Television

Money Heist Is the Anti–Ocean’s Eleven

The Netflix hit’s crew isn’t the best of the best, but their screw-ups are what makes the show great.

Five thieves in red jumpsuits spread out across the inside of a bank.
Money Heist. Tamara Arranz/Netflix

If the pleasure of a heist story is at least in part the joy of precision—of the enjoyable contrast when people with charismatically casual attitudes toward the law turn out to have brilliant discipline and eccentric microspecialties they bring to bear on the con—then Money Heist barely counts. The most popular TV show in the entire world, now in its fifth and final season on Netflix, absolutely relishes mess: physical, emotional, and bloody. The series about a ragtag group of thieves who go by the names of cities (Nairobi, Tokyo, Helsinki) loves not the specialists but the improvisers: the people who can do impromptu surgeries and wield Brownings and throw grenades. Handle hostages. Plant explosives. Deliver babies. Have panic attacks. Sure, it has a “Professor” (Álvaro Morte), the mastermind whose plans account for every contingency until they don’t. It has experts: a computer guy, a counterfeit money artist. But Money Heist—two seasons of which aired in Spain starting in 2017 before it was acquired by Netflix—doesn’t really champion their gifts. It loves them for their soft underbellies and their frequent, outrageous mistakes.

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This can be frustrating at first. If you start watching expecting a show about the tidy mind-blowing clockwork of a perfect atraco, as I did, you’ll find plenty of defects. The action sequences, for instance are abundant and silly, featuring almost parodically inconsequential hailstorms of bullets. So is the melodramatic style, which launches with a fatalistic narrator—Tokyo (Úrsula Corberó), traumatized and on the run after a bank heist gone wrong gets her boyfriend killed—and proceeds to toggle wildly between the heist and astonishingly inefficient flashbacks. Frankly, no one seems quite up to what they’re about to attempt—taking hostages in the Royal Mint of Spain and delaying the police for as long as they can in order to print as much money as possible. The genius Professor, who has gathered the crew in an old villa in the countryside to prepare, is nerdy and nervous and monastic. He’s the perfect opposite of cool, and the gang he’s recruited doesn’t seem exactly brilliant. One looks like a teenager, the two Serbs barely speak at first, and the father in a father-son team is explicitly concerned about his son’s stupidity. People fraternize despite the Professor’s strict instructions not to, and a hothead has within just a couple of hours of the heist’s beginning violated the Professor’s directive not to attack law enforcement. So much for the plan.

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That, strangely enough, starts to become the real pleasure of Money Heist. No one is particularly good at the roles the genre dictates they should play—not the police, not the military, and not the crooks. The brilliance of the Professor’s plan turns out to be its resilience to fuck-ups. He doesn’t despair when someone in the crew does something dumb, because he’s factored dumbness in. He fucks up, too. When the Professor enters into negotiations with Raquel (Itziar Ituño), the hostage negotiator, I expected an epic clash between two tactical grandmasters. And there is one, sort of: The Professor tries to throw her off by asking obscene questions (which he’s clearly uncomfortable with, but he’s trying to play a creepy Anonymous-type with the altered voice). She’s unfazed, and puts her long hair up into a bun whenever she’s about to address him, willing herself into a hard professional identity she can’t quite occupy. But these performances of adversarial competence start to fray because, this being Spain, Raquel keeps taking breaks from her job as a hostage negotiator to grab a sad cup of coffee or glass of wine at her local, where the Professor is also hanging out. Her mother has the beginnings of dementia, her ex-husband was abusive and wants custody of their daughter, and she’s trying to be the superwoman the genre clearly expects her to be—but she’s fragile, lonely, and careless. It will give you some idea of how weird this show is when I say that she ends up going on a date with the Professor—thinking he’s a nice guy—in the middle of the hostage negotiation. Me, watching: THIS IS NOT PROFESSIONAL! IT IS NOT HOW ANYONE IS SUPPOSED TO BEHAVE!

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But that’s sort of the point. My initial irritation that the police negotiator, a woman, was sometimes unforgivably dopey dissipated when I realized that in Money Heist, no gender has a monopoly on dopeyness. And after a while, I started to find these flashes of incompetence absolutely delightful. The mistakes are what make this more than a show about the smooth stealing of money. Here’s what distinguishes Money Heist from other heist stories, in my view. The Professor isn’t just working Raquel; he’s genuinely into her, too, and making bad decisions. Meanwhile, his team is stuck inside the Mint, making bad decisions of their own. It takes time to print all the money they want, and people don’t do well when they’re tired. The team starts getting pissy and unpredictable. They pull guns on each other because they’re cranky. Make painful confessions. Play mind games. Fall in love. Mutiny. Debate consent. The hostages have issues too, and the crew attends to them—up to and including requesting an abortion pill for a secretary, Monica (Esther Acebo), whose affair with her boss Arturo (Enrique Arce) is souring under the combination of the heist and the discovery that she’s pregnant.

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If this “heist” is starting to sound suspiciously like a telenovela, it should: We learn that certain parties are desperately ill, that others are filled with regret over past decisions. The show is a thousand times more interested in emotion than in technical brilliance or violence. Money Heist is like Game of Thrones in reverse. If the latter starts off killing characters and dispensing realistic consequences only to have diapered its principals in plot armor and illogic by the end, Money Heist transforms from a joyous and mostly deathless game into a grim quasi-apocalyptic reckoning. The beginning may be silly and the consequences slow to arrive, but come they do. So does the PTSD. The first heist is utopian, positing a plan so robust and forgiving of human error that it can withstand obstacles ranging from panic attacks to snipers and arrests and interrogations. The second heist breaks that capacious fantasy. The balance of telenovela to action shifts in favor of the latter. This darker world includes torture. The military gets involved. It’s a lot less fun.

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That the fifth season is deeply painful to watch is a function of how wonderful a game the show used to be. I haven’t yet mentioned the show’s most iconic contribution to pop culture: the red jumpsuit with the Salvador Dalí mask. This is the uniform the crew dons and forces all the hostages to wear. The idea—kind of an extension of Inside Man—is that the crew needs to be visually indistinguishable from the hostages so that law enforcement can’t tell them apart. There’s a leveling effect, and that confusion isn’t just tactical; it’s political. The Professor says in the first season that this is a war for hearts and minds. No blood can be spilled or they risk losing the public whose imagination they will (and do) capture—they are of the people, and they’re not stealing from anyone, not even the greedy banks the public bailed out. They’re just printing new money! It’s a victimless crime. This works. People like the gang and start lining up around the Mint dressed up like them in solidarity. For a time, at least, their presence limits what law enforcement can do.

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The funny thing is that the show exceeds its premise: the cute Money Heist concept, a riff on Guy Fawkes masks and Anonymous and our fascination with Robin Hoods, really is channeling public hostility toward a financial system that serves its own interests. The anti-fascist anthem “Bella Ciao,” which our thieves sing on their last night together before the ordeal begins, has become a protest anthem again around the world thanks to this show, and the Money Heist outfit, complete with Dali mask, has shown up at protests everywhere from Chile to Puerto Rico to Lebanon to Iraq.

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I’m not going to talk about the second heist—which encompasses seasons 3–5—since it’s still unfolding. But it’s worth mentioning that it begins because one member of the crew is bored of her luxurious but secure life on an island and wants to party. This is a pro-partying, pro-people show, and even its direst moments are leavened by flashbacks to happier times when the gang was sitting around drinking or singing or conspiring. Heists may be efficient, but Money Heist is not: The pleasure it takes in the group trumps the necessities of the plot. Not even the characters who paid the ultimate price disappear; the show loves them so much that one gets a whole prequel of a plotline in Season 5 that has yet to intersect with the main story. (Only the second half of Season 5 is now on Netflix; the final five episodes will arrive Dec. 3.).

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I’m not exactly interested in hailing Money Heist as a “great” show precisely because I think it argues, in its pleasurable, silly, and excessive way, against the tyranny of excellence. What I want to defend instead are its flaws and those of its characters. The implied “We are the 99%” message that endears the crew (and perhaps the show) to the public works precisely because the thieves aren’t even a little bit exceptional. Heists are usually about an elite, just differently defined. Money Heist isn’t. It revels in mediocrity and repeatedly, generously, forgives it. Sure, there are fights, but no one really blames anyone else for their fuck-ups, however catastrophic the consequences. If the traditional heist depends on a humbling and almost punitive theory of human supercompetence, Money Heist centers amnesty for its opposite.

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The startled actors, who never expected to become celebrities on this scale, are likely stuck being the goofy, delightful icons this show has made them. Money Heist’s refusal to glorify them as cool badasses equipped them with the ability to move audiences with their panic and indiscipline and joy and grief. A genre that’s typically about how experts can best exploit human frailty (that’s what cons do, after all) is instead pretty compassionate about how messed up everyone is and how many mistakes they make. If capitalism expects people to produce—if it expects competence—Money Heist is an anarchist effort, offering up a world where even the thieves take breaks.

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