Money Heist was an early international success story for Netflix in 2017. The Spanish TV series, about Robin Hood-style bank robbers who become folk heroes in a war against out-of-control capitalism, originally aired season one in its home country. Netflix picked up the streaming rights, turning it into a global hit. They then dumped a ton of money into expanding its budget for two additional seasons. The series had a lot of iconic characters, including Álvaro Morte’s heist mastermind El Profesor and Alba Flores’ Nairobi (a.k.a La Puta Ama). The undeniable breakout, however, was Pedro Alonso’s Berlin—a professional jewel thief, unrepentant bastard, and legitimately problematic fan-favorite character. Now, he’s the star of his Money Heist prequel, which premiered December 29 on Netflix.
Berlin dies at the end of the first season in a hail of police gunfire, choosing to give his life so his comrades can escape. It’s a heroic moment for the character, but it just might be the only heroic thing he ever did—and even then, it barely counts because he spends most of his time dealing with the knowledge that he’s been given a terminal diagnosis. He won’t live much longer anyway.
Berlin hides behind his illness as an excuse to do as he pleases without remorse, a dark twist on living life to the fullest, which creates a compelling, terrifyingly charismatic character for Alonso to play. He treats his fellow robbers as inferior fools and harasses the hostages taken during the heist, eventually coercing one of them into becoming his assistant. Believing it will save her life, the hostage even later agrees to have sex with Berlin. Neither the character nor the show truly reckons with what that means. Berlin is engaging whenever he’s onscreen as he puts on the bullshit persona of a sophisticated thief living with the belief that robbery is an art form. Viewers want to like him, and the show clearly wants you to like him.
No wonder Money Heist’s subsequent seasons brought Berlin back in flashbacks to sort of humanize him and try to explain why he was the way he was. Giving some backstory to a violent misogynist isn’t going to lessen the “violent misogynist” charges. Still, he was interesting to watch onscreen, and the show never positioned him as someone you should try and emulate, so what difference does it make, right?
Well, it makes a difference when you refocus the narrative to center around him, as the new Berlin spin-off does. A prequel set a seemingly short time before the events of Money Heist, Berlin is about Alonso’s character working with a crew of jewel thieves to steal from a Paris auction house. Far from the careful plotting of El Profesor’s heists in the main show, Berlin is as loose and freewheeling with the rules as its title character. But rather than having Berlin be a dark wildcard waiting on the sidelines to fuck shit up, this time he’s the beating heart.
The series begins with Berlin’s wife (one of many he’s had) leaving him. He turns around, gets picked up by his crew for a robbery, and immediately switches from “I love this woman and I’m sad to see her go” to “I’m going to coldly and cruelly manipulate some rich people into handing over a valuable antique.” So he’s a heartless sociopath who needs things—jewels, money, women—and will do whatever he can to get them, especially if it means taking them from someone he sees as inferior to him.
Berlin is barely involved in the central heist of Berlin because, early in the first episode, he spots Camille, the wife of the auction house owner, through a telescope and falls in love with her. He proceeds to stalk and orchestrate a meeting with her (while bragging to a colleague about how quickly he can get her interested). He’s dumbfounded when it appears the woman loves her husband. Of course, a common thread in the Money Heist-verse (and perhaps the real explanation for Berlin’s attitude) is he always gets what he wants. It’s not long before she gives in to his charms and starts a whirlwind love affair… while Berlin’s friends are tricking a priest into letting them dig in a church’s basement, burrowing a tunnel into the Paris catacombs, and cutting the wall of a safe so they can lift it high enough to crawl through and steal priceless jewels.
A fun aspect here is while the other members of the heist crew still follow Berlin’s original plan and respect his authority, they recognize he’s an idiot who is perpetually one second away from ruining everything because he wants to sleep with a married guy’s wife. And it’s worth stating that, as much as Berlin professes to be madly in love with Camille, the thrill of it is explicitly shown to be in how he’s able to take her away from her spouse. When the husband finds out, Berlin is infuriated by how understanding he is, gracefully stepping aside so they can be together. (Nobody knows he’s a thief at this point). Camille is so touched, it makes her realize she still loves her husband.
A good chunk of the series is spent on Berlin’s terrible reactions, but things end with him once again getting everything he desires, proving he’s smarter and better than the rest. Still, even as a main character for whom things work out perfectly, Berlin doesn’t bother pretending he’s a hero or he’s right to do any of the things he does. He arguably makes things harder for everyone, but they still like working with him. If the show gets renewed, they will surely do another heist with him. So it makes sense he’s a character who does awful things but who you still don’t mind spending time with because that’s exactly how he’s presented in-universe. Nobody should like him, but everyone does anyway.