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One Good Thing: Money Heist, a joyful TV series about fighting the system

Known as “Casa de Papel” in Spanish, the show has inspired real-life protests.

In July 2020, employees dressed in Casa de Papel-inspired garb protest the closure of a Nissan factory in Barcelona where 3,000 people are employed.
Marcos del Mazo/LightRocket via Getty Images

Rarely has a TV show inspired such widespread, global rebellion as Casa de Papel. Set in Madrid, the now-five-part series tells the story of a group of robbers who steal from Spain’s Royal Mint and, later, the Bank of Spain, taking hostages along the way. The whole thing is conceived and led by “El Profesor,” the almost improbably smart and well-organized fatherly figure who hatches and directs the greatest robbery Spain has ever seen. Twice.

I’m not usually into straight action sequences, but the ones in Money Heist, as it’s called in English, are infused with the running themes of the show: love, friendship, bravery, and, most importantly, resistance. Gunfire-ridden combat is interspersed with rousing monologues from the women protagonists who do more for la revolución than any of the macho displays of physical dominance — which is lucky because there’s substantial badass feminist energy in this show.

What’s unique and ultimately most inspiring about Money Heist is its revolutionary impact on real-world protests. In the series, citizens line the streets surrounding the Royal Mint and the Bank of Spain, chanting their support for the robbers and booing the state’s violent policing tactics. In real life, protesters in countries such as Lebanon, Iraq, France, and others have borrowed motifs from the show in their struggles for liberation, police abolition, anti-authoritarianism, and anti-capitalism.

In the first season, I clapped my hands together in glee when I realized the robbers, who are all codenamed after cities, blagged their way inside the physical root of capitalism’s inequality. Of all places for a heist, the Royal Mint! I practically jumped off my couch when it became clear they were there to do more than just steal money — they were going to print it. Then, in season three, they decide to drop €140 million of it from an inflatable hovercraft over Madrid’s most crowded shopping street.

The show’s main downfall is its omission of racial and gender analysis, both in the fictional world of Money Heist and in the casting. There is no mention of how race and class intersect, despite the whole plot revolving around anti-capitalism and anti-authoritarianism. This is no small exclusion; it is a fundamental flaw of the show. This also carries over to the casting: The character Nairobi is the only person of color in the entire show (the actor who plays her, Alba Flores, is of Romani heritage); and the character Manila, who is trans, is played by a cisgender actor. These pitfalls render the show a shamefully incomplete take on the issues it otherwise portrays so accurately and poignantly.

Each new note the robbers produce becomes a symbolic act of defiance. They prove the superficiality of wealth creation and the ease of redistribution in a world of class hierarchies, where this gang has often found itself at the bottom. Moscow, for example, is a working-class Asturian miner whose wife left him and his son Denver (also a member of the gang) amid a haze of drug addiction. Moscow’s participation in the heist is driven by his desire for a better life for himself and his son, a way out of the grueling mining life and a chance to move up the socioeconomic ladder.

Nairobi, an inimitable powerhouse, is a single mom living in poverty who sells drugs to pay for living expenses. Upon discovering this, a child services agency takes away her son and prohibits her from visiting him. Her commitment to the heist is rooted in her belief that, armed with the thousands of euros they’re set to print and steal, she can get him back. Her enthusiasm as she directs the hostages in printing the bills is underpinned by an ardent conviction that she can defy the power structures that led to having her child taken away. Her money is her power. In what is undoubtedly my favorite scene of the entire series, she beams from ear to ear, encouraging and praising the hostages’ efforts as she recites her motto, “Joy, party, and hope!”

A man in a Salvador Dalí mask protests President Sebastian Piñera’s government in Santiago, Chile, in October 2019.
Claudio Santana/Getty Images

The way these messages have influenced protests is clear in how frequently the robbers’ eye-catching costume of bright-red jumpsuits and masks have been making appearances at protests around the world. Additionally, the show has revived the old antifascist Italian protest anthem “Bella Ciao,” which appears at crucial moments of success and defiance. It’s long been considered a protest anthem in many parts of the world — in Iran, in Turkey, and on Wall Street — but the show has really brought it to a wider public.

Of course, it is in Italy that the song’s significance is felt deepest. Matteo Salvini, the leader of the ultra-right-wing nationalist political party Lega Nord, seems to be, quite hilariously, met by crowds singing it at him wherever he goes — on the bus, at markets, during speeches. It also accompanies many other progressive movements in Italy and beyond: Poojan Sahil’s Punjabi version of the song has gone viral in India, the video set against the backdrop of the Indian farmers’ protests, which remain ongoing.

In the show, the song has also been used in celebratory moments, like when Moscow discovers he has reached the soft soil layer of the escape tunnel he’s been digging. The various members of the team join him one by one, belting out the song together in exaltation. The most poignant performance of “Bella Ciao” comes in the season one finale, where we see El Profesor and Berlin sing it together in a flashback to the night before the heist begins. Tears stream down Berlin’s face in defiant anticipation of success. The moment was so emotional, I felt my own tears fall as well.

In real life, a particularly moving piece of footage shows migrants rescued by the NGO Open Arms as they sing “Bella Ciao,” jumping up and down in joy and relief at having reached dry land in Barcelona. In March 2020, when Italy began to suffer the highest number of Covid-19 deaths in Europe, a community in the German town of Bamberg performed the song from their own rooftops in solidarity, another moment that brought tears to my eyes.

In 2020, Nissan employees in Spain took to the streets dressed as the Casa de Papel characters to protest the government’s decision to close Nissan plants across the country. They were also drawing attention to something bigger: the rights of workers and the imbalance of power between corporate elites and employees.

Puerto Ricans donned the same costumes to call for the resignation of corrupt Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, using the adage “Somos la puta resistencia,” which translates to “We are the fucking resistance” — a reference to a speech made by El Profesor in season three, combined with arguably the most iconic line in the whole five seasons, the Nairobi quote “Soy la puta ama” — “I’m the fucking boss.” (Okay, so it’s a bit more profound in Spanish.)

The notion of police and state corruption has been a longstanding element of Spanish life. 15-M is the country’s anti-austerity movement, said to have inspired Occupy Wall Street. Beginning on May 15, 2011, (which is where the name 15-M comes from) following a huge economic crash, protests took place in the center of Madrid and elsewhere in the country to demand better living conditions, welfare and employment support, and an end to political corruption.

Although Casa de Papel came out several years after 15-M began, the movement is considered an attitude in Spain, a way of existing in society in resistance to austerity and exploitation. As someone with a background in social justice work, I find it arduous and frustrating to watch shows that replicate harmful socioeconomic structures, such as those that praise cops and the military without any reference to the violence and destruction they leave in their wake. It is beautiful to see the kinds of anti-state ideals discussed within activist circles being depicted in one of Netflix’s most popular series of all time. The second part of season five — slated to be the show’s final season — is set to release on December 3. Here’s hoping that the series can inspire more revolutions, more resistance, and more liberation in the years to come.

Money Heist is streaming on Netflix. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.

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