This McMafia review contains spoilers.
McMafia Episode 5
McMafia episode 5 shows the mob doesn’t need to put a horse’s head in a bed to send a message. In The Godfather, a young Italian American is able to overcome the stigma of his past and make a comeback. On McMafia, a former Russian mobster who is now a crooked politician has his street cred ripped from him, as his reputation is smeared.
Semiyon Kleiman (David Strathairn) has a male lover. This wouldn’t sit very well with the old school mobsters. It didn’t fly too well with the Italian mob on The Sopranos. Frank Vincent’s Phil Leotardo was so disgusted to find Vito Spatafore was gay, he watched as he had him painfully executed in a highway motel. It’s a dangerous game. Kleiman gets arrested for beating and raping a young man. It makes the evening news. He faces 25 years and is useless to the organization. A colorful politician, he is forever darkened.
The smear campaign is masterfully done, like any mob operation. Semiyon goes to an exclusive party, and brings his own party favors. The witnesses are beaten, extorted, blackmailed. Police are bribed, and death hangs over the entire episode as even the reluctant criminal banker gets his designer white collar dirty.
Alex (James Norton) starts the episode practicing an art of self-defense. At the center of this particular exorcize is the importance of movement. Never stop moving. If you slow down, someone can hit you. Alex is just beginning to hit his stride. This is a watershed episode on many levels. We see that Alex isn’t above a little blackmail, sometimes even for altruistic purposes, when the opportunities arise. He leverages one deal against another, and tries to save a party girl. He also shows he’s ready to cut loose on his own.
The first transaction of the upstanding businessman is the transfer $5 million to ensure that the product stays secure. The product is heroin, and Alex has to keep it on track. He baldly lies to his compliance officer. He’s done it so many times now, it’s become second nature. He ignores his wife’s screams that Semiyon is a corrupt rapist for some kind of blind allegiance to a code of dishonor. Alex dives right in, driving around with Semiyon’s personal Luca Brasi, interviewing witnesses, following leads and, most importantly, making snap decisions based on his newfound criminal instincts.
Alex goes undercover as an art dealer to determine and secure an alibi for Semiyon. He doesn’t blink when he catches up to him outside a club and finds him licking his wounds. Later on, he will stare at the man’s corpse, as he is executed on his way to the police. Alex has seen violence before. He’s even escaped his own execution, but now we see his mind racing between how he caused the hit, and what it means for his business partner.
The biggest chance is Alex is that he confirms he is his father’s son. Dmitri swore his son would never go into the family business. Alex is a clean kid, kept separate from the whole world of crime. Dmitri made sure he went to the best schools, had the best neighbors. But Alex commits himself to his father’s world here. Semiyon’s downfall is a perfect exit point for the reluctant gangster. Alex can go back to his financial wheeling and dealing with a proper stiff upper lip and live a life of quiet desperation. It’s the English way, and Alex wants so very much to be a proper Brit. He found the perfect English bride-to-be, Rebecca (Juliet Rylance), although she’s a bit more in play than Alex might realize. Semiyon sees through it all, though. Alex is freed from business obligations and the responsibilities of revenge, and still he is pushing for an illicit deal. It’s not even a big money deal, by Semiyon’s standards. Alex is angling for power. He has come a long way in a short time, and who knows how far he can go, given his background.
Vadim Kalyagin (Merab Ninidze) is all menace tonight. The mob boss is a worthy throwback to the classic gangster portrayals of the 1970s. A ruthless family man, he gave McMafia its “tollbooth” scene in episode 3 when he beat a cop to death with a pipe. Tonight he is the perfect picture of good will. Vadim runs into Alex at the airport. He finds his company pleasant and the two actors have great chemistry together. It is a happy game of checkers, not even chess, and Vadim jumps around the board with mastery. Alex learns at the beginning of the episode to always keep moving, me sees a chance to run free, but Vadim was one step ahead. Vadim moved all his pieces long ago and is here to sit back and enjoy the game as it plays out. He is as much a spectator as a he is the conductor.
McMafia asks us to root for Alex, but Vadim is a badass who can make heart pop, to paraphrase Angel Heart. He is a smiling shark and he makes Alex into chum. A wizard in the financial world, he thought he had it all sussed out. James Norton lets Alex completely deflate into the airport chair, completely rudderless. “Episode 5” is significant because he has chosen to plot his own course.