I rarely have any idea what a Netflix series is going to be before I watch it, and that’s doubly true for the international series, which rarely arrive with marketing. Not long ago, I watched a show called White Lines, a British-Spanish co-production set on the resort island of Ibiza. I knew nothing about the show other than its Spanish origin and that it was a mystery of some kind. I kind of wish I hadn’t watched it. The series tells the story of a mentally fragile woman who travels to Ibiza to unravel the mystery of her beloved brother’s disappearance 22 years earlier after his body turns up in the present day. The investigation borders on the preposterous, and by the time I got the scene where our unbalanced heroine is having mind-blowing sex with a murderer in the rain on top of the muddy grave they just dug for the men he murdered, I wondered what I was watching. That was before the nauseating incest subplot came to an utterly bonkers conclusion.
Perhaps, though, the most bizarre part of the whole series is the idea that the entire island of Ibiza became so enraptured with a blond adolescent boy over the summer of 1998 that two decades later the mere memory of him still drives everything happening on the island. Did I mention that he was a DJ? Yes, a world-changing teen DJ. And we’re supposed to take this very seriously.
By the time the narrative exposes all of the baroquely ridiculous secrets of the past, it had already become clear that the truth ended up ruining everyone’s lives and they were all better off living with their happy memories than the unpleasant truth. It wasn’t a terribly uplifting message, or a very plausible series.
There was even less to know about Control Z before its debut this past weekend since Netflix only made two episodes available to critics, and literally the only things I knew about the show were that it was from Mexico and that it was about blackmail. I found the pilot intriguing as as sort of modernized Gossip Girl, and if you had asked me halfway through the thriller’s run of eight half-hour episodes, I’d have told you it was pretty good. By the end, I still felt it was good at a mechanical level, but I became increasingly uncomfortable with the show’s social message.
This review will contain spoilers when we discuss the ending. I’ll warn you when we get there.
Control Z starts off as the story of Sophia (Ana Valeria Becerril), a female teenage version of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes. This raven-haired Veronica Mars with mental health issues attends Mexico City’s prestigious Colegio Nacional, an elite high school whose students are obsessed with social media. The story kicks off when Javier (Michael Ronda), the son of a famous soccer star, joins the school and begins to upend the popular kids’ uneasy social order by befriending the outcast Sophia instead of the rich and beautiful. Soon enough, an anonymous hacker outs Isabella (Zion Moreno), the school’s most glamorous and popular girl as trans in front of the whole school and threatens to reveal other students’ secrets, too.
Sophia and Javier begin to investigate the crime, cycling through a list of suspects and uncovering the social faults that run through the school. The pair look into Luis (Luis Curiel), the victim of bullying; Gerry Patricio Gallardo), his secretly bisexual bully; Raúl (Yankel Stevan), the flailing son of a corrupt politician; Pablo (Andres Baida), Isabella’s cheating boyfriend; and a few others who are less important.
The investigation borrows a lot from Sherlock, including the explanatory flashbacks, on-the-nose musical cues, and floating on-screen graphics. Javier plays the Watson to Sophia’s Sherlock, at least for the first half of the season. The mystery itself is moderately clever, escalating dramatically from social ruin to a disturbing act of violence. The short episode count, however, means that the escalation occurs quite rapidly, with all of the students’ secrets being revealed by five minutes into he second episode. A longer episode count would have given more time to build up the hacker’s menace before things spun out of control. As it is, each escalation spirals upward too quickly.
Similarly, the short episode count and short episode run times mean that characters aren’t fully developed. They are more sketches and archetypes than people. Even our protagonist is defined more by performative trauma than a well-rounded personality. There isn’t quite enough time to get to know the characters, and therefore their relationships and their motivations remain sketchy. Gerry’s arc in particular suffers because there isn’t quite the time to explore in enough depth the effects of his violence and his stuttering attempts at redemption.
That leaves the plot for us to judge the show by. Here, the forward momentum of the investigation carries the mystery into occasionally interesting territory. It’s entertaining, and when the reveal in the penultimate episode of how it all happened occurs, it’s easy to see how each of the previous episodes had been carefully arranged into a clockwork tragedy whose conclusion was nearly inevitable, even if, like Sherlock, the solution is improbable. If you know anything about TV, the fact that only a handful of characters receive any significant development, and one of them doesn’t seem terribly relevant to the plot, ought to indicate who did it long before the show admits the fact.
However, the mystery is well done, the solution satisfying, and overall, the story makes for an entertaining enough way to pass the time.
But the choices the producers made in the back half of the season took what started out as an entertaining combination of Veronica Mars and 13 Reasons Why divided by Gossip Girl and instead turned it into a strange anti-feminist defense of patriarchy. And that was weird and disturbing.
Warning: Spoilers follow for the last few episodes of Control Z.
For the first half of the season, the show leads us to believe that Sophia is our protagonist. But halfway through, the narrative starts to shift. By the end, Sophia is barely a character in her own show, pushed out in favor of refocusing the narrative on Raúl, who dominates the last three episodes, anchoring one almost entirely by himself and driving the other two. The shift is marked, and it serves to undermine the putatively feminist narrative that the female protagonist and trans issues of the early episodes seemed to establish. This is because of who Raúl is and what he represents.
Raúl is the hacker, the villain of the piece. He sets his friends up for disaster, kidnaps Sophia, and deceives her into a sexual relationship. But the show can’t bring itself to treat him as a true villain. Structurally, he is the Moriarty to Sophia’s Holmes, but the show doesn’t quite condemn his actions as wrong and goes out of its way to provide excuses for them, and him.
When we first meet Raúl, he is seemingly the most put-together of the popular kids, calm, well-groomed, impeccably dressed, and obscenely wealthy. And yet we learn that his father alternately neglects and physically abuses him, that he is deeply lonely, and that he is paying the other kids to be his friends, even though they don’t really like him. Over the course of the show, Raúl’s efforts to take down his corrupt father carry the narrative point of view’s approval, and it is hard not to feel that the show endorses his rather strict moralizing. By the end of the finale, he has successfully turned Sophia into an extra in her own show, survived multiple violent confrontations, destroyed all of the classmates who “wronged” him, and witnessed his rival, Javier, dispatched in a final act of violence.
Raúl even gets to deliver the moral of the story, for he argues that his villainy has freed his classmates from the burden of their own secrets, letting them live honest, if reduced, lives. And yet a plain reading of events doesn’t support this outcome since freedom has destroyed them all. And that is arguably even worse than letting Raúl be right. It is no coincidence that most of the “secrets” being revealed in the initial hack are crimes against conservative patriarchal values—same-sex desires, gender transitioning, illicit sex, defying authority. The show depicts the consequences of these sins as devastating to those committing them, so that their revelation serves to reinforce the power of the straight white males who sit atop the social pyramid.
The acceptance of patriarchy isn’t uncritical. The show locates all of the kids’ sins in their fathers, who failed to meet the responsibilities of traditional patriarchy while exercising its powers. Sophia’s father left, sending her into a spiral of hysteria and self-harm. Gerry’s father makes excuses for his son’s violence because he is proud of his machismo. Javier’s father treats his son as a way to continue his life and career indefinitely. Raúl’s father is basically every bad dad stereotype in one. Some of this reflects assumptions in Mexican culture, particularly machismo, but there is also an underlying assumption that the just society is one where men are in charge and act for the greater good of everyone. The systemic failures occur because no one is living up to both sides of the social contract. Only Sophia and Raúl are smart enough to see this, but Sophia—the girl—does nothing about it and retreats into herself. By default, the narrative’s sympathies then fall on the more active party.
In final two episodes, Raúl has become the protagonist, and in being exposed as the villain he nevertheless wins. He accomplished all of his goals, while everyone else lost everything. If this were an intentional choice to show the villain’s triumph, it would be one thing. But the show seems to feel that Raúl was right. And if he is right, then the show’s moral universe if disturbing indeed. Despite the lip service it pays to sexual and gender equality, the show makes quite clear that it favors straight white men and feels quite differently about women, sexual minorities, and those who would consort with them. All of the same-sex relationships were depicted, for example, as abusive. Raúl’s triumph is incomplete only because his horniness got in the way. His desire to conquer a woman is his downfall; if Sophia hadn’t cast her sexual spell over him, he would have gotten away with everything. This is a world where women are weak and weakness, emotion cripples reason, and conforming to traditional norms is the best path to happiness.
And that, I think, is more thought than anyone actually put into Control Z. It wants to be 13 Reasons Why meets Sherlock, and it managed to take on the most problematic aspects of both.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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