
What I said at the outset about 90% of the characters in Élite being thoroughly unlikable remains true throughout the series. There is only a handful of personalities here that I would be happy to know in real life: Nadia; her closeted, drug dealer brother Omar (played truly wonderfully by Omar Ayuso); Samuel’s fiery ex-con older brother Nano (another La Casa De Papel main player, the reliably great Jaime Lorrente); Rebeka (Claudia Salas, hilarious and magnetic)—a cocky and intelligent young woman introduced in season 2 and who isn’t what she initially seems—and maybe Ander (Arón Piper, wonderfully soulful in an understated way), the son of the Las Encinas principal, who slowly begins to explore and accept his sexuality throughout the first season and who suffers under the oppressive expectations of a father obsessed with his son’s tennis talents. Yet despite this relative paucity of what one might traditionally consider sympathetic characters, Élite pulls off one hell of a trick in the writer’s room. It makes you care about everyone. Even when you hate them, you at least understand them, and—often, not always—you empathise too. Even the most hateful characters have moments of real pathos. Consequence follows action, and each of these people, as liberated as they are economically, are trapped within a spider’s web of toxic nonsense fomented by their status and the values they have been inculcated with. Sure, a lot of the drama here is kicked off by the presence of the working class interlopers, but had they not appeared, something else would likely have lit the fuse.
Because this I think is why, above all else, the show succeeds. Yes, the cinematography is often quite gorgeous, the interpersonal drama juicy, and the murder mystery always compelling. But all those things take a back seat to what seems to me to be its central thesis: That bountiful wealth is a pathology. I can’t pretend to read series creators Carlos Montero and Darío Madrona’s minds, but this is the message that was communicated to me. What’s more is that thanks to the incredibly well-drawn, three-dimensional characters—all of whom are, let’s not forget, children, with no agency or say over their birth circumstances—the show has a more ambitious formulation of that message than simply ‘Rich People Bad’. As with most things, that kind of individualistic analysis is of limited value. Élite instead goes for the systemic jugular, showing us that the entire system that makes rich people possible in the first place is rotten, and not just for those unlucky souls on the wrong side of the tracks: That there is something inherent in the very nature of being rich that is toxic too. Like the patriarchy, wealth poisons all. We meet all these unlikeable kids just as their adult identities are in the process of forming. They are still figuring out their place in all of this. Like all kids, all they know is what they have seen and what they have been told—explicitly and implicitly. And for them that is, ‘You deserve everything. You are better than everyone else. You were born to rule.’ Now, I’m no psychologist, but it seems to me that that kind of conditioning ain’t gonna lead to a healthy, socially well-adjusted mind. Every report that hits the news these days about the wealthy lacking dramatically in things like empathy seems to validate that.
As riveted as I was with all the storytelling, the drama, and the uniformly excellent performances in Netflix’s Élite, this was a bit of a conundrum for me at first. I didn’t feel great watching the show until I figured out that this was what it was trying to say. It’s by no stretch of the imagination a revolutionary or new idea of course—dear lord, the rich might not be all that happy after all!—but Élite fits neatly into this grand tradition of critiques that seem at times to be enamoured with the lifestyles of the wealthy before revealing how despite their economic privilege they often find themselves trapped in lives akin to ornate baubles decorated with baroque filigree and filled with meaningless, noxious distraction. Thankfully, the show also has Samuel, Nadia, Christian, and the others from their neighbourhood. Élite is written in such a way that if it was a novel these would be its point of view characters. Their lived experience, and the perspective they bring to the warped world of Las Encinas, makes the narrative as successful as it is. In fact Élite deserves special mention here for the way it treats the working-class experience without a patronising air, and for the way it treats its Muslim characters with sensitivity and respect. Nadia and Omar come from a humble, relatively conservative yet loving family, and the show doesn’t shy away from exploring how tricky it can be for first-generation immigrants and their children to navigate their adopted cultures in their quest to find the balance that works for them.
You can watch the trailer for season 1 here. I wouldn’t recommend watching the one for season 2 until after you finish the first season.
Seasons 1 and 2 of Élite are streaming on Netflix now. The show has already been renewed for a third season that is likely to hit some time in late 2020.
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