Snabba Cash translates as, quite literally, ‘Easy Money’, which is by way of being a funny joke. Nothing about the process of making money is easy in this show, and in fact it tends to be a troubling and seriously unpleasant experience.
Despite this, what indelibly marks it out as a product of Scandinavia is a certain hard-to-define gentleness. While this doesn’t permeate the whole thing, as in the excellent Vikings spoof Norsemen, in the same way as that rather head-choppy comedy there’s an amusing contrast between the violent subject matter and the characters being overwhelmingly nice and considerate. Particularly when it’s two police officers arresting someone for murder, or a gang boss chiding his underling for botching a hit.
Snabba Cash bears more than a few similarities to another of Netflix’s recent foreign-language productions, Dealer – right down to the main gang including a token hardnosed female gangster with impressive braids. But to some degree, that’s inevitable. Both are European works about the drug trade, so there will quite naturally be some common ground. A better comparison in terms of the wider story might be the Fargo formula, where some innocent vulnerable gets in over their head.
We know – obviously we know – that all the show’s disparate plotlines are going to crash into each other, and probably messily. But the show knows this too, and toys with this inevitability, teasing one moment after another where main character Leya (Evin Ahmad) and her white-collar ambitions could get themselves gruesomely tied to the underworld shenanigans, but do not. Again and again, it encourages us to think ‘surely this will happen’, and keeps surprising us.
This kind of tension is deployed well throughout – and unlike a Hitchcock scenario where everyone’s blissfully unaware of the bomb under the table, most of the characters here also know perfectly well that the other shoe’s going to drop sooner or later. As a particularly grisly example of this, the main cast includes two actual children, and the show isn’t shy about putting them at risk. It’s a throwing down of the gauntlet, a brazen declaration that they will not flinch from depicting an atrocity.
Ultimately, this is a story of people being put in impossible situations – or, if not impossible, then ones where none of the options available are much good. As well as the tension, Snabba Cash brings a deft hand to that fate-tempting storytelling device informally known as the ‘hope spot’ (“This’ll be the best Christmas Walford has ever had”, etc.). There’s plenty of moments where if this happens, if that deal can just go through, then everything’s going to be ok. And, again, it keeps surprising us.
Where it also surprises us, unfortunately, is with a few leaps in logic and continuity errors. Two that stood out were a character claiming not to know where another character lived, despite having been there before for an abortive romantic encounter – and a gang member turning themselves in for a crime nobody yet knew had happened. Neither get anywhere near ruining the whole experience as these are very much notable exceptions, but they still leave a bad taste, suggesting that the creators’ eyes were not always completely on the ball.
In a lot of ways, and despite some expansive location shots, Snabba Cash has the feel of a stage play – or perhaps even a close-knit village, because everyone seems to know each other. This doesn’t merely complement the parallels between its lawful and criminal worlds, instead it rips out the partition. In a lot of crime dramas, and especially the cops-n-robbers sort, there’s a pervasive sense that never the twain shall meet – or if they do, then only on special occasions. Snabba Cash simply doesn’t have that divide.
There’s a lot of ironic smash-cuts throughout, where Swedish high-life will suddenly switch over to the grimy terrain of the underworld (or vice versa). At least one half of these will be an absolutely gorgeous shot, be it unbroken Swedish landscape or ultramodern office buildings, contrasted with various back rooms and back alleys, but the problem is that the show never quite manages to truly wrestle with what this means.
It does at least give us some convincing parallels between its two worlds. At one point Very Big Company Ltd is rather patronisingly proud of getting another Arab on their (primarily Swedish) board, and all the while, the (mainly Middle-Eastern) gang is eagerly recruiting a young Swede, who’s that much less likely to be stopped by the cops. Later on, our protagonists from both spheres are hit with their own questions of personal loyalty, and one realm comes off that much more vicious and heartless than the other. Try to guess which one!
However, that’s as far as Snabba Cash takes it. There is no real analysis of or meditation upon the comparisons between big business and drug dealing, beyond a lazily cynical message of ‘oh, they’re all as bad as each other’ – and bear in mind, it’s been nearly twenty years since The Wire had Idris Elba’s Stringer Bell going to a macroeconomics class by day, and frustratedly trying to explain how heroin is an inelastic product to his street-thug underlings by night.
Unfortunately for Snabba Cash, the bar has been raised over the years. Yes, the tech mogul’s atavistic, Gordon Gekko, ‘let’s go and make some money, losers’ ethos is pretty much the same as that of a cocaine slinger with a 9mm in his belt, we know this – and once upon a time Snabba Cash might have blown everyone’s nips off with this message, but now it’s slightly stale bread.
This isn’t just a matter of it being old hat, though, it’s the fact that Snabba Cash doesn’t quite do enough with the material it’s chosen to use. The gang-war stuff is very much a clash of personalities, which is why it works – yet the boardroom stuff, which we’ve established is equally amoral and ruthless, is just one CEO acting like a foghorn. There’s no particular conflict, only a series of little pokes to drive the plot forward, and none of the same robust characters or juicy drama as we have in the underworld.
(The giveaway, perhaps, is that Snabba Cash is based on novels written by a criminal defence lawyer, rather than a corporate shark. One world is drawn from experience, the other is not, and suffers for it.)
What’s particularly interesting – for me, anyway – is that a show which is in large part about people from the wider Islamic world living in Europe has more than a few moments which could be references to Chris Morris’s dark comedy Four Lions, which focused on the Pakistani diaspora in Britain. In these, Snabba Cash never particularly has the feel of winking at the screen, but when you’ve got a man enthusiastically calling himself “Kurdish Rambo”, and another scene where someone literally eats their SIM card, you have to wonder.
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Snabba Cash is a grimly gripping tale of ambition and tragedy, but while sometimes the downtime is ginning up tension for the next time it wallops you, sometimes it’s just slack.
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