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‘Money Heist: Seasons One and Two’ (review)

I must have scrolled past it a hundred times. Netflix always recommended it to me, and based on my viewing habits, it made sense. It’s an episodic crime drama; it’s a high-tech, high-end, robbery caper with guns and masks. What’s not to love?

It even had a cool title: Money Heist.

Sadly, I must admit the subtitles gave me pause. Don’t get me wrong, I love foreign content, but the notion of reading subtitles after a long day foolishly kept me away. Another reason I was hesitant, Money Heist was currently in its fourth season. Four seasons seemed too far beyond my reach even as a binge. I’d often hear that same complaint from people who were too slow to get onboard with Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, or The Wire. The level of commitment was simply too high.

But quarantine changed all that. And if one good thing comes out of this pandemic, other than my hopeful survival, it’s that I finally watched Money Heist.

Money Heist is a big hit for Netflix with an extremely loyal (and well-deserved) international fan base. It follows a group of thieves who set out to pull off the biggest single cash haul in the history of crime by hijacking the Royal Mint of Spain. The crime itself lasts the entire first two seasons, with each episode dedicated to a certain aspect of the caper. The show employs extremely familiar tactics in unfolding the drama, some of which are so familiar that the characters themselves comment on their obviousness. But more on that later.

Money Heist is told from the point of view of Tokyo, one of the two female members of the crew of colorful criminals.

In addition to Tokyo (the badass, super confident, hot-blooded male fantasy), there’s Rio (the handsome young hacker), Berlin (the cool and cold-blooded group leader), Moscow (tunnel expert), his son Denver (dumb and good-looking), the other female member of the group Nairobi (master counterfeiter), and the two huge muscled Serbian guys, Oslo and Helsinki (crowd control).

The eight of them meet as strangers, brought together under the watchful, fatherly eye of the caper’s mastermind, a man known to them only as The Professor. The Professor meticulously goes over every aspect of the greatest heist of all time with the group. Over the five months preceding the robbery, The Professor asks these strangers to become his family, and to trust him without question. The show often flashes back to his crime lessons revealing and justifying plot points along the way.

The Professor controls everything from the outside while the crew labors away within. He cleverly attempts to keep them one step ahead of the police at every turn. And there are plenty of twists and turns. The police, led by the cunning Lt. Raquel Murillo, play catch up most of the series.

This makes sense as it’s established from the beginning The Professor has thought of everything.

Or did he?

Murillo proves to be a worthy foil to The Professor, even though she’s constantly mired in work, and gender politics. It’s a good testament to both the writing of the show and the acting of Itzair Ituno as Murillo that I found myself rooting for her and The Professor at the same time.

If a lot of this sounds familiar, it should. It’s clear the show’s creator Alex Mira has paid homage, and sometimes liberally lifted, every bank robbery trope from Dog Day Afternoon to Reservoir Dogs. In addition to extremely well-known films like Spike Lee’s Inside Man, Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita, and Frank Darabont’s opus Shawshank Redemption, the show also borrows heavily from lesser known crime dramas like Brian Grant’s 1995 film The Immortals. Mira, much like myself, most likely spent a lot of time watching some pretty cool movies throughout the years. It’s fair to say if you are not familiar with the original source material of some of Money Heist’s cooler moments you will be thrilled by the series. If you are familiar, well…you’ll probably like it anyway.

The best heist dramas, involving slick high-tech criminals, always seem to have one thing in common: get out fast.

A staple of any great bank robbery film or TV show is hearing the masked thief yell, “Two minutes!” Get in, get out, turn the corner a second before the howling police car comes screaming from the other direction. The crime is about money, not murder. It’s hammered home over and over, guns make things go bad. But Money Heist isn’t about getting out fast, in fact it’s quite the opposite. Money Heist is about staying inside as long as possible.

That is the first place Money Heist takes an unfamiliar, and welcome, turn when it comes to the genre. It’s also the same place we realize the show is no longer only about money. While robbing the Royal Mint of Spain, or robbing anything that represents “sticking it to the man,” is romantic, taking 67 people hostage – including two pregnant women and a group of high schoolers – isn’t.

The hostages are forced to wear the same red coveralls and Salvador Dali masks as their captors.

To make matters worse they even appear armed, forcing the police into the impossible situation of possibly shooting the wrong person. Situate that with in-fighting among the criminals, power struggles, international implications, hostage mutiny, police politics, and several rather unlikely, and sometimes disturbing, love stories, and Money Heist is truly a show to remember.

One note about the “love” stories – although they are played in the high-octane style of the show, many of them have an underlying sadness. Desperate situations can produce desperate decision making. The very real Stockholm Syndrome is delved into in such a way that can only be described as controversial. Many relationship boundaries are crossed in highly questionable ways. In discussing this series with others, these remain the most talked about scenes.

The actors on the show are all fun to watch. In addition to the aforementioned Itzair Ituno as Murillo, Alvaro Morte, as The Professor, gives a standout performance as the level-headed leader. His calm demeanor is a welcome change from the all-alpha personalities of his band of robbers. Ursula Corbero also shines as Tokyo. It’s fun to watch her narrate the robbery while pointing out her character’s bad choices.

Another actor who gives an amazing performance is Pedro Alonzo as Berlin, a character so complex I found myself loving and despising his character throughout the show. Alonzo does a masterful job in not only getting you to love to hate his character, but also gets you to question hating him at all. I hope all the actors on the show end up working in Hollywood.

Although this is a review of the first two seasons, all four seasons are available on Netflix, as well as a documentary about the phenomenon of the show itself. I highly recommend it.

Fred Shahadi is a filmmaker, TV writer, and author of the sci-fi novel Shoot the Moon, living in Los Angeles.

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