“Lupin” Is a Family Saga Dressed as a Heist Drama
The new Netflix show is a mystery thriller, but it's also about how we recapitulate family trauma
I’ll admit it: I watched all of Netflix’s new series Lupin in less than 24 hours. (In my defense, there are a mere five episodes in the first chapter.) And I’m not alone—the show has surged into the top 10 in countries all over the world, and Netflix projects that over 70 million people will watch Lupin within 28 days of its release. It’s their most successful French program ever.
Critics are loving Lupin, too. They praise the show as “stylish” and “slick,” compare it aptly to the Ocean’s 11 series, and celebrate Omar Sy’s “charismatic” performance. But in limiting their scope to the show’s success within the ever-popular heist genre, they fail to note the real reason Lupin is such a triumph. While the show works as a delectably binge-able mystery, on a deeper level it is about intergenerational family trauma. It’s the story of a man who lost his father and in turn risks losing his son.
The series is inspired by the fictional thief Arsène Lupin, hero of a series of 19th century novels by Maurice Leblanc (and later loads of spinoffs, from television series to anime). Lupin is an icon, the Sherlock Holmes of French culture.
Lupin follows Assane Diop (Omar Sy). When Assane was an adolescent, his father Babakar, a Senegalese immigrant chauffeur, was falsely accused of stealing a necklace once belonging to Marie Antoinette from his wealthy Parisian employers, the Pellegrinis. After a forced confession, Babakar (Fargass Assanded) hung himself in prison. Twenty-five years later, the show opens as Assane begins to enact vengeance, modeling himself on the “gentleman thief” Lupin and plotting to steal the Antoinette necklace from the Louvre on the night it goes up for auction.
The story toggles between adult Assane’s capers and critical scenes from his past. The flashbacks follow an orphaned teenager who navigates his grief by compass of the last book his father gave him, a Leblanc novel he reads again and again, filling the margins with notes. The book is his last shard of a parent, and he uses it to raise himself into its hero.
Grown-up Assane is the living incarnation of his idol. He pulls off seamless deceptions with what Adrian Horton in The Guardian called “the illusion of dauntless competency under pressure.” Without breaking a sweat, he leaps between rooftops, befuddles detectives, and literally slips the prison noose.
Yet there’s a crack in the veneer. By becoming a criminal, even the noble Robin Hood type, Diop risks being caught and imprisoned for real. If that happens, his son will suffer the same loss that wrecked Assane’s life. And — without dropping too big a spoiler — in the final scene of the fifth episode, that nightmare seems about to come true (though it’s a cliffhanger, so who knows).
If disaster is inevitable, why do it? Why steal the necklace and take on this life of crime? Diop wants to avenge his father, sure. But he might have become a lawyer and pursued exoneration by legal means. He didn’t do that, because justice isn’t all he wants. He also, however unconsciously, wants to heal the unresolved wounds of his childhood.
This is what people do. We replay family patterns in the hope that one of these times, we’ll break the cycle. The outcome will be different, the story rewritten with a happy ending. You marry a meth addict, just like your mom (yes, but this time you can save her!). You work for a man as self-absorbed as your dad (yes, but this time he’ll really see me!). You find a best friend as needy as your OCD sister (yes, but…). Or, to avenge the father you believe was not a thief, you become a thief. It’s not irony. It’s family.
When I was 18 months old, my father left. He didn’t become an alcoholic until years later, but by the time I could form a memory I’d preserved the smell of him, like something tenderly pressed between sheets of wax: Kessler’s whisky and Marlboros.
When I visited him and his new family for a week each summer, my dad and I sat together under a cone of lamplight. He talked, his Louisville accent sweetening each story of loss. I come from nothin’, went his blue-collar refrain. He was a builder, and I studied his broad, callused hands with awe. Smoke spiraled up into the darkness. A melting ice cube knocked softly against the side of his glass, watering down a drink I couldn’t yet name.
The pattern took a minute to set in. In high school I dated nice guys from solid families, guys who grew into trustworthy men with respectable careers. I broke up with them. In college, I found the real kryptonite: exciting, dangerous, very handsome men. They were artists or musicians, intellectuals and dreamers, working class underdogs with a poetic brilliance no one else could see—and, more often than not, they were addicts.
I kept it up for a decade or two. Unfailingly I found an alcoholic, a pothead, or some subtler form of the Man Who Cannot be Counted Upon. I loved them, craved them as voraciously as the father I’d never gotten. Some I even allowed to leave me first.
After years in therapy and various support groups, I thought I’d broken the cycle. Finally, I had a partner who checked the right boxes: no notable addictions, great job, divorced-but-nice parents. He was a homeowner, gentle and kind, with the ability to discuss feelings. He had an inflatable kayak. My dreams had come true! Not just the fantasy of some ideal guy—the dream of outrunning a pattern that had kept me from things I dearly wanted, like a family. At last!
And yet. Around the same time I met Kevin, I became a wildland firefighter, the first and only woman on a hotshot crew with—wait for it—20 men. The job required me to spend six months a year on the road with these guys, who quickly became my buddies, my source of safety in a dangerous line of work and, in an emotional sense, family.
These dudes are diverse. Some of them are classic Good Guys with passels of children and sober lives in the ‘burbs. Some are Bay Area foodies or sensitive mountain bachelors teaching themselves to play the banjo. But a good number of them, per the stereotype, are hard-drinking rogues with a wad of chew perennially tucked in an upper lip.
One of their reliable sources of amusement is to talk me into taking a Zyn (a white, tobacco-free nicotine pouch). I’m such a baby that a single one of these pressed to my gum goes straight to my head, giving me the spins like two shots on an empty stomach. The guys hoot as they watch me stumble out to the fireline muttering, Oh god, I’m drunk! Can I take this out yet?
“One of us,” they chanted after they’d talked me into Zyn for the first time. “One. Of. Us!”
There was no greater high than feeling like I belonged with them.
So have I broken the cycle? Yes, and no. Beyond working with versions of my dad, or becoming him (who has the callused hands now?), there are other problems common to drinkers’ children: low self-esteem, martyrdom, approval-seeking, emotional numbness… the list goes on. My effort to heal these things isn’t a one-shot deal; it’s a slow unfolding, a life’s work. I’m getting there.
My father’s father was a traveling salesman who left all his wives and children behind. My father, wounded irrevocably by that abandonment, proceeded to abandon many of his own children. But he did a little better, didn’t he? He provided for us financially, off and on. He stayed in the house with my half-siblings until they were teenagers, even if his version of “in the house” was shutting himself in his office to drink. Lucinda Williams’ voice poured from his stereo, the forlorn wail slipping under the door along with a whiff of smoke.
Trauma isn’t an exceptional human experience; it’s an all too common one. Reading about trauma, I’m humbled by the smallness of my issues. I’ve just got your run-of-the-mill absentee drunk dad, whereas others have outlived unthinkable pain.
There’s the PTSD common among combat veterans and prisoners of war; the trauma of oppression that has affected generations of indigenous people; the trauma of slavery and continued discrimination that causes endless suffering for Black communities; deep trauma among the survivors of the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide, and that’s to say nothing of the acts-of-fate trauma endured by survivors of natural disasters, who see their homes and loved ones destroyed by fire, flood, storm, or famine. There is birth trauma and the trauma of death—even expected, natural death from old age. Maybe trauma is just part of being human.
Interestingly, researchers posit at least two mechanisms by which trauma responses are passed down from one generation to the next. Our behavior changes in response to painful events — for example, mothers who’ve been through a genocide tend to teach their children not to trust anyone, or never to ask for help because it isn’t safe.
Trauma is also handed down through epigenetics. In response to extreme stresses, our genes are altered. Certain genes are turned on or off, and these changed genes are passed on to subsequent generations. Researchers studying Civil War survivors learned that the children of Union prisoners of war who had endured especially harsh conditions died sooner than the children of non-POW’s. Psychologists from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York found “that Holocaust survivors and their children showed changes in the same location of the same gene—the FKBP5, a stress-related gene linked to PTSD and depression—while controls did not.”
Epigenetics is a relatively new field, so I imagine that in the coming years we’ll learn much more about the myriad ways we carry the genetic marks of our parents’ and their parents’ suffering.
It seems reasonable to assume that many or even most of us feel the effects of intergenerational family trauma, whether we’re aware of it or not. Watching Lupin, then, we see ourselves in Omar Sy’s beautiful, flawed Assane. Yes, an engrossing plot and the thrill of an underdog’s comeuppance are fun. But the feeling of recognition—the sense that this could be me or this is me or this is all of us—is why we really love the show.
Our longing for a positive resolution for the characters is rooted in a yearning to be free from our own pain. We don’t just sink into that couch on winter nights hoping to numb out with a bowl of popcorn (although, sure, that too). We compulsively take in stories, hungrily bingeing on narrative, because it gives us reason to hope.
We’ll see where the series goes. I’m hopeful that Assane Diop will pull it off, change the ancestral narrative, and save his family. If so, the message of the show would align with my deepest beliefs about trauma: that in time, and by helping each other, we can all be healed.