Money Heist, originally “La Casa de Papel” is a Spanish series which premiered in May of 2017, airing on a national TV channel before being picked up by streaming giant Netflix for global distribution at the end of that same year. Dwindling in popularity in its native airwaves, since being added to the Netflix catalogue the show absolutely exploded, its iconography became transnational and its themes spoke to a seemingly endless variety of groups of people with whom Money Heist’s notions of resistance and defiance resonated deeply. The series sparks both vocal criticism and diehard admiration, but regardless of whatever position towards its content, it’s undeniable that Money Heist brought new life to a genre which had failed to deliver in a long, long time and in doing so, it also exposed audiences to a kind of emotionality which dramatically differs from the Anglo-American norms. Because of this, for some, Money Heist may be hard to get into at first, but once you learn to just sit back and buckle up for the ride, it’s well worth getting lost in its high stakes world of cat and mouse games, whirlwind romances and prominently displayed middle fingers to the system.
Warning: this article contains SPOILERS for the first four seasons of Money Heist.
“La Casa de Papel” is the story of a daring plan to steal almost two and half billion – yes that’s billion, with a B – Euros (so close to three billion USD) without taking a dime out of anyone’s pocket. How to steal a ridiculous amount of money that doesn’t actually belong to anybody? Well, you simply print it at the Fábrica Nacional de Moneda y Timbre, Spain’s mint. The Professor, the plan’s mastermind and Money Heist’s adorkable leading man puts together a team of eight – initially anonymous – robbers (with city names for aliases) to occupy the Royal Mint in Madrid for days, continuously printing bills while using a group of hostages and a series of cunning plans drenched in clever twists and misdirection to keep the police from storming the place. The Professor’s gang is composed of Tokyo, whose job is to…uh…well, I don’t actually know what she’s supposed to do, she just generally gets in the way and screws up; Moscow, a former miner turned thief who also brings his impetuous son Denver into the team; Oslo and Helsinki, cousins and former Serbian soldiers, the muscle for the operation; Rio, the young computer whiz; Nairobi, a high energy, no-nonsense, speak her mind no matter the consequences career counterfeiter and the only one in the gang who actually works during the heist; and Berlin, the in situ leader of the operation and probably the nicest, most charming psychopath in recent television history. Sporting the now world famous red jumpsuits and Salvador Dali masks, The Professor’s gang spend two seasons eluding Inspector Raquel Murillo, whom in season 3 ends up joining the gang as “Lisbon”, shacking up with The Professor in a classic yet satisfying enemies to lovers plotline. After making a clean getaway with almost a billion Euros at the end of season 2, the surviving members of the gang get back together to return to Spain in order to rescue Rio who’s been arrested and tortured, as well as make a statement by, you guessed it, carrying out another crazy heist, this time targeting the national gold reserves at the Bank of Spain’s vault.
The Professor’s character really makes the show work. Álvaro Morte does a fantastic job at portraying the quiet, awkward, nerdy genius who’s not just a great strategist, considering almost every possible outcome to each of his plans, but also a great improviser who can think on his feet when his back is against the wall. The Professor steps nicely into the Clark Kent/Superman realm of character metamorphosis; usually shy and isolated, The Professor fully embraces a bold, confident, risk taking persona when negotiating with the police or when he find himself in a jam. When watching Money Heist, you do really buy into this complex character and you want him and his wild plans to succeed. Unfortunately though, keeping the jittery, hot-headed gang under control is the equivalent of herding cats and things keep going wrong every five minutes.
But this is, after all, a car site and not the place for a full review of the show, so let’s focus on The Professor’s ride: a humble 1992 Seat Ibiza, complete with mismatched side-view mirrors. Now, if the Seat brand is unfamiliar to you, that’s not surprising because it’s the only major Spanish car manufacturer today and although it does export to many countries, volume falls comprehensible short of, for instance, the American giants. The first couple of decades of the company’s history were spent essentially rebadging Fiats, but by the early 80’s Seat was ready to step things up and a partnership with Volkswagen allowed the company to launch its big, breakthrough model: the Ibiza.
Designed by the legendary Giorgetto Giugiaro at Italdesign, with bodies prepared for production by Karmann and a series of engines and gearboxes developed in partnership with Porsche, the Ibiza wasn’t a half-assed patchwork car from a regional manufacturer, but a serious bet on Seat’s future. You see, after the deal that the company had with Fiat fell apart, Seat was under very serious risk of simply being dissolved; if the Ibiza failed, it would be curtains for the manufacturer. However, the car was a success from the start.
With a price at launch in 1984 of just over 4.900 Euros (then still the equivalent Pesetas), the Ibiza was cheap, it was well made, having gone through testing in North Africa and Sweden in order to find out how the materials used in the car would deal with extreme temperatures and it was also well equipped. A year and a half into production and the Ibiza started to come out of the line with power locks, power windows, even air conditioning was an option. Now you may be thinking, what’s the big deal, that’s all pretty basic stuff for any 70’s car, let alone a mid eighties one. Well, not so in Spain…or Europe in general. Cars in the old continent didn’t mature the same way American ones did. The U.S. was cash flushed, people had purchasing power and manufacturers could go wild with the options and extras. The public got accustomed to being offered a certain level of equipment and anything below that simply didn’t sell well. As such, almost everything is electric or automatic in American cars since the mid to late 50’s. However, for decades, cars in Europe – especially Southern Europe – were, in a very real way, luxury items. They were expensive and out of reach for large portions of the population. Funny enough, in a parallel and quite paradoxical way, these “luxury items” were also largely bare bones models. Even if you had the money to buy a car, that didn’t translate into it being a good car or that there were any comforts whatsoever in it. I own two European 90’s cars for instance and between the two, there isn’t a single extra or power anything to be found.
Interestingly though, this tells us something about our leading man, The Professor (whose real name by the way is Sergio Marquina). Although we don’t know much about Sergio’s finances pre-heist, we do know he spent many years flying under the radar and to all intents and purposes, making himself invisible to the system. Driving around in anything flashy, anything unique that would have drawn attention to himself would be a disservice to that continuous effort. And with almost a million and a half Ibiza MkIs made, the Professor’s Seat surely wasn’t difficult to go by completely unnoticed. That may seem like sensible criminal living 101, but let’s compare that attitude with Berlin’s approach. Berlin (whose real name is Andrés de Fonollosa), a jewel thief who turns out to be Sergio’s brother, drives a G-Wagen in season 3, the quintessential rich guy’s car and a beacon for attention.
Ultimately then, I believe the Ibiza speaks to The Professor’s own personality and not just to the convenience of discretion. The guy’s just not wealth driven. In fact, Sergio makes it clear throughout the show’s first couple of seasons that the mint heist was not about the money, but instead a way to honor his father. Sergio and Andrés’ dad was a bank robber and the mint heist was originally his idea. However, before having the chance to see it through, he was gunned down by the police during a robbery at the Hispano Americano bank. The interesting part is that the reason why the senior Marquina got into the game was to pay for Sergio’s expensive treatments as a child, as he was stricken by an unspecified illness and bed ridden for most of his childhood.
To that point, one can hypothetically attribute another layer of symbolism to the Ibiza, by looking at something which the show’s creators probably didn’t even mean to be significant. The Professor’s car is, as stated, a first generation Ibiza, but being a 1992 it’s also a restyled version. In 1991, Seat facelifted the model with a “New Style” series which ran for the last two years of production of the MkI. As a character, Sergio is himself a new, updated version of a previous original concept, i.e. his dad and his criminal career so, once again, the Professor and his choice of wheels pair nicely.
It’s also possible to draw some intersections between the history of Seat and the Marquina’s own family history. Sergio and Andrés’ grandfather is revealed to have fought in Italy alongside the Partigiani against the fascists, so by the time Fiat set up its deal with Seat, the Marquina’s grandfather’s cause had been essentially successful and Italy was working towards post-war economic recovery. However, unlike Italy, Spain remained under fascist rule until the mid seventies, so there was an interesting dynamic of a company from a newly liberated country setting its sights on manufacturing within a fascist regime. As freedom loving revolutionaries, the Marquinas were also out of place in Francoist Spain, but it’s unclear as to why they stayed.
Naturally, we couldn’t discuss The Professor’s Ibiza without putting aside a few moments to address the most obvious aspect of the car: its color. Colors are extremely important in Money Heist’s narrative and world building; as such, they’re used sparingly and strategically, with stronger tones usually reserved for the members of the gang. Of course, the most relevant color in the show is red. Beyond the obvious connotations, red is also a color deeply associated with revolution and resistance, both concepts near and dear to Sergio’s purposes and ideals. The Dalis’ jumpsuits are red, The Professor uses a red phone to communicate with the gang and the Ibiza is, of course, red as well; as is the Kawasaki ER-5 Sergio rides in a couple of occasions and, foreshadowing her future association with the gang, so is Raquel’s Peugeot 3008, which – in hindsight – really stands out in episodes 1.13 and 2.01 in a sea of gray, white and dark blue police vehicles.
But Sergio’s Ibiza isn’t just another red object for esthetic or symbolic effect alone; the Seat actually becomes an important part of the narrative. The Ibiza is present in the very first episode when The Professor intercepts Tokyo just as she is about to walk into a trap after her last job went terribly wrong (shocker!).
With some persuading, Tokyo accepts Sergio’s help, setting the plot in motion. However, the true relevance of the Ibiza comes when Raquel gets very clever and realizes that Tokyo and Rio cased the joint prior to the heist. First finding them on the security footage, the police notices that in order to go through the metal detector, a car key was placed in the personal items tray. From then on, they figure out a make and model, and eventually ID the Ibiza.
Keeping up with all this inspired police work thanks to a microphone that he managed to sneak into the siege’s command tent, Sergio calls Helsinki to make sure that he had done as instructed and not only delivered the Ibiza to a junkyard before the heist, but had actually witnessed it being crushed. Of course, the big guy did not do that, instead leaving it to be crushed whenever. Realizing the Ibiza is just sitting there filled with all sorts of DNA evidence for the police to find, The Professor takes off and after a harrowing encounter with the junkyard’s caretaker and his particularly ill-tempered dog, manages to sanitize the interior of the car, disguise himself to leave the premises and evade the officers that were already crawling all over the place.
The last time we see the Ibiza in the show’s current timeline, it’s sitting in a police lab with technicians going over it with a fine tooth comb. However, the only useful thing found inside is a piece of planted evidence Sergio had left. From then on we lose track of the car. Season 3 starts three years after the heist on the mint, with The Professor living a happy, relatively carefree life since escaping. Conceivably the Ibiza is still impounded as evidence on a very public, very open case but we just don’t know. Since season 5 will be the final one of the show, it would be nice to somehow bring it back for one last appearance.
Through the ups and downs, wild twists and gasp inducing reveals, Money Heist managed to keep its bold, hot-blooded irreverence and its loyalty to being unapologetically unique, as well as subversive both in themes and execution even under a big corporate overlord, turning the Dali mask into a worldwide symbol of defiance and “Bella Ciao” into a renewed hymn of both struggle and celebration.
Cover image – MSV Noticias
Screencaps – All screencaps of “Money Heist” are copyrighted Vancouver Media/Netflix materials, added to this post for limited use under the spirit of the fair use doctrine for research and commentary purposes.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.