I used to have a life.
It’s true. Not too long ago, I used to care about other things. I used to take interest in the state of the world. I used to read the news. I was a reasonably informed, socially engaged person. I used to have real, tangible human friends, with whom I’d have real, tangible interactions. I used to wake up in the morning and face the day with enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity. I was a well-adjusted adult, making my way through life with a certain degree of dexterity. I was fine. Things were fine.
That was before La Casa de Papel, the overwhelmingly addictive Spanish television series currently streaming on Netflix, entered my life.
Before I dove head-first into La Casa de Papel (known in English by the rather inelegant title “Money Heist,” which we will disregard for the purpose of this piece), I had only heard rumblings about it in the office. Whispers from enthralled colleagues about specific episodes in the show’s feverishly plotted arc. References to characters and story elements that flew right over my head. Quotes from the show in affected Spanish accents, like the password to some secret club. “It’s just like Breaking Bad”, some of them said. “It’s better than Breaking Bad,” others countered. I was skeptical. Breaking Bad was a landmark in serialized storytelling, and one of the most eminently binge-worthy shows ever made. How could this possibly measure up?
That was a week ago. That is to say: two seasons, twenty-two episodes, fifteen hours of television ago. It’d be a bit of an understatement to say that the show has won me over.
La Casa de Papel is a simple story told very effectively. It follows a group of criminals, led by mastermind “El Profesor” (Álvaro Morte, in an instantly classic performance), as they prepare for, and then execute, an ambitious and highly dangerous heist: they will break into the Royal Mint of Spain and print out €2.4 billion. The story is narrated through the point of view of one of these criminals, Tokio (played by Úrsula Corberó), and it takes a number of dramatic twists and turns through the course of its duration — to go into much more detail would be to spoil some of the more visceral moments in the series, which would be a serious disservice to a show like this. Suffice it to say, it would be a very boring show if everything went smoothly.
We’ve recently talked about the nature of binge-ready television. We’ve discussed the fact that part of what compels viewers to keep watching a show for hours on end — beyond the limits of social acceptability — is a personal investment in the story. Said investment is usually earned through a connection with either the characters (understanding their intents, motivations, and quirks; believing them as fully-realized, three-dimensional people, with discernible personality traits and inner lives) or the plot (finding a compelling dramatic conflict, and clearly understanding the elements at play). A show could pull off one off these two elements really well while completely botching the other, and remain perfectly watchable; but the shows that reach that level of feverish binge-worthiness are those that are able to effectively execute both.
La Casa de Papel accomplishes this thanks to a number of factors: its cast, which is uniformly great; clever and sympathetic writing which makes the effort to provide depth to characters that could easily be one-dimensional caricatures; effective plotting, ramping up the tension by placing a large portion of the story within a fairly short time-frame, thereby providing heightened stakes and increasing the show’s level of addictiveness. Though this might seem like an afterthought, the show also shines in its cinematography, which is consistently beautiful and cinematic. The fact that the creators paid such close attention to the aesthetics of this show only enhances the overall story, as it adds an impressionistic element to the storytelling.
It is important to point out that this is not a perfect show. There are moments, particularly toward the end, that stretch the limits of believability to an absurd degree. There is also an over-reliance on the cunning genius of Álvaro Morte’s Professor character; like Walter White before him, he is consistently one step ahead of everybody else, and always seems to be able to come up with solutions to the most dire situations. While this is certainly fun to watch, the fact that so much of the story hinges on a specific set of events going exactly the way the character planned does get somewhat tiresome after a while, and starts feeling like a bit of a cop-out.
Though originally described as a single season when it first aired in Spain, it is presented in Netflix as two separate sets of episodes. The creators have recently announced that a third part will be coming very soon. It is entirely possible that this was originally unplanned, and set in motion due to the overwhelming positive reaction to the show.
So was that one coworker correct? Is this better than Breaking Bad? Well, it’s too early to tell; if there’s more story to come, it would make sense to wait until the series is a bit further along before we put them side-by-side. Let’s also remember: Breaking Bad was an incredibly watchable show, and quite accomplished in number of ways, but also suffered from a slew of problems — the first half of season 4 really does not hold up, with long stretches that feel like characters are treading water.
For now, while I understand the comparison, I’m happy to judge La Casa de Papel by its own merit: it’s a tremendously addictive thrill ride that manages to resonate on a deeper level as a story about a group of fundamentally broken people rallying together for a cause that is greater than themselves. It’s smart, compelling, thoroughly entertaining, and not afraid to get a little ridiculous. Though I’m happy to be back in reality now that I’m done watching the show, I can comfortably say that those were fifteen hours well spent; I can’t wait to see where they take us next.
La Casa de Papel is currently streaming on Netflix. English subtitles are available.