This McMafia review contains spoilers.
McMafia Episode 2
Nobody likes to be sidelined. Just like nobody wants to be Fredo in The Godfather. In the mafia, being sidelined can be fatal. On McMafia, fatality can be an opportunity. In episode 2, Alex (James Norton) learns about family ties and binding contracts. At the close of the premiere episode, the clean British son of a Russian criminal took an informal meeting with his father’s nemesis Vadim after balking at entering the family business with his uncle’s relatively stable contact Semiyon (David Strathairn). Tonight, Alex dips a toe.
Well, not a toe, exactly, they can get stubbed. Alex dips a different digit. In a pivotal scene where decisions are made, we see Alex at a criminal crossroad. The scene is suspenseful, but the suspense doesn’t play out across the actor’s face. Crime is much cleaner now, much more efficient. It is done through wires and cables. Most crime movies are set in analog worlds, but McMafia is technologically evolved. The drama unfolds over a computer screen. Yes, we see Alex’s face, his eyes, as he hovers his mouse over a forbidden transaction. But the storyline is pushed forward by a finger.
Is Alex a criminal? That really depends on how big a crime has to be to be considered actionable. Is it violent? If not, does it hurt someone financially? Does it have consequences beyond the transference of capital? Alex Godman was hit hard by the execution of his uncle Boris, whose first attempt to cajole the young banker into arrears got caught up in logistics. But the simple click of a financial transaction doesn’t feel like so big a deal. It’s like the pilot who dropped bombs safely from the comfort of his cockpit on the series M*A*S*H who doesn’t see the carnage until Dr. Pierce forces him to witness the carnage from the point of view of a battlefield operating room, still without a cement floor.
The opening scene shows unadulterated criminality at its most base, degrading and dehumanizing. 22-year-old Russian beautician Lyudmilla Nikolayevna (Sofia Lebedeva) lands in Cairo with the promise of a steady job and a view of the pyramids, but is bagged and corralled through the Egyptian-Israeli border. The young detainee learns a fast and valuable lesson, one of the women she encounters tries to flee after getting raped. She doesn’t get any kind of sympathy. She gets her knees shot out and is left on the side of the road, damaged goods. By the time proper businessman Semiyon’s assistant Tanya picks Lyudmilla from the cargo, there is no argument, no fight. Anything in her that might protest has been discarded on the sandy road.
Crime isn’t always pretty, and while it doesn’t always pay it does pack on frequent flyer miles. McMafia visits Mumbai, where Dilly is undermining Benny Chopra’s authority at the port. It goes to Prague, Czechoslovakia, where Semiyon collects a blood debt. And it virtually visits the Cayman Islands, where street gangs happily catch snacks on their tongues on their way to international intrigue. A snake with glasses bites with assurance, and Semiyon oozes with venom.
Vadim is a more complex character as he emerges from mere criminality to larger villainy. He visits the grave of his dead wife in a scene that parallels Alex visiting the grave of his dead uncle Boris. He takes his daughter to the dog show, where she thinks he might find someone to date, but he is looking for a prize pup to take home as an attack dog. It’s not just any dog, it is a prize winner named Little Vadim. He takes the insult as a complement, and the dog as a prized gift.
Not all criminals are arch, not even on a show called McMafia where golden parachutes often fail to open. Some are downright dim, like counterfeiter Reznik, who took a very real 5 million euros from Semiyon’s pocket. Alex realizes that sometimes the smartest criminals are the cops, or ex-cops like Benes, who proves to be valuable enough to move up in ranks. To paraphrase Russian Ensign Pavel Chekhov on the original Star Trek, no one questions the assassination of an officer who is dumb enough to get his fingers caught in a pickle jar.
While Benes’s ascendance is assured by Reznik’s quick descent, Alex’s father’s freefall looks like it will never reach bottom. Dmitri (Aleksey Serebryakov), who was usurped by Vladim as Mother Russia’s favorite bad son, is still reeling from his brother Boris’s death. Already homesick, this a blow not even vodka can cure. Dmitri can’t fall hard enough, though, since he blames himself for his brother’s death. Russian Jewish guilt is a palpable thing, but in the aftermath of crime, omertà is still the rule of law.
McMafia episode 2 continues the slow steady pace of the premiere, and it appears the show will keep a steadier pace towards Alex’s ultimate evil. He’s committed himself to a life of crime, but is less committal to his own family, especially his wife. Alex keeps his lips buttoned, but his stiff upper one gives the series more of the makings of a British espionage thriller than a mob series.