“VIS A VIS” (“Locked Up”) (NETFLIX)

I wrote about the first two seasons of “Vis A Vis” a couple of years ago, but now Netflix has made the full run of the show available and I felt compelled to revisit it, with a focus on the third and fourth seasons. This Spanish women-in-prison series is by the same creator as the very popular “Money Heist,” and parts of it reflect that series’ high-octane fun. But in “Vis A Vis,” there’s also a deep amount of heart, both tender and dark, as it portrays the plight of women in prison and the bonds they build in order to survive not just physically, but emotionally, against a system that is set-up to dehumanize them and ultimately break them rather than offer rehabilitation.

The first two seasons focused on Macarena (Maggie Civantos), an office worker set up by her boss to take a fall and now must transform herself into something tougher to survive jail. She’s still a presence in these later seasons, but the other women definitely take a step forward in our attention, most notably the magnetic psychopath Zulema (the remarkable Najwa Nimri from “Money Heist”) whose single-minded pursuit of freedom is directly related to her childhood, when she was controlled and confined by the Middle Eastern culture she was brought up in. A cold killer, her only friend is the vibrant Saray (Alba Flores from “Money Heist”), a lesbian about to give birth following a rape, who is grappling with the emotion she feels for her upcoming child versus her desire for violent revenge against the man who assaulted her.

The show also gives more time to Sole (María Isabel Díaz), the older woman who killed her husband, but now finds there might be a second chance for her in life, and Tere (Marta Aledo) the well-meaning junkie who stumbles in turning her life around but devotes herself to Sole’s well-being.

In these new seasons, the women are transferred to another prison, higher security and facing worse daily dangers, most notably a cadre of Chinese gangsters that exact control. Stealing the show among the new villains, though, is the imposing, vicious thug Goya (Itziar Castro), who chides, bullies and assaults her fellow prisoners without hesitation, although you get to know through group therapy sessions that reveal the victim behind the monster that brings both sympathy and dark humor to the character.

Central to the thesis of “Vis A Vis” is the cultural pecking order that places men at the top of the power list, not only despite their own transgressions, but often because of them, and then leaves the victims at the bottom of the pecking order to sort their hierarchy out for themselves. In the world of “Vis A Vis,” this becomes a struggle to keep hold of who you are and not give in to the temptation to be the strongest predator. But when you’re at the top of such a society, you’re also still mashed down at the bottom, and your efforts for dominance are inevitably doomed once you reach the ceiling — and in “Vis A Vis,” many of the most brutal prisoners are attempting to survive by hiding their humanity, their weaknesses.

“Vis A Vis” is a brutal show, to be sure, but its humanity and heart are large, too. The intensity of the characters and your compassion for them is something weighed against the pain of witnessing how they are forced to live, making both aspects reliant on one another. These seasons also offer a clear ending for the series, making it a complete package and offering light at the end of the tunnel after being on this journey with these women. It’s heartbreaking, heart-warming, and hilarious, and makes for one of the most satisfying series I’ve ever watched.

Originally published at https://www.berkshireeagle.com on December 13, 2019.

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