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Stream It Or Skip It: ‘The Playing Card Killer’ on Netflix, a Boilerplate True-Crime Series About a Series of Unsettling Murders in Spain

With the debut of The Playing Card Killer (now on Netflix), it feels like we’re at about Aug. 29 of the Summer of True Crime – you know, the dog days where we’re all hot and tired and it’s hard to get excited about anything. That isn’t to take away from the grimness of the subject matter; this three-episode Spanish miniseries chronicles six murders perpetrated by a serial killer during a few bleak months in Madrid in 2003. These stories are always fascinating indictments of unstable individuals and media feeding frenzies, but at this point, they need to be truly exceptional in their presentation to stand out from the pack. Let’s see if this one pulls it off.


Opening Shot: The first of an array of TV news clips about a serial killer’s gruesome misdeeds throughout Madrid.

The Gist: An opening montage of archival TV reports and talking heads tease juicy bits of the story we’re about to see: An unknown individual killing people apparently at random, leaving behind a single playing card at every crime scene. It was a “media frenzy,” says one commentator. It all began in Feb., 2003. We see a chilling reenactment of a man in a car, listening to a news report in which U.S. President George W. Bush insists there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The man parks, leaves the radio on, gets out of the car and walks out of frame. A moment later, a gunshot. He calmly walks back, climbs in and drives away. That was Juan Carlos Martin Estacio, an airport janitor. He was waiting for a bus at about 4am when someone walked up to him and shot him in the head. A few minutes later, the bus driver spotted Estacio’s body lying still on the sidewalk in a pool of blood and called the police. 

Talking-head journalists provide context: Crime was rampant in Madrid at that time. In 2003, a homicide occurred every three days on average, most often linked to organized crime, drugs or revenge killings. In fact, two people were killed and one injured in a shooting at a bar that same night. But Estacio’s death was different – no motive or method was apparent, and the victim was just your average citizen waiting for the bus. But they did find an odd clue, an ace of cups playing card, and everyone jumped to the conclusion that it was the killer’s calling card. Police thought it just happened to be on the scene, but everyone else, well, maybe they’d watched too many movies or TV crime-procedural dramas. 

Now, another reenactment. Another Bush report on the radio. But this time, we follow the killer as he spots two people on the street, shoots one dead and elects to spare the second one. This time, a 2 of cups was left behind. The survivor described the killer to the cops so they could put together a composite sketch; she also frequently granted press interviews while maintaining her anonymity, stirring theories and speculation from numerous media commentators. Less than two weeks later, he struck again – and we get another creepy reenactment, this time with multiple gunshots and a radio broadcast of a Real Madrid soccer game – killing one and wounding another, who’d later die in the hospital. And yes, the 3 and 4 of cups were left behind. Talking-head police talk about procedure and the puzzle they were trying to piece together; journalists make comments like “It was killing for the sake of killing” and “then the panic started.” 

Citizens were paranoid, and news-talk commentators stirred it by warning people not to go out alone at night, etc. One of our journalists talks about being afraid to walk the quarter-mile from his parking garage to his home. Then we meet Adolfo Busta, a former cop and ballistics expert who pointed out how this string of killings was linked to a murder from a couple months prior, when someone broke into a home and shot a man to death while his toddler son watched; we meet the son, now an adult, and he has no memory of the murder, or of his father at all. The slug and shell casings were from a Tokarev pistol, which stood out among the many crimes committed with 9mm handguns. It also matched the ballistics from the dual slaying that happened on the same night as the ace of cups murder; we meet the survivor of that encounter, the bar owner who took three bullets. Some of Busta’s comments imply that the media is to blame for all the hoopla – and this story sure seems to be pointing in that direction.

Photo: Netflix

What Shows Will It Remind You Of? For my nickel, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is the gold standard for true-crime serial-killer docuseries like this.

Our Take: Is The Playing Card Killer proof that we’re in the waning days of the true-crime boom? Seems to be that way – this is a by-the-numbers docuseries that, evident by how this first episode pointlessly drags out the narrative, probably could have been a nice, tight 90-minute feature. Instead, it’s a three-parter with episodes ranging from 45 to 58 minutes, padded with overwrought reenactments and overly reliant on sensationalist archival news footage. It all points towards being yet another indictment of the media while cooler heads puzzle over why people commit random murders like this, and if it could have been prevented, and if true evil exists.

Criticizing its boilerplate approach doesn’t mean this isn’t a story worth telling – just that it could have been told better, with more concision and clarity, and less repetition. That, and after countless true-crime series and movies, stories like this feel overly familiar and numbing, and that’s a dangerous place to be. The proliferation of this type of content further pushes the genre towards exploitation, and the audience toward cynicism, neither of which does right by the survivors or the memories of the victims of these crimes. On a good day, we might learn something from the mistakes made in the wake of these occurrences; on a bad day, we shrug it off and find escapist fare to watch. The Playing Card Killer is unexceptional to the point where it seems as if it’s a cheap and easy way for Netflix to further pad its viewing stats. Is it any better than the media hypemongers it’s indicting? No, it really isn’t.

Sex and Skin: None so far.

Parting Shot: A shot of coroners wheeling a body out of a crime scene.

Sleeper Star: Busta is a key figure who shows up in the final 10 minutes of the episode, and cuts through the distracting playing-card talking points to tell us that the only evidence that truly matters here isn’t playing cards, but bullet casings and slugs. (And he’s right.)

Most Pilot-y Line: “In journalistic terms, it was an extraordinary game for us. We started speculating about absolutely everything.” – newspaper reporter F. Javier Barroso

Our Call: Another run-of-the-mill true-crime series? No thank you. SKIP IT.

John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.