McMafia Episode 1 Review: Russian Mob Branches Out

McMafia presents transnational crime as a franchise, but it’s not fast food.

This McMafia review contains spoilers.

McMafia Episode 1

AMC’s McMafia legitimizes bad business in a time when standards and practices are under siege by white collar criminals who use loopholes as larceny and ballots like bullets. Russia is the center of attention in the political news cycles, blamed for sealing the D.J. Trump administration by stealing votes from Hillary Clinton and depositing them in Jill Steyn’s columns, and rousing up the fringe elements of the far right so far they are now aligned with the former union of Soviets. The only thing they didn’t have to put effort into was to show Ted Cruz as a prick, and a flaccid one at that. That’s a bipartisan issue.

Everyone’s got Russian links. Politicians, businesses, international drug cartels and one-third of runway models prefer the ruble to the euro. The series starts in the Arabian Peninsula, where the gangster-politician is god. He rules the port authority, the police, practically everything a drug runner needs except the tunnels. There, biker chicks can flip a magnetized car bomb with a wink and a nod.

McMafia is not The Sopranos, even though it is similarly family-centered. It doesn’t have the gritty offhanded violence or the humor. Your mouth doesn’t water for caviar like it did for wine on the HBO series just by hearing it poured. It is continental and very British.

Ad – content continues below

Crimes are done in the boardroom not on the street, this is of course a stereotype, but don’t tell the Russians that. They think they are reinventing crime, and in so many ways they have. They’ve transformed it, modernized it, and made it international, and yet so continental. The opening credits show spreadsheets, pie charts, car-bombs and vans filled with sex-trafficked women. When mild-mannered investment banker Alex Godman (James Norton) gets into the office in the morning, the first thing he sees is a text message that Godman Capitol is under FCA investigation.

The new wave of crime is all about moving money from illegal enterprises into legitimate business. The series was inspired by journalist Misha Glenny’s 2008 book McMafia: Seriously Organised Crime, which explained the dissemination of the Eastern European outlaw brand since the break-up of the Soviet bloc. Russia privatized crime. Former KGB agent Vladimir Putin knew all the gangsters’ secrets and put them on the State payroll. Much like the Italian mafia, everything kicks up. The book examined the twigs of the Russian crime family tree, but didn’t pinpoint any one family.

If the Godmans were the Corleones from Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece The Godfather, Alex would be Michael. He is the son on the straight and narrow path, but more than that. He is the pampered son of a gangster who grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth that had previously been up someone else’s nose. Alex was raised in England, where he moved when he was 6. He was educated at Harvard. He is British citizen who shook hands with his uncles instead of kissing both cheeks. Alex doesn’t even like speaking Russian.

Alex is emotionally distant and while he says he doesn’t want to get involved in dubious doings, you know he’ll be dragged in. But it seems an easy pull. He comes up with criminal uses of the banking system so quickly and effectively you think he was born to it. He doesn’t want to take the family name off the family business. This means he has to have at least a grudging respect for the work that put him there in the first place. But he doesn’t bring enough interest to it in the first episode.

This is the same way crime is viewed on this level. How illegal does something have to be? Everything is illegal somewhere. Yesterday’s bootleggers’ sons became yesterday’s presidents and today it’s all been normalized, politicized as business as usual. TV has to bring out the unusual to keep up.

Alex Godman’s fiancée Rebecca Harper (Juliet Rylance) could be Kay, who taught her World War II hero fiancée not to be naïve enough to think presidents and senator have people killed. Rebecca teaches business ethics in London, where the rich raffle off supermodels like Catholic schools give out tricky trays. This is the kind of thing Alex’s uncle Boris (David Dencik) can enjoy in the civilized west. In the opening scene we might mistake him as a freewheeling Fredo Corleone, waiting for the chance to bang two cocktail waitresses at a time. It becomes clear he’s more the Sonny type, hotheaded and ready for quick action, until he reverts back to Fredoism.

Ad – content continues below

The over-enthusiastically friendly Uncle Boris lies to Alex to get him to align in a growing battle between the Russian and Israeli criminal underworld. David Strathairn plays Russian exile turned Israeli citizen and politician businessman Semiyon Kleiman. Strathairn speaks like an expatriated Russian in Israel, which isn’t the only cover he’s pulled over himself. He apparently fired the first shots in the war with Russian businessman Vadim Kalyagin (Merab Ninidze), the enterprising criminal who is currently favored by the Kremlin. The well-heeled drug trafficker retaliates against Godmon’s whole family in an orchestrated execution attempt that forces Alex’s mother (Mariya Shukshina) to learn how to reset the house alarms.

Alex’s ex-mobster father, Dmitri (Aleksey Serebryakov), sleeps through the attempt. Depressed over losing his favored state bad boy status, he is relegated to spectator status, relieving his boredom in duck parks while waiting for covert meetings with his son. He is a proud man that his son has to pretend is a harmless old man, a discarded bishop on the chessboard of transnational crime.

The cityscapes are beautiful. Pristine urban landscapes are surrounded by some body of water. This represents a kind of freedom the Gulag will never provide. The first episode ends in Marseille, where the Sun King greeted diplomats. The French King Louis XIV offered visiting dignitaries to chose whether to meet in the room or peace or the room of war. The episode ends with Vladim giving Alex a regal chance. Early in the episode the affable Uncle Boris warns Alex “You don’t go back to Russian like a beggar, apologizing to the Kremlin. You go back like a king,” like Burger King once it’s outsold McDonald’s.

The McDonald’s of Russia is a chain called Teremok, which serves Slavic classics like blini and kasha. They only have about 300 locations in the motherland and two locations in New York. McMafia isn’t TV’s equivalent of fast food, though. It is a meal is prepared over time, with a lot of personalized spices. Norton, who is reportedly on the shortlist to be the next James Bond, doesn’t play with his food, but he would rather stir a martini than freeze a bottle of vodka. It seems he’d prefer fish and chips over caviar, making McMafia closer to The Night Manager than Goodfellas. Although I wouldn’t suspect he’ll keep his upper lip so stiff for the run of the series.

McMafia Episode 1 was written by Hossein Amini and James Watkins, and directed by James Watkins.


3 out of 5