This McMafia review contains spoilers.
McMafia Episode 3
In McMafia, episode 3, Alex’s (James Norton) family life gets a little too close to his “family” life. While wheelings and dealings are being transacted internationally in the Russian crime gambit, the son of a former mob boss gets a business trip offer he can’t refuse, because his girlfriend Rebecca (Juliet Rylance) is also invited. This leads to the British-raised, Russian-born banker to confirm his Englishness.
Antonio Mendez (Caio Blat) is a criminal, but it’s not on his business card. He is also not who he seems. He passes himself off as Harvard student who chugged with Alex, took his business advice and turned a small investment into a fishing fleet. Mendez is a cunning strategist. Anticipating a sour deal, he doesn’t only invite Alex to the South of Franc, he preemptively invites his wife. She is so dutiful she doesn’t even expect to go. This immediately gets her on the trip. This is how Great Britain became a United Kingdom.
Rebecca, who lectures on ethical business practices, isn’t the best person to vet Alex’s business partners. She falls for the college friend story Antonio tells. When she compares the man she met to the photo in Alex’s college yearbook, she assumes the book must have the wrong photo because he doesn’t match the Antonio Mendez she met. This takes a leap. “Who’s being naïve Kate,” Michael Corleone might ask in The Godfather. Rebecca She doesn’t even bat an eyelash when Mendez takes their passports to check them into their hotel. He’s just too amiable to be dangerous.
Mother Russia’s favorite black sheep mob boss Vadim Kalyagin (Merab Ninidze) is becoming the most likable character on the show. He doesn’t come across nearly as evil as Semiyon Kleiman (David Strathairn). He visits his wife’s grave. He takes his daughter to museums and ornate old churches. He even lights a candle, and give his daughter the privacy of a reflective spiritual moment. McMafia will ultimately challenge its audience to root for Alex or Vadim, when they actually would make a pretty good team. The first time we see Vadim in this episode, he is playing “traitor” with some kids and wearing a happy half smile. He is very charming with his arranged date, but isn’t in the mood. But he’s got an impish side to him.
This is a sharp contrast to Alex’s own father, whose goomah is causing trouble. To be fair, Dmitri (Aleksey Serebryakov), should have an Italian mistress. Tony Soprano had a Russian mistress on The Sopranos, and look how well that worked out for him. Irina got Tony into fights at the marina, when some eastern Europeans called her out. She called Tony at home and got his wife Carmela, who was then forced to feel sorry for the woman her husband slept with. Tony gave her up, drove her to attempt suicide, slept with her one-legged cousin.
On McMafia, Dmitri’s wife lays it on the line, brutally and succinctly. You want him? You got him, she tells Dmitri’s mistress. And everything that goes with that, his moods, his drinking, his aging and all the humiliating medical chores that go with that. The wife got the fallen mobster for the best years of his life, and can afford to let him rot with some young whore. Mariya Shukshina, as Oksana Godman, plays this scene magnificently. She draws in her prey, pounces and leaves her for dead. But she only barely covers the pain behind it. The betrayal plays out on her lips when it doesn’t come out of her eyes. She is steely and firm, but so damned close to being vulnerable at every moment.
Mendez figures that anything that hurts Vadim is good for Alex and it’s beginning to look like Vadim is not quite so invulnerable as it would seem. He can traverse the criminal underworld, but is still at the whim of the internal politics of cops. It varies from state to state, country to country. It is an ever-shifting sand, and criminals are servants to corrupt cops. Hebrew slaves were forced to wear tattoos and Jews will not dignify body art with personal display, not matter how tough they might have to appear. Russian Jewish mobsters’ reputations are so hard, they can balk at prison tattoos without getting tagged as weak.
While we lost Boris in the first episode we get a budding Natasha Fatale. Former beautician Lyudmilla Nikolayevna (Sofia Lebedeva) is now being groomed as a corporate spy. She was rustled into a life in the sex trade, but saved for only the most elite customers. She doesn’t have to sleep with any of the high-powered men she meets and greets, she only has to complement them on their business acumen. This opens them up to bragging, and the bigger the boasts, the better the tips. She’s being groomed for a position as a personal Anna Chapman, the mesmerizing Russian spy who got upsold on the espionage exchange.
I’ve said before that McMafia feels more like a British spy series than a Russian gangster series. Antonio Mendez’s beachfront getaway could be a few rocky sand dunes over from where the BBC shot The Night Manager. It’s a spy show wearing a gangster hat. But not a fedora. Even the score is more espionage-friendly. The theme sounds a Bond song opening transcribed into a minor key for Penny Dreadful. This can be argued by saying the show is about the Russian mob, but Eastern bloc criminals have traditionally been portrayed as far more ruthless. They are as street as Italians. This isn’t to say we should hear electric balalaikas ringing out. The theme music is good, but it’s not crime and that’s a crime.
Mendez sees the coasts as ports of opportunity, once you conquer the sea, anything inland is one big jackpot. Alex is still finding out who he is. While he doesn’t let his ambiguity show on his perpetual poker-face, he acts on his indecision by planting a Union Jack on his shore as an anchor. He finally proposes to Rebecca, but it is to save himself. He no longer knows who he is, but he is afraid of who he may be becoming. His own family.