Lupin Arrived with a Bang, but Its Excellent Part 2 Debuted to Silence. What Happened?

The danger of living in the shadow of the Netflix spin machine.

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<i>Lupin</i> Arrived with a Bang, but Its Excellent Part 2 Debuted to Silence. What Happened?

Back in December, as a tortuous 2020 was finally coming to a close, Netflix’s highly-anticipated Bridgerton became the late-breaking belle of the streaming ball. Hitting just as our collective pandemic exhaustion butted up against television’s typical mid-holiday lull, the fizzy Shonda Rhimes romance almost immediately found itself garnering wall-to-wall coverage from critics (including Paste) the Internet over, the takes feeding the ever-hungry flames of Twitter’s Trending Topics forge and generating enough #content to keep the pop culture podcast ecosystem rolling in takes well past the end of the calendar year. It hardly came as a surprise, then, to find Netflix self-reporting, a little over a month later, that the platform had seen a staggering 63 million households binge the series’ debut season in its first four weeks—a new record, given the mere 62 million who had reportedly binged Netflix’s other blockbuster 2020 hit, The Queen’s Gambit, over the same period.

Incredibly, that new record stood for barely a month. By the end of January, with an astonishing 70 million reported household binges to its first-month name, a French heist drama called Lupin came out of nowhere and absolutely crushed it. Again, Twitter had become #take central. Again, the pop culture podcast cycle was running at full-tilt. Again, critics—this one absolutely included—couldn’t get enough. The cultural power of Lupin felt undeniable. And with Part 1’s wild, beach-set cliffhanger of an ending, so too did the possibility that the series might break its own record whenever Part 2 eventually arrived. I mean, who wasn’t holding their breath over the fate of France’s sweetest Arsène-loving teen? Personally, I was ready for Assane (Omar Sy) to burn down whatever abandoned château he might find, if it meant saving Raoul (Etan Simon) from Pellegrini’s creepy be-scarf’d henchman (Adama Niane).

Well, in case you missed it—as most people seemed to—Part 2 officially hit our queues on June 11. And honestly, while we’ll obviously have to wait until mid-July for Netflix to report any new first month binge numbers (or not), I can’t help but imagine that, if any summer show is going to break January’s 70-million household record, it won’t be Lupin. Certainly, it performed well; per streaming analytics service FlixPatrol, it topped the global Netflix charts the first week following Part 2’s release. But whereas global and American charts more or less matched up at the start of the month, each seeing the debut season of Sweet Tooth take the baton from the final season of Lucifer on June 6, the remainder of June was absolutely dominated, in the U.S., by NBC’s already-canceled sci-fi mystery Manifest. The June 11 return of Lupin? Invisible.

Of course, not every pop culture obsession revolves around Netflix. Beyond the borders of the OG streamer, that same three-week period on either side of Lupin’s return—that is, the same window in which one might have also expected to see a new surge from January’s Lupin social tsunami—also saw the hotly anticipated premieres of iCarly (on Paramount+), Physical (on Apple TV+), Tuca and Bertie (on Adult Swim), Starstruck (on HBO Max), and Loki (on Disney+). But while it’s true that many of these have managed, in the past month, to whip TV Twitter (and Reddit and Tumblr, etc) up into one minor #take frenzy or another, it shouldn’t necessarily have followed that these frenzies would suck up so much oxygen that Lupin’s moral Part 2 victory would go entirely unheralded. It’s 2021. Our capacity for #takes is, collectively, colossal.

As Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw underscored in a recent look at the streaming industry’s trend towards opacity, “[W]e are entering a world where it is getting harder and harder to determine what is popular, and what is not.” Which is to say: It’s shocking to be given any insight into the stats that make the streaming economy tick. But numbers as specific as 62, 63, 70 million, with a context not just of “at least 2 minutes watched,” but rather whole household binges? That’s momentous. To then be told that, as of January 2021, the most binged new series in Netflix history was a complexly plotted French heist drama about a dark-skinned Black man using France’s own inherent racism to, as they say, manger les riches? Well, that felt, legitimately, thrilling. But if any streaming success as reportedly stratospheric as Lupin’s was in back in January can fizzle out so thoroughly, that what should have been one of 2021’s most hotly anticipated returns comes back to find that its original American audience has, for the most part, moved on? Well, let’s just say it’s a biting reminder not to put too much faith in whatever numbers Netflix (or any other streamer) *chooses* to volunteer. And that, regardless, popularity in the streaming era is fickle indeed.

So, sure—as a fan, I just want to get to enjoy my favorite shows. As a critic, though, I want to understand what the story around those shows mean. And as the stratospheric early success-meets-forgotten summer return of Lupin so neatly demonstrates, doing either in a landscape of selective self-reporting will mean always teetering on the edge of indignant confusion. Because as Shaw also notes: “This opacity allows companies to claim certain records or successes without providing substantive data.” Who is actually deciding what is popular?

In any case, as a fan, let me say this: Lupin, Part 2, is as slick and satisfying as Part 1. However good you might have thought Sy was stepping into Assane Diop’s talented shoes in the series’ debut, he’s even stronger here, thanks in large part to the fact that the threads tying him to his family (Etan Simon and Ludivine Sagnier), his allies (Antoine Gouy and Soufiane Guerrab) and his past (Mamadou Haidara, Adrian Valli De Villebonne, and Ludmilla Makowski) finally come together in meaningful ways. Haidara’s work as teen Assane stands out in particular, as this second set of episodes finds him at last testing the gentleman thief waters that Sy’s adult Assane is fully immersed in. This fact, in turn, gives the camera the chance to highlight just how precisely Sy and Haidara are mirroring each other’s takes on the character—from Assane’s slouchy walk to his slight upward tilt of the chin to the charming pout he puts on when his friends don’t immediately go along with his schemes, Part 2 makes it almost too easy to believe Sy and Haidara are anything but the same person, filmed two decades apart.

This isn’t to say everything works. As fun as the final schemes are, both on the episodic level and overall, Part 2 often asks the audience to spin too many narrative plates, slingshotting us forward and backward not just in historic time (i.e., 1995 to 2021), but also in episode-specific, present-day time (i.e. “three weeks earlier” to “today”) all within the span of a single hour. While it’s easy enough to tell teen Assane’s world from that of adult Assane, keeping track of the more subtle temporal shifts within the same time period—as obligatory to the heist genre as such subtlety is—often ends up being more irritating than fun, and not least because at least a fraction of American viewers will be watching in the original French with English subtitles, meaning a significant part of their attention will be devoted to keeping track of fairly small text at the bottom of the screen. Keeping subtle as our watchword, a judicious application of various lens filters (à la Cruel Summer) might have gone a long way towards resolving this confusion. Then again, being a bit confused until the final reveal, then getting to watch it all over again, with full knowledge of the schemes at hand, is one of the main reasons people love a heist flick. Who am I to take away any of that? Besides, as far as the ending goes, anyone who hasn’t yet watched will be relieved (if unsurprised) to know that the whole Pellegrini affair is fully—and sensationally—wrapped up by the end of the final episode.

Unfortunately for us, with production only recently having begun on Part 3 (Parts 1 and 2 were filmed in tandem), those stories will still be a long time coming. But maybe that’s for the best—by the time Lupin does come back, the opaque gods of the streaming / pop culture sea may finally be ready to uplift it once again and bless a million new takes. Or not. But if there does end up being a conversation, I’ll see you there.

Or, as Assane would say, A tout.

Parts 1 & 2 of Lupin are now streaming on Netflix.

Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.

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