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Lessons learned from Tokyo (Money Heist)

Alicia Sekhri
Alicia Sekhri
I just finished Money Heist (La Casa de Papel) and wanted to share my analysis and takeaways from Tokyo’s character journey. Please note: this issue contains major spoilers right from the beginning… you might wanna save it for later.

It’s been a while since I found myself crying in front of a TV series. Yet, yesterday, watching Money Heist’s main character die, I felt empty and sad. Killing Tokyo was the smartest move for various reasons, the main one being that after four admirable seasons, the show was losing its breath. The only way to keep viewers engaged and eager to watch the second part of the fifth season, coming later this year, was to provoke a major plot twist: killing the narrator. 
Money Heist: Premise
“Set in Madrid, a mysterious man known as “The Professor” recruits a group of eight people, who choose cities for code-names, to carry out an ambitious plan that involves entering the Royal Mint of Spain, and escaping with €984 million. “ — Wikipedia
What great characters have in common
There’s a lot of content out there today, but examples of well-developed characters seem increasingly rare. Based on my research and all the content I’ve watched, I believe great characters have this in common:
  1. We follow them through a three-step journey: beginning (who they are before the story happens), middle (transformation caused by the story), and end (who they are when the story concludes). 
  2. We feel for them. Even if we don’t validate their choices, we develop empathy because somehow, we’re able to relate. Empathy is created when we are able to understand a character’s choices — no matter how poor they are. Usually, a good backstory is necessary.
  3. They are three-dimensional. Creating compelling characters can be achieved by giving them an internal conflict, a distinctive flaw, a want (what they think they need), and a need (what they actually need). 
Now, let’s take a deeper look at Tokyo through these lenses. 
Her 3-step journey
Tokyo is the first character we meet in Money Heist. She’s the one telling the story.
Beginning
“My name is Tokyo… But when this story started, that wasn’t my name.”
Money Heist begins just before the Professor recruits the characters and changes their actual names to city names. Tokyo, then, is called Silene Oliveira. We don’t know what happened to her yet, but she’s at her lowest — on the run after committing serious crimes, denounced to the police by her own mother, and alone. This is the beginning of her story. This part ends when she meets the Professor and joins the crew.
Middle
The transformation starts. Silene Oliveira is now Tokyo, she is no longer alone and she has a goal: break into the Royal Mint of Spain with her newfound friends and come out rich, and free. 
This transformational part spans four seasons. At first aggressive, selfish, and unreliable, Tokyo becomes a cold-headed, trustworthy friend the crew can rely on by overcoming the obstacles they will face together.
Her main flaw resides in the fact that she is devoured by her past, and she can’t hold still. Even after the first robbery that miraculously ends well for most of our characters, Tokyo can’t stay on the island she and her boyfriend Rio settled on. No, she needs to move: officially because she’s so desperately attached to her freedom, but in reality, because she’s still running from her past. 
End
It’s season 5, and Tokyo has changed tremendously. She’s no longer the lonely wolf on the run we met in the first episode — she’s part of a community, has people to rely on, lived through the loss of her best friend, escaped death many times, and found love. 
Yet, this last robbery cannot end well — the villain always gets punished in the story, and we know by now that Netflix always gives its characters what they deserve. That’s why Money Heist couldn’t and will not end well: it’s a villain-only show. 
In the last episode of the first part of season 5, Tokyo gets shot by the army and understands that she won’t make it out of this place. She decides to make herself explode with grenades, taking the military men with her and saving her friends in the process. 
This is the perfect example of a well-executed character journey: the robber starts low, then joins a crew of fellow criminals to execute legendary robberies, and dies in the hands of those enforcing the law, sacrificing herself for her friends. 
Her backstory
Up until this last season, Tokyo’s backstory was unclear. We knew that she had already committed serious crimes before meeting the Professor, that she was on the run, a good fighter, and very clever. 
This makes her interesting, but it’s not enough to drive the viewer’s empathy. In fact, we really feel for her in this last episode, right before she dies: the last flashback put all the pieces of the puzzle together, and we now understand where she comes from. 
Past 
Silene Oliveira has apparently always been a criminal, but she started with little robberies in gas stations and local restaurants with her boyfriend. She had a shitty job and her boyfriend was killing himself at work, robbing was a way for them to pay for vacations and things they couldn’t afford otherwise.
Motive
Silena and her boyfriend decide to “upgrade” and commit bigger robberies. They want to steal enough money to buy their freedom and escape their mediocre lives. Is she ready to do anything it takes, even if it means killing people, to be free? 
Pain point
Pain points or “shards of glass” as Jamie Nash calls them in Save the Cat! Writes for TV are flaws and experiences that badly impact your character’s actions and personality. In this case, Silena’s biggest shard of glass comes when her boyfriend gets killed in a robbery, before her eyes. This breaks her heart and marks the beginning of her running away from the cops and from her past. That’s her pain point, what will attract every obstacle she’ll face and drive her actions.
Conclusion
By giving her a compelling backstory, a shard of glass, and a personality of her own, Money Heist’s writers managed to make us feel empathy for Tokyo and break our hearts when her journey ends with a phenomenal death. Fans felt empty after losing their favorite character: isn’t it what all screenwriters should aim for?
Thanks for reading this issue! Follow me on Twitter for quick tips and nuggets of wisdom.
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Alicia Sekhri
Alicia Sekhri @aliciasekhri

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