The Plague is far and away one of the most lavish and visually stunning television series to have come out of Spain. What's impressive about its story is something that is all-too easy to overlook: the series figured out a way to set a murder mystery in a time before murder.
Okay, obviously people (quite a lot of people if The Plague is any guide) were being killed in the 16th Century. But the idea of murder as a crime that needs to be solved was a new idea. It required a whole lot of things they didn’t have - a police force, for starters. When the plague is sweeping through society there’s not really a lot of attention being paid to any one individual’s death, but, as The Plague demonstrates, sometimes there are still mysteries powerful people want solved.
The year is 1580 or thereabouts, and Europe is suffering through the second of a series of bubonic plague pandemics that would cut a swathe through the continent’s population. Thousands are dead or dying across Spain, and in the city of Seville crude shacks have been built to house the afflicted (and keep them away from everybody else). Nobody in their right mind would visit there unless they have to, so when two men arrive to search for somebody, you know it’s serious. And when they find the corpse they’re looking for, they order it and its surroundings destroyed by fire. What are they trying to hide?
The plague halls are a stark contrast to the (currently) unaffected city of Toledo, where our hero Mateo Nunez (Pablo Molinero) is enjoying the good life – until a mysterious figure comes knocking. It seems that an old friend of Mateo’s has died and the executors of his estate are a lot less forgiving of the massive debt Mateo now owes them. But he does have a choice: if he’s willing to go to Seville and rescue his dead friend’s bastard son Valerio (Sergio Castellanos) before the plague city is locked down, all debts will be forgiven.
As this six-part series progresses, it becomes clear that Seville is a city of contrasts: while the plague is killing off the poor, it remains Spain’s gateway to the riches of the new world, a place where child crime gangs and the Spanish Inquisition both stalk the streets. The Plague had one of the biggest budgets for a Spanish television series to date (10 million euros), and a large slice of that went into recreating the sixteenth century city. It was money well spent: with a combination of CGI recreations and 130 real-life locations (plus a whole lot of fruit and vegetables crushed into a grimy mess underfoot), the city comes to life in all its sickly glory.
It’s also a city Mateo is clearly wary about returning to. And who can blame him? If it wasn’t bad enough with the plague and gangs looting the homes of those killed by the plague, there’s a Satanic murderer running loose. Or at least, that’s what Inquisitor Celso de Guevara (Manolo Solo) thinks when he’s shown the corpse of a wealthy merchant grasping a cross and showing evidence of being used in some kind of demonic ritual.
This mix of the holy and the mundane is one of the big themes of The Plague, as the church’s wealth and power is constantly juxtaposed with the harsh realities faced by the everyday citizens of the city. But there’s more to it than simply pointing out the difference between rich and poor. This is a world where the religious beliefs and superstitions that support the rich are also helping to spread the plague that’s killing the poor. Then there’s all the wealth Spain is extracting from the New World that’s flowing through Seville; this may be a historical drama, but you could hardly claim it’s viewing the olden days through rose-coloured glasses.
It’s no wonder then that Mateo wants to get this job done fast and get back to having a good time in Toledo with his lady friend and his collection of antique condoms. He has plenty of connections in Seville – enough to soon put him on Valerio’s trail – but those connections come with a price. Soon Mateo’s schemes are brought to an abrupt halt as he’s brought in front of the Inquisition, where it turns out his past as a man of literature and science was enough to have him branded as a heretic.
But there is one way he can avoid being burnt at the stake: use the skills that made him a heretic to track down the merchant’s killer. And that’s how you set up a murder mystery in the 16th century. The twists and turns have only just gotten started.
The Plague is streaming now at SBS On Demand: