‘The Playing Card Killer’ Netflix Review: A Recommended Watch For The Fans Of True Crime Documentary


The Playing Card Killer, or El Asesino de la baraja, is a Spanish crime docuseries on Netflix that presents one of the most horrific serial killing cases in the country. In 2003, when the Spanish capital Madrid was already going through a tremendous increase in violent crimes, one mysterious perpetrator was on the loose, killing clueless victims and leaving behind cards with the Spanish suit of cups at the crime scene. Netflix’s presentation of the case in The Playing Card Killer is satisfying, as it focuses on the many blunders of the media and the police authorities, but also slightly disappointing, as it could have been given a couple more episodes for slightly more depth.

Early in the morning of February 5, 2003, a bus driver in the Alameda de Osuna region in the district of Barajas stumbled upon the injured body of a man by the side of the road. Shocked and concerned, the driver stopped the bus and went out to check, following which he informed the authorities of the matter. As police arrived, the man was found to be dead from a blow to the head, with blood gushing out of one of his eyes. There was also a very distinct puncture wound at the side of his head, which was deemed to be the main cause of death, and the police eventually found out that this was caused by a bullet wound. After some preliminary investigation, the victim was identified as an airport janitor by the name of Juan Carlos Martin Estacio. While the police at the time were quite well aware of the Spanish mafia and criminal gangs eliminating each other, no such ties with Juan Carlos could be found.

It was quite evident that this was the work of some perpetrator who had some other motive behind the murder, and in an effort to know more, a detailed search of the crime scene was performed. The print and television news media also became a big part of this case, as they constantly kept reporting on it. It was equally mysterious and sensational when a single playing card with the Spanish suit of cups was found at the scene, lying close by the victim’s legs. This card, an ace of cups, soon became the focus of the media as everyone tried to find out what the card’s presence could mean. From an association with gambling and debts to some mystical significance with respect to how the card had been placed, everything possible was discussed on television news programs and newspaper articles.

But while the media remained fixed on the card, the police authorities and some sharp-eyed investigative journalists were busy with a different matter. The bullet that had killed Juan Carlos was almost the same as the one that had killed a 50-year-old man a month earlier and also a young boy and a woman at a bar the very next day. What was even more suspicious was that the 7.62-millimeter caliber bullet was used very specifically with a handgun made in Russia called the Tokarev. Within a few weeks after the murder of Juan Carlos, though, both sides came together when a second man was shot in the face and a playing card, the two of cups, had been left behind. Similarly, a few days later, a couple were shot dead, and this time the three of cups and the four of cups cards were left behind. By now, the Spanish police and the media understood that a serial killer was on the loose.

The real story of The Playing Card Killer itself is quite horrific and chilling, especially owing to the fact that there was very little connection or pattern between the victims, which suggested that the perpetrator had been choosing them randomly. But the show makes it a point to discuss these victims and feature their living relatives over its three episodes, mainly because it also stresses how insensitive and careless the media had been at the time. Back in 2003, it really seemed like both the media and the police authorities had completely forgotten or disregarded the victims themselves and their families, who were only treated as objects found at the crime scene. As the wife of one of the victims says in an interview in the third episode of the miniseries, nobody from the police or the media cared to question her about how her life had been affected following her husband’s murder. It is also quite unfortunate that none of the victims’ families have been given any compensation by the government, and honoring them seems to be one of the primary objectives of the series. Such an objective is important since it is easy to question why the Netflix documentary focuses on a matter from so many years ago, but highlighting the side of the victims definitely seems like a strong cause.

The Playing Card Killer also brings to light various other deep-rooted matters that certainly cast a negative light on the authorities. For example, the perpetrator was later found to have been part of the Spanish army once, and it was through an army mission overseas that they got access to the Russian handgun. Were the Spanish army and government then not even slightly responsible for what had happened? There had been attempts to hush up the matter or bring it to a fast end only to influence the upcoming elections. Equally responsible were the Spanish media, whose sensationalizing ultimately led to more dramatic acts performed by the killer as well. There was also an instance when the alleged perpetrator pointed at a different possible theory, but the court and police simply refused to investigate, which also keeps the question of whether the real perpetrator had been caught, relevant to this day.

The Playing Card Killer presents all of this in its three episodes, each under an hour long, and my biggest complaint is that it could have been given at least one more episode. But the series does maintain a compact narrative that unfolds, which perhaps could have been affected in that case. Overall, The Playing Card Killer is an interesting watch that is recommendable to fans of the true crime documentary genre.

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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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