The Hot Teens of Netflix's 'Élite' Can't Save Its Disappointingly Rocky Second Season
The uber-privileged teens of Spain's Las Encinas high school are back and as hormonally driven, debauched, and scheming as ever. This time, however, the threat that looms large over the second season of Netflix's Élite isn't a mysterious murder or a police investigation -- it's that of the sophomore slump.
When the teen drama debuted on Netflix last October, Élite offered up old wine (sangria?) in a snazzy new bottle. In Season 1, the lives of three working-class students -- Samuel, Nadia, and Christian -- in an unnamed Spanish town become entangled with those of the obscenely rich after they win scholarships to an exclusive private high school. The show drew from satisfying teen tropes, including rich teens gone wild, poor boy rich girl meet-cutes, and will they/won't they romances, and tossed them in with an engrossing season-long mystery about the murder of the HIV-positive female lead, Marina Nunier Osana (María Pedraza). Featuring a charismatic and ridiculously striking cast (the likes of which make the teens of Riverdale seem frumpy by comparison), Élite had something for everyone: Gossip Girl-esque displays of wealth, Big Little Lies-style investigation flash-forwards, Skins-inspired revelry, and Skam-influenced coming-of-age drama. Not surprisingly, Élite's first season became a worldwide viral hit, viewed by more than 20 million households by the end of October 2018.
Season 2 tracks the fallout that takes place after Marina's murder. It's a new school year; Samuel (Itzan Escamilla) is more alienated than ever. He's recovering from the loss of Marina, whom he was dating, while trying to find bail money for his brother Nano (Jaime Lorente), who has wrongly been implicated in the murder. Marina's brother Guzmán (Miguel Bernardeau) turns to drugs and alcohol and his girlfriend, rich mean girl Lu (Danna Paola), to cope with his anger and depression over her death. Nadia (Mina El Hammani) still finds herself still drawn to Guzmán despite her strict Muslim Palestinian parents. Meanwhile, Carla and Christian are still tight-lipped about their role in covering up Polo's murder of Marina. This season's new overarching mystery is the disappearance of Samuel a few months down the line. A tryst between half-siblings, a scene where three chiseled male characters share a bed in their underwear, and a leaked sex tape all feed the high-wire drama of Season 2.
However, overall, the second season of Élite is clunky and lethargic, falling into an unfortunate pattern of one-season wonders that burn bright and then burn out. There are multiple missteps this time around that throw off the tonal balance of the show, the most egregious of which is an unconvincing romance between Samuel and Carla after he attempts to uncover if she has anything to do with Marina's murder. What emerges is less sexy cat-and-mouse game and more the stomach-churning effect of your cat dropping a half-chewed mouse on to your expensive carpet. A new character Rebeka (Claudia Salas), whose mother is a mafia honcho, feels like she's walked off the set of Narcos to step in as a sparring partner for Samuel and infrequent sounding board for the others. One of this season's more amusing moments is in fact when Lu refers to her as "Narco Barbie."
Another of the show's deeply frustrating new characters is Cayetana. Played by Georgina Amorós, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Arrow's Emily Bett Rickards, she's introduced inconspicuously reading Simone De Beauvoir's The Second Sex in episode 2. For an instant, I was hopeful that at least one character on the show was comfortable enough in their own skin to disavow these teenage shenanigans or, at least, wryly comment on them Seth Cohen style. Unfortunately, Cayetana is a scheming archetype straight from the depths of patriarchal imagination. Her sizeable Instagram following, built on pictures of her palatial mansions and luxury homes, hides her plebeian background as the daughter of a cleaner. She embarks on the project of ingratiating herself with (and scamming) the inner circle of Las Encinas' rich by flirting with Polo. If Beauvoir were alive today, she'd excoriate the all-male writing team's lack of artistry when it comes to the women on the show.
Élite occasionally hints at more nuanced ideas with regard to class conflict. Rebeka belongs to new money and doesn't fit into the circles of the privileged at Las Encinas. Her mother's empire from trading drugs is not very different from corrupt building developers like Carla's father. Their wealth depends on exploiting the vulnerable. There's a memorable scene in the finale when Rebeka counters her mother who tells her that their money comes at a cost, saying, "The queen never pays the price. It's always the pawn." Yet these details, or attempts at statement making, are like sprinkles of oregano when the dish is stuffed with dollar bills.
While Élite's hook in Season 1 was the tantalizing whodunnit involving Marina's murder, most of its best moments had little to do with its central mystery. It was in the character interactions that the show transcended its trashy premise and found its soul. The impromptu party at Samuel's place where all the main characters get inebriated; the slow-burn romance of Nadia and Guzmán which managed to make a sequence featuring the two fully clothed in a swimming pool sensual; and the loving relationship between Omar, Nadia's gay brother, and his partner, Ander, all pointed to a show where connection, not conflict, was the glue holding it all together.
Season 2 has a number of these satisfying moments, but the levity, melancholy, and tenderness has all been lost under the haze of dark melodrama. The season's best moments involve the Shana siblings, Omar and Nadia. His newfound confidence and independence as a gay man after he is kicked out of home is one of the season's few hopeful spots. A scene where he and Lu trade compliments instead of barbs on a double-date is similarly winning. Guzmán and Nadia's scenes also continue to brim with genuine warmth, a pleasure in a show that can be acerbic. They also manage to share a memorable sex scene where, for a change, the woman is the one who is fully clothed. Sadly due to the diktats of drama television, the clock on their relationship is reset at the end of the season.
This season of Élite ends with a dramatic face-off in the hallways of Las Encinas, an anti-climactic cliffhanger, that sets up its already confirmed third season where character decisions will be driven and new allegiances formed with the hope of delivering their own justice for the murder of Marina. If that's the way things are headed, count me out. I couldn't help but wish all these characters were sharing a drink, or coming together to mourn their friend. Give me a teen show that leans into the wish-fulfilment not of wealth, but sweet companionship.