03 Dec Money Heist and the Unpaid Debts to Spanish Rule of Law
[Marion Carrin is an Attorney from the Paris Bar and Legal Consultant before international courts and tribunals.]
When it first aired on Spanish television in 2017, “La Casa de Papel” instantly became an outstanding success. When Netflix decided to broadcast it, under the English title “Money Heist,” the triumph grew worldwide to a point where it became the most popular non-English speaking series of the streaming platform for 2018, not even mentioning the multiple awards it received. After the two original seasons, additional episodes were ordered and the series finale will air later this year, on 3rd December. The present article will only explore the first two original seasons as the subsequent plot takes a different road regarding the themes explored in this post and has been considered of a lower interest. In 2020, it was announced that a South Korean remake of Money Heist was in preparation. It is scheduled for release in 2022.
The idea of making a remake for a South Korean audience is actually understandable. Money Heist is so grounded in Spanish history that a true transposition to other parts of the world, instead of mere subtitles, would make it more relatable for a non-European audience. One cannot understand the challenges set by Money Heist without knowing about Spain, its culture, its history and its transition to democracy. It is therefore expected that the South Korean adaptation will be more connected to the regional context.
A Spanish Tale
Money Heist takes place in a post 2011 Spain, and as we will find out later on, not necessarily the real and current Spain. However, to fully understand the show, the context of recent Spanish history needs to be recalled. From the end of the civil war in 1939 until 1977, Spain was ruled by the dictatorship instituted by General Francisco Franco, based on national-catholic doctrine, framed by the military and infamous for its tireless repression of freedoms and opposition. The Spanish transition to democracy is generally considered to have taken place between Franco’s death in 1975 and 1977, when the first free elections were held. The last visible aftermath of the Dictature, that gained worldwide attention, was the attempted coup led by Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero on 23 February 1981 that resulted in a shooting in the Congress of Deputies (Palacio de las Cortes). The Spanish transition actually lasted until at least 1982, a necessary period of time to erase more than 35 years of authoritarian regime and political culture.
One of the most decisive features of the transition, and probably the most well-known of, remains the Law on Amnesty (Ley de Amnistia) that prevented any possibility to bring to justice the individuals suspected of having committed crimes during the Dictature. The law was of such magnitude that it completely shaped the Spanish transition to democracy: a transition where the best interest of the State was deemed greater than the millions of individual sufferings, a transition where collective reparations were preferred to personal accountability and, finally, a transition that left the Spanish people deeply frustrated by a Rule of Law that did not deliver what they expected. Even the Law on Historical Memory, adopted in 2007, failed at responding to persistent criticism at the thousands of cases left unopened by a regime that undermined the very concept of “justice” in “transitional justice”. But the society had definitely not said its last word.
From 1980 onwards, Spain has made an intense and unprecedented cultural revolution, known as “La Movida”. All arts were impacted by the new wave of freedom, liberalization and protest going through the society. It would be complex and pointless to establish an exhaustive list of all the authors, painters, film-makers and composers who participated to the movement, but it has for sure totally redefined the Spanish arts to the point of creating a concept of “transitional culture”, implementing for long the idea that culture is subversive per se and should embrace the so sought-after prerogative to criticize power and Spanish traditional values. Even if the term “Movida” is reserved to cultural initiatives of the 80’s and 90’s, its influence continues to impact artistic works as of today.
The connection to transitional justice would not be difficult to establish. Spanish culture expressed what the new democratic regime had attempted to repress with the Law on Amnesty, and what could not exist through trials existed through arts. With the explosion of popular culture, TV shows would be no exception to this phenomenon.
The Story Behind the Hit
Money Heist does not feature a very original scenario, as the title suggests. A group of outlaws and their leader, presented as “The Professor”, attempt to rob the Royal Mint of Spain (Fábrica Nacional de Moneda y Timbre) in the most spectacular and well-prepared plan in the history of money heists. This first plot gets solved at the end of Season 2. Seasons 3, 4 and 5 feature the consequences of the initial operation.
Money Heist has been awarded for the quality of its acting, the tension in the interactions between the robbers and the police, and the multiple plot twists punctuating the scenario. But it has also gained popularity for its symbolism. The show constantly makes references to very specific events framing the idea that the heist is not simply a heist. It comes with greater motives than greed and greater consequences than robbery.
The most obvious allusion is made by The Professor himself when referring to the Anti-Austerity Movement of 2011 in Spain (Los Indignados). During several days, in the aftermath of the financial crisis and recession, a crowd of demonstrators occupied the Puerta del Sol Square in Madrid in protest against the austerity measures the Spanish Government aimed at implementing. The Professor uses that reference under a two-sided reasoning, explaining that, on the first hand, the Spanish people would side with the robbers as they can relate to the transgression they perform, while on the other hand, the police would not intervene to stop them, as they did not intervene in 2011, because the people had sided with the protestors. It may seem too easy as a justification for what remains a criminal enterprise, but the Professor emphasizes that they are not robbing people. They are actually not even robbing an institution as they use the Royal Mint to print out their own money, money that belongs to no one as it does not even exist yet. No matter how far from reality the argument may be, it is the most obvious reference to recent major events of Spanish politics that help setting an analysis of the show. Going further, symbolism plays a major part in showing the audience why the whole operation transcends the private interests of gang members.
First, the distinctive suits worn by the robbers have become extremely popular in pop culture. Red jumpsuits and Dali masks enable the viewer to identify the gang easily. When questioned about the reason behind the choice of Salvador Dali’s face for the mask, The Professor explains that no one could be scared of a painter. However, a mask with a famous face on it can also refer to the movie “V for Vendetta” and the Guy Fawkes masks that later became a feature of the protest group “Anonymous”. In the movie, the choice of the Fawkes masks was justified by British history, in the same way a Dali mask is closely connected to Spanish history. Salvador Dali has indeed been widely criticized for his ambiguous acquaintances with Franco, which has made him a controversial character of Spanish arts. In particular, Dali addressed glowing congratulations to Franco, in 1975, soon before the latter died, for his actions aiming at protecting Spain from independence movements. As of today, it remains unclear whether these congratulations were genuine or ironic, Dali being an eccentric and provocative character. In any case, choosing his face for the visual representation of the protagonists of Money Heist cannot be seen as innocent.
On a side note, it is interesting to notice that the symbols of red suits and masks have been adapted by the recently released South Korean show Squid Game, but in a kind of reversed symbolism. If Money Heist tells the story of a group of people willingly establishing a plan to make money together, Squid Game introduces a group of people forced to act together to win a cash prize that will only benefit one of them. Reversed scenario hence comes with reversed symbolism: while, in Money Heist, the suits and the masks identify the gang members, in Squid Game, they are the attributes of the jailers, enforcing the order to maintain the participants in the game and killing those who lose.
Second, Money Heist has brought back the long-forgotten song “Bella Ciao”. At the end of Season 1, it is revealed that this song has particular importance for The Professor and it becomes the most significant and even obsessive theme of Season 2. “Bella Ciao” is a protest song celebrating the Italian partisans during World War II. It stands as a symbol of anti-fascism, resistance and self-sacrifice for a better future. Again, the choice of focusing the musical identity of the show on a partisan song cannot be neutral. If “Bella Ciao” constitutes a reference limited to two characters in Money Heist, including The Professor, it actually reveals that their motives in performing a spectacular robbery are less related to greed than they are to a search for justice.
Third and finally, the character’s nicknames are far from being neutral. In order to protect their anonymity throughout the operation, the protagonists chose pseudonyms during Episode 1. The leader is known as The Professor while the other gang members decide to identify with city names: Tokyo, Berlin, Rio, Nairobi, etc. Once again, there is no coincidence in the choice of the cities. Almost all of them are capitals of States which have dealt with or are currently dealing with transitional justice processes, with the exception of Stockholm and Helsinki. Ironically, the latter are Serbs, which gives them an even more direct bound to conflict and post-conflict situations, as if adding a reference through their names would have been superfluous.
Segmented Struggles for the Common Good
Resistance against the Franco regime in Spain has never been unified. After the end of the Civil War and until the 1950’s, it was even hardly existent or highly ineffective. The most notable resistance stronghold was the region of Asturias, one of the last ones to fall under Franco’s troops and where the last fighters turned to rural guerilla. However, during the second part of the 20th Century, a more organized dissidence started flourishing through independentism movements in Catalonia and the Basque Country. Historians have agreed that the main feature of the Franco regime was totalitarianism. Consistently, the most concrete opposition had to come from territorial and cultural claims, challenging the State to its core: unity. The regime retaliated strongly against independentists, including through extra-judiciary executions and summary trials such as the Burgos Trials in 1970, but it could never override them.
Here again, symbolism is strong. We do not know much about the gang members’ origins, except for Moscow, who appears to be a former digger of the Asturias. Being the eldest, he symbolizes the first opposition to the dictatorship, passing on the fight to the younger robbers, including his own son, Denver.
A deeper look into the dynamics of the plot reveals parallel structures between the Spanish resistance to Franco and the heist in itself, both involving segmented struggles. By comparing Money Heist to Squid Game, we have already explained that, by opposition to the latter, the former introduces the audience to a group of people acting together in a common enterprise. Each character’s interest, at the beginning of the show, is selfish and trivial: they look for their own good, following their own motives and escaping their own past. However, with the plot unfolding and obstacles coming through their ways, they start chasing a new end, one different from their initial goals and that overcomes the sum of such individual goals: surviving together and getting out of the heist as a group. This justifies that radical measures may be adopted to preserve the group, such as when they decide to surrender Tokyo because she represents a threat to the success of the heist.
Nairobi’s iconic phone call announcing to The Professor “let the matriarchy begin” is one striking illustration . Nairobi resents the idea of taking power over Berlin until she realizes he might lead the whole group to their death. Her affirmation as the new leader is hence not presented as the achievement of her alleged lust for power, but more as an essential step for the heist to be carried out to its term.
In this regard, Money Heist follows a pattern comparable to the events that led to the end of the Franco Regime. Independentist movements played a major part in the opposition to the military dictatorship. Their fights were originally segmented: Catalans fought for the independence of Cataluña, for instance. It is only during the 1970’s that they grouped with other resistance groups, such as the communist party and trade unions, when they realized concerted actions were the key to democracy, and possibly independence – although reality proved different.
A Spain of No King
Throughout the show, it is striking to notice that the King of Spain, and the monarchy in general, are never mentioned. The highest authority of the executive is referred to as “the President”, i.e. “the President of the Government” (Presidente del Gobierno de Espana). Both an institutional and a trivial factors may explain this silence in Money Heist, but more importantly, it invites the audience to consider a Spain that may not be the actual State of Spain.
On an institutional level, the King of Spain has kept very limited political powers from the transition. If Franco had designated King Juan Carlos I as his successor, the transition has turned Spain into a constitutional monarchy, reducing the King’s prerogatives to a minimum, strictly defined by articles 56 to 65 of the 1978 Constitution. The real power being exercised by the government and its President, it is unsurprising that none of the characters refer to the monarchy when discussing the decisions to be made at the highest levels of the State.
On a more trivial level, when the show was written and made, King Juan Carlos I was not as popular as he used to be at the first hours of the Spanish transition. Several political and financial scandals tarnished the end of his reign, to the point that he abdicated in June 2014, and even relocated from Spain in 2020, which has been sometimes interpreted as flight from potential prosecution on charges of corruption. Considering that financial scandals also impaired other members of the royal family, the authors of Money Heist may have considered that references to the monarchy were not welcome anymore. However, one cannot help but wonder whether such references would not have been very relevant to the scenario for that specific reason. The Professor often digresses about social justice and unwarranted privileges. Attacking the crown under that angle may seem like an easy step for robbers trying to sugarcoat their heist with social ambitions, but it seems even more bizarre to never mention the crown.
In reality, Money Heist has created a unique alternative reality where the audience is invited to imagine the Spain they wish to consider: it has defined a paradigm in which the monarchy does not exist. And if it does not exist, what is Spain in Money Heist? The interpretations remain opened, but another element of the scenario may provide a clue. It is the gang’s project from the start to flee through Portugal so as to reach international waters. If Portugal has a seafront on the Atlantic Ocean, so does Spain. The reason why they intend to flee through Portugal and not through the Oceanic Spanish regions is never mentioned, and hence, remains a question mark. One could imagine that in the show, Spain is not the unified State as we know it. It may have split into several entities, more or less easy to access, which would justify the choice of Portugal to leave. Portugal being a Member State of the European Union, it could be assumed that, in a fragmented Spain, what remains of it would be located around Madrid and Toledo, the main towns where the show takes place. In this hypothesis, the Oceanic regions may not be part of the European Union anymore. It would therefore be easier for the protagonists to reach Portugal before departing from Europe.
It is certainly a far-fetched interpretation, but the beauty of creating a show in which the monarchy is never mentioned is that, ultimately, it does not exist under this paradigm and Spain could be anything.
Colonel Tamayo and the Remains of the Franco Regime
Every plot needs an antagonist, a villain, a character who stands against the protagonists in an attempt to undermine their quest. In a show like Money Heist, there is no surprise in disclosing that the police as a whole represents the general antagonist of the gang. It however needs to refined.
Colonel Tamayo is the Head of the Spanish Secret Services. He is introduced early in the show as a brutal and sexist character. He frequently adopts a misogynistic attitude toward Raquel Murillo, the detective in charge of freeing the hostages. More symbolically, he is always accompanied by a woman, who is assumed to be his assistant, but who is never heard during the show. She simply follows him everywhere like a ghost who does not seem to be authorized to speak. Besides, he is the one initiating every violent action against the gang, trying to enter the Royal Mint by force and not hesitating to trade one important hostage for the rest of them. Tamayo carries on his brutal actions throughout the show and only accepts to step back for a brief moment when these actions spectacularly fail. He is the true antagonist.
In this regard, Tamayo represents the former institutions of the Franco Regime struggling to remain in power and to maintain the dictatorship during the transition. The fact that he belongs to the military and commands over the Secret Services is a direct reference to the Spanish military who refused the transition and attempted a coup on 23 February 1981. Therefore, the gang gradually realize that their true enemy is not the police detective apparently in charge of ending the heist, but Tamayo himself, as he seizes every opportunity to overcome Murillo’s authority. Finally, although he never seems to question his own actions or belief, it is later revealed during Season 3 that he suffers from PTSD following the events of Seasons 1 and 2. Tamayo is never held accountable for the decisions he made at that time, like the members of the Franco Regime benefiting from the law on Amnesty. However, he developed a syndrome commonly found in transitional contexts, once acknowledging his own failures.
Money Heist deserves its success on all levels. The plot, albeit classical, remains consistent enough for the plot twists to preserve the suspension of disbelief. The characters are rich in details and endearing enough for the audience to root for them. The esthetics of the show is probably unprecedented in Spanish television. But most importantly, Money Heist is a Spanish tale of yesterday, today and tomorrow, a multi-dimensional reference to transitional justice through the eyes of nine outlaws, apparently driven by selfish interest, who ultimately confront the last remains of the Spanish dictature, opening a path to a better and brighter future for everyone.