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McMafia series 1 review

Episodes: 8

Premiered: 2018

Duration: 1 hr

A complex and densely-plotted thriller based on Misha Glenny’s smash hit 2008 work of non-fiction McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld adapted by the BBC, McMafia series 1 fictionalises the book while remaining very true to its source.

Happy Valley’s James Norton leads a cast including the likes of David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck) and Juliet Rylance (The Knick). Norton plays Alex, the wealthy son of a Russian mobster who is trying to sever ties with the underworld. Things, of course, quickly spiral out of control and in doing so, we’re treated to glimpses of the complicated and corrupt worlds of organised crime, money laundering and high finance.

Here’s Stuart Barr’s McMafia series 1 review.

McMafia episode 1 review

Based on British journalist Misha Glenny’s non-fiction book, McMafia: Crime Without Frontiers, the BBC’s ambitious eight-part crime saga McMafia has kicked off 2018’s new crop of crime drama in style.

McMafia is an urban crime saga set in a global village. Frontiers restrict the movements of the poor but present no such restrictions for an elite whose money moves freely among offshore accounts. The lines between legitimate and illegitimate business have become blurred, translated into a global language of currency. Whether it’s drugs, guns, freight or property, the spreadsheets look the same.

Created by director James Watkins (Eden Lake, The Woman in Black) and writer Hossein Amini (Drive, Our Kind of Traitor), this first episode teases a globe spanning and thematically complex thriller in the style of John le Carré or Fredrick Forsyth. The use of glamorous locations – Mumbai, London, Tel Aviv, and the Palace of Versailles feature in this opening episode – high society parties serving caviar and champagne, and the extraordinary number of tuxedos have already drawn comparisons to The Night Manager.

McMafia by Misha GlennyUsing Glenny’s book for inspiration, Amini and Watkins have drawn on a number of true stories but have woven them into a fictional narrative that is initially focussed on the Godman family. The Godmans are of Russian origin but live in London after patriarch Dimitri Godman (Aleksey Serebryakov) was exiled having angered Vadim Kalyagin (Merab Ninidze), a powerful oligarch with ex-KGB connections.

Dimitri’s son Alex (James Norton) has been raised and educated in the West, and fully assimilated in British culture is now in charge of his own financial firm, which he has scrupulously kept clear of any Russian investment to avoid the taint of corruption. This has meant refusing any assistance from his beloved and wealthy uncle Boris (David Dencik).

Boris places the entire family in danger by arranging an attempt on Kalyagin’s life as part of efforts to consolidate his personal power. An unwilling Alex is pulled inexorably towards a world of violence and corruption, when vastly wealthy but mysterious Israeli businessman Semiyon Kleiman (David Straithairn) presents him with a potential lifeline – but one that starts him on a slippery slope of compromise.

Apart from Norton (Happy Valley, War and Peace, Belle) and veteran actor Straithairn (The Bourne Ultimatum, Sneakers) McMafia’s cast is full of international actors largely unfamiliar to British audiences. This gives it an immediate air of authenticity, avoiding the pitfall of British thesps inflicting dodgy ‘Russky’ accents on the audience (see the movie of Child 44 for a particularly egregious example).

Director Watkins puts together this opening episode with slick efficiency, concentrating on building character, introducing an intricate multi-stranded narrative, and establishing a glamorous world that masks the reek of corruption. While keeping his powder largely dry, Watkins does mount a thrilling suspense sequence in the opener to make clear that he and Amini do not intend this to be a tedious examination of the complexities of international finance.

At one point, Alex Godman is pointedly asked “what will it take to corrupt you?” It’s not a question of what, just how many episodes.

Did you tune in for McMafia episode 1? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below…

Read Stuart’s review of McMafia episode 2 here.

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McMafia episode 2 review

WARNING: contains spoilers for McMafia episode 2. Still catching up? Read Stuart’s review of episode 1 here.

If McMafia episode 1 showed us that crime pays, episode 2 looked to where the money is from. We also began to sense a sharp contrast between the new style of corporate criminal represented by Semiyon Kleiman (David Straithairn), and an older breed represented by a Czech gangster Jan Reznik.

In a harrowing opening, a young Russian arrives in Cairo for what she thinks is a job as a resort beautician. The job does not exist and shortly after being picked up from the airport she is forced into sexual slavery. Throughout the episode, we return to this story as it gradually intersects with the efforts of Alex Godman (James Norton) to save his business and his family from the wrath of Russian oligarch Vadim Kalyagin (Merab Ninidze) after his uncle financed an unsuccessful assassination attempt.

With his financial fund on the verge of collapse owing to (inaccurate) rumours of corrupt Russian investment, Alex receives an investment lifeline from Kleiman but the cash injection comes with a big catch. Alex must set up a fund to launder the Israeli’s money.

McMafia director James Watkins and lead writer Hosseim Amini have both named the 1989 Channel 4 series Traffik as an influence. This was demonstrated as the scope of the story expanded. In addition to people trafficking in Egypt and Israel, we were taken to Prague to see a factory in which a largely South East Asian immigrant workforce manufacture counterfeit perfume.

Kleiman wants to invest in a Reznik’s counterfeiting operation of in order to compete against the Russians who have come to control illegal operations in the country. Showing off his factory the hulking Czech explains that it was a former tractor assembly line, “now Chinese make tractor, I make perfume.”

Kleiman is confident of his offer, with his investment Reznik can vastly increase his profits. However, the gangster does not care. He is far happier being a large fish in a small pond allowed to operate by the Russians. Alex has been brought along to explain the figures but Reznik won’t even take the meeting, instead sending his right-hand man Karel Benes (Karel Roden), a former Czech policeman.

Reznik is a dinosaur: he has the physique of a wrestler and his negotiating tactics are brute force and intimidation. Kleiman is willing to write off his investment in the country as a lost cause, but Alex sees potential in Benes. As they prepare to leave Prague with their tails between their legs, Alex tells Benes “you are someone we could do business with.”

McMafia is developing into a complex examination of crime on a global scale. What is absent so far is any sense of an opposition to the forces of corruption. There is no evidence of any forces of law and order – in fact, the only checks on Kleiman’s progress internationally appear to be levels of corrupt bureaucracy. There has been passing mention of ethical investment, something Alex’s girlfriend Rebecca Harper lectures on, but this has yet to be developed.

Did you tune in for McMafia episode 2? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below…

Read Stuart’s review of McMafia episode 3 here.

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McMafia episode 3 review

WARNING: contains spoilers for McMafia episode 3. Still catching up? Read Stuart’s review of episode 2 here.

The third episode of McMafia picks up some months after Semiyon Kleiman (David Strathairn) and Alex Godman (James Norton) visited Prague. Kleiman had hoped finance Czech counterfeiter Jan Reznik’s operations and weaken his Russian rival Vadim Kalyagin (Merab Ninidze). The trip appeared fruitless until Alex’s intervention inspired former policeman Karel Benes, Reznik’s right-hand man, to have him thrown off a balcony. With Benes now in charge of the Czech operation, Kalyagin’s contraband is being seized, his street hawkers rousted, and his dealers deported.

Previous episodes exposed a grey zone where international finance intersects with criminal activity. The series has been raising questions over who stands to benefit more, the financiers or the gangsters? Is crime is becoming more corporate, or is business becoming more criminal?

From what we have seen so far, Kleiman is a businessman who is seeking to use his money to buy influence and control, facilitating the export and import of a variety of contraband via his shipping and transport infrastructure. However, he also uses the financial acumen of fund managers like Godman to insulate himself from the dirty work. Kleiman did not ask Benes to have his boss killed. He engineered a situation where an unwitting Alex did so.

Kalyagin visits Prague to investigate the sudden downturn in his returns from the Czech black market and ironically took the role of detective. The Russian is frighteningly familiar with how murder can be disguised as suicide. “We have done this many times,” he tells an associate as he combs the dead man’s flat looking for evidence the local police either missed or ignored.

As Kalyagin pieces together events in Prague, Alex’s girlfriend Rebecca meets a new character Antonio Mendez (Caio Blat) at an embassy party. Mendez claims to be a former university friend of Alex who is looking to invest money in his fund. However, when he shows her a picture of his Harvard class, Rebecca notes that the bespectacled and somewhat portly young man in the photo has changed a lot. We don’t know who this man is, but he isn’t Antonio Mendez.

Something seems to have awoken in Alex; his constant claim that all he does for Kleiman is look after his investments seems more and more like a lie he is telling himself. It rings particularly hollow when he says this to Mendez after accepting his invitation to the south of France where his glamorous and charming host reveals that he wants Alex to help him persuade Kleiman to allow him to use his infrastructure to transport drugs into Mumbai. Another market where he is competing against Kalyagin.

If previous episodes of McMafia introduced us to the slick corporate anonymity of Kleiman and his ilk, this episode was all about the dirty work and those unafraid to do it. Kalyagin and Mendez – whoever he really is – are men unafraid of getting bloody, although the Russian seems less willing to consequence in laundry bills, demanding an associate gives him the shirt off of his back because his own is now hopelessly stained.

Did you tune in for McMafia episode 3? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Read Stuart’s review of episode 4 here.

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3 Comments

    The Night Manager was good. A shame they had to ruin it by changing the ending to 100% the opposite of what the book taught us. I find McMafia more and more compelling. The real baddies certainly not “cartoon like” – it would be hard to guess their reputation from a chance meeting.

    As much as I love James Norton, I gave up after episode 2!!

    I will stick with it, but the family as a whole (even the girlfriend) are difficult to like, varnished with glibness, and the baddies are cartoon bad. Love the locations and there is potential in the plot. When you think how much better, for example, the Night Manager was, this is comparatively a failure in casting so far.

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McMafia episode 4 review

WARNING: contains spoilers for McMafia episode 4. Still catching up? Read Stuart’s review of episode 3 here.

Contacted by a South American drug trafficker in the previous episode, fund manager Alex Godman (James Norton) now persuades Semiyon Kleiman (David Strathairn) to help his new contact by disrupting Vadim Kalyagin’s (Merab Ninidze) efforts to establish a heroin route through Mumbai. Problems arise on the home front as both his business partner and his fiancé are suspicious of the investment that has saved Alex’s firm. As Semiyon’s man in Mumbai attempts to steal Vadim’s product, Alex seeks to allay the suspicions of his own family and friends.

As we hit the halfway point of this eight-episode series, McMafia is becoming an engrossing slow-burn of a story. The series creators, writer Hossein Amini and director James Watkins, work on a broad canvas. Each episode adds a further layer creating an increasingly detailed picture of globalised criminal enterprises.

The narrative hook preventing this sprawling composition from falling into pure abstraction is Alex’s descent into corruption. He has not so much taken baby steps onto a slippery slope, as strapped on skis and hurled himself down the most challenging piste. The speed and enthusiasm with which he has escalated involvement in clearly illegal activities suggest he has discovered new and insatiable appetites.

McMafia is breathtakingly cynical. Alex and Semiyon seem to be legitimate businessmen. They conduct their business on computers and over telephone calls seeing only the ebb and flow of a balance sheet as the result of their actions. Thousands of miles – and continents – away, suffering and death are a byproduct they can ignore.

Unlike most crime shows centring on the criminal element, the suited and booted protagonists of McMafia are not restricted to one verboten trade. Counterfeit perfume or heroin are as abstract to Alex than the minerals, energy or livestock traded through his legitimate fund. All are quite simply commodities.

Information technology isolates these men from the realities of their business deals, but Alex is not naive. When he is told an innocent employee stumbled on an operation but the complication was dealt with, he must know it wasn’t settled with a quiet word and a handshake. Like a remote drone operator, the bloodshed is easy to compartmentalise when it is miles away. Where once Alex looked like the hero of this story, he is now, at best, an anti-hero. At worst, he may be the villain.

There are signs Alex may yet be redeemable. Following a meeting with her boyfriend’s business in a pub named ‘The Hung, Drawn and Quartered’ (a foreshadowing of events to come?) his fiancée Rebecca (Juliet Rylance) closes in on his secrets and confronts him. When he tells her he is going to correct his mistakes he may be sincere. However, when he is presented with Alex’s plan to steal from Vadim, Semiyon clearly tells him their involvement will be discovered by their rival before long, and will incur consequences. Alex does not hesitate. He has passed a point of no return committed to his slalom. Will he get to the finishing line or wipe out?

Did you tune in for McMafia episode 4? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Read Stuart’s review of episode 5 here.

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McMafia episode 5 review

WARNING: contains spoilers for McMafia episode 5. Still catching up? Read Stuart’s review of episode 4 here.

Early in this episode Alex Godman (James Norton) is given some advice by his self defence instructor: “never stop moving in body and mind. You stop, your enemy hits you. You have to keep moving.” This fifth episode of McMafia demonstrates the importance of these words to those who strive to be players in the world of international crime. Personal relationships and loyalties are ties that can prevent you from rolling when the punches come.

With the death of Benny Chopra, the allies of Semiyon Kleiman (David Strathairn) control Mumbai. Alex encourages Semiyon to move forward into Pakistan, further undermining Vadim Kalyagin (Merab Ninidze). Semiyon wants to focus on developing the operation in Mumbai and demurs. Alex wants Vadim dead, but for now is content to take Semiyon’s orders.

Kleiman warned Alex that disrupting Vadim’s operations would have consequences. However, even he is unprepared for how swiftly they come. A shrewd operator, Semiyon keeps his private life private. When it is revealed he is gay it comes as a surprise to allies and rivals. When his younger lover Ezra claims he has been sexually assaulted by him, Kleiman is arrested. Charges that will ruin him if convicted.

There is a possibility of an alibi. The assault had reportedly occurred at a lavish party thrown by an art dealer. Lyudmilla (Sofya Lebedeva), the young Russian woman abducted in episode two and ‘bought’ by Semiyon, saw Ezra with another man at the party. Knowing that she can use this as leverage to allow her to escape Israel she tells Joseph (Oshri Cohen), Semiyon’s trusted bodyguard. He in turn informs Alex who has come to Tel Aviv to aid his stricken business partner.

Alex has his own areas of weakness. While he is in Tel Aviv with his fiancée, Rebecca (Juliet Rylance) has turned to Antonio Mendez (Caio Blat) still believing his ruse that he is an old college friend. In allying himself with the slick drug baron, Alex may have made a very dangerous friend.

There are likewise further complications within the Godman family. Dimitri, Alex’s father, was compelled to cut short an affair with Masha (Maria Mashkova), his daughter’s best friend. This complicated situation will become more tangled when Masha finds out she is pregnant. No doubt this will become an important plot line in the closing episodes, but this soap opera currently feels like a distraction from the main story line.

All these relationships are dangerous. Alex increasingly appears to have crossed over to the dark side, consolidating and increasing his power. While Vadim sees Semiyon as the puppet master now, if he becomes aware of Alex’s greater importance, he will once more come after him and his family.

This is the reason that crime stories following the rise of a mobster so often end with them isolated and alone – if they aren’t lying in a puddle of blood riddled with bullets. The successful gangster is like a shark, essentially a loner, forever moving forward. Either they cut all personal ties, or become the kind of person who is capable of sacrificing their nearest and dearest for power. Is Alex this kind of person?

Did you tune in for McMafia episode 5? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Read Stuart’s review of episode 6 here.

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McMafia episode 6 review

WARNING: contains spoilers for McMafia episode 6. Still catching up? Read Stuart’s review of episode 5 here.

Thanks to its inspiration in journalist Misha Glenny’s exhaustively researched non-fiction book, McMafia has been full of detail in its examination of the grey zone between international finance and organised crime. However, with six episodes of eight now aired, the dramatic framework devised by screenwriter Hossein Amini and director James Watkins to package these substantial themes is looking a little clunky. McMafia should feel like it is accelerating into the final bend, but the series feels like it is jammed in third gear.

Having blackmailed former partner in crime Semiyon Kleiman to take control of his interests, Alex was startled to meet archrival Vadim Kalyagin in Tel Aviv Airport at the end of the previous episode. Knowing Kalyagin prefers to attack his rivals indirectly, he could only interpret his parting remark “give my regards to your family” in one way. For five episodes now, Alex has tried to keep his legitimate life and his new criminal enterprises compartmentalised. In episode six, his best efforts finally collapsed as Kalyagin moved against him.

When exasperated fiancée Rebecca finally confronted him early in the episode she pleaded, “if you were me, what would you believe?” In reply he pulled the Russian card – “I’m not you. My uncle was murdered. My family were almost killed. I’m not you.” Anticipating a move against his nearest and dearest, and tacitly encouraged by his new partner in crime, the mysterious Antonio (so mysterious we don’t know his real name), Alex coldly suggests to Rebecca that they need time apart. While he can apparently sever his romantic ties, Alex can’t divorce his family so hires professional security to shadow their every move.

Episode 6 attempted to bring McMafia’s simmering plot to a boil. The slow pace over the previous five episodes could be argued to be necessitated by the complexity of explaining the financial intrigue and the cross-border red tape involved in international smuggling. However, the ongoing soap opera of the Godmans’ personal lives has too often seemed like ballast that needs to be pared away. This may explain the decision to park a number of interesting plot lines to focus attention on Alex’s family.

In the background, Vadim seethed as advisors outlined lawful means of attacking the new pretender to his empire. However, Vadim and Alex have the same impatience in the face of threat. There was never any question that Kalyagin would take a moderate approach. Instead, the real question was how the attack would come, and who would be found to be in the crosshairs. As Vadim’s assassin planned his strategy, series director James Watkins cut between the various Godman family members and Rebecca to create tension.

Despite clearly being intended to move the series into thriller mode, this episode could have been much tighter and more exciting had some of the more obvious melodramatics been streamlined. The ongoing subplot of Dimitri’s affair continues to be dead weight. Suddenly dropping intriguing strands of story – such as the ongoing attempts of the kidnapped Lyudmilla to escape from Kleiman’s household – risks losing momentum. Worst of all we still haven’t seen Alex’s investment in brutal Russian Krav Maga classes produce any substantial dividends.

Did you tune in for McMafia episode 6? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below…

Read Stuart’s review of episode 7 here.

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McMafia episode 7 review

WARNING: contains spoilers for McMafia episode 7. Still catching up? Read Stuart’s review of episode 6 here.

Vadim Kalyagin (Meisrab Ninidze) has ignored counsel to use legitimate lawful means to tackle the threat posed by Alex Godman (James Norton). Instead, a botched assassination attempt has left Alex’s fiancée Rebecca (Juliet Rylance) in intensive care. Fearing for his loved ones’ safety, Alex finally reveals all to his own family. Dimitri (Aleksey Serebryakov) advises going to Vadim on hands and knees begging for his life. But can Vadim be trusted?

McMafia initially seemed to be aiming to be a successor to influential 1989 series Traffik which wove together several storylines to make a compelling whole. In early episodes Alex would click his mouse, numbers would populate fields on a spreadsheet, and we would see the misery caused by drug trafficking in Mumbai, or people trafficking in Cairo.

However, as the series has progressed its pace has never really picked up momentum. At almost every point where the story has forked and presented multiple narrative options, series writer Hossein Amini and director James Watkins have chosen the least interesting path. Potentially intriguing characters are introduced, and then ignored.

Lyudmilla (Sofya Lebedeva) is the most egregious example. Abducted in Cairo and trafficked into Isreal, where she was purchased by Semiyon Kleiman (David Strathairn) and forced to escort his business associates. Lyudmilla’s story is harrowing, and her cunning and resolve to escape should have been an important secondary plot to Alex’s rise – but instead, it faded to accommodate more of the family Godman soap opera.

If Lyudmilla has been poorly treated, other characters have it worse. Bodyguard Joseph (Oshri Cohen) is perpetually standing in the background attempting to disappear into the scenery. Czech policeman turned counterfeiter Karel Benes (Karel Roden) and Mumbai gangster Dilly Mamoud (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) have been forgotten. Semiyon’s flame-haired assistant Tanya (Yuval Scharf) is a character so ill-defined I do not have any idea what she actually does for the corrupt politician. However, we have been given no end of scenes of Alex’s father Dimitri swigging from unbranded bottles of water (presumably full of vodka), getting drunk and falling over. The ongoing subplot of his affair with a family friend is an annoying red herring.

A particular disappointment is the poor development of female characters. Rebecca should be a strong character, a lawyer and spokesperson for ethical finance – a plot strand that has come to little. Yet her continuing faith in Alex and her easy acceptance of the super slick Mexican drug dealer Antonio (Caio Blat) as his old college friend makes her seem like the embodiment of the dumb girlfriend trope. Having Rebecca shot was not sufficient – she had to be pregnant also. This kind of glib use of violence against women to motivate a male character is a story cliché and McMafia doubles down by using it again at the close of episode seven.

McMafia threatens to be a damp squib, the first major disappointment of 2018. Next week’s final episode will need to be very exciting indeed to reward the commitment of viewers who have stuck with the show to the end.

Did you tune in for McMafia episode 7? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below…

Read Stuart’s review of episode 8 here.

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2 Comments

    I look forward to mcmafia and I’m sad next week is finale. This series is better than a lot of garbage on primetime. Very interesting stories.

    Yes I can just see it coming that the incredibly naïve Rebecca may end up with slimeball Antonio because he’ll persuade her he’s the one ‘good’ guy she can trust. I can’t help feel disappointed that Natasha died. The shooter must have been an incredible shot to shoot her enough times in the stomach to kill her whilst he was being threatened and backing off himself. Also Alex Godman annoys me no end, yeah he really thinks he can play God. I don’t see a great deal of angst in him either. I’ll probably watch the finale but hope it is worth it.

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McMafia episode 8 review

WARNING: contains spoilers for McMafia episode 8. Still catching up? Read Steve’s review of episode 7 here.

Alex Godman (James Norton) is en route to Moscow to make deals that will finally neutralise his nemesis Vadim Kalyagin. What he does not know is that his father Dimitri had arranged a hit on Vadim that went disastrously awry. The assassin’s bullets failed to find their target and killed Kalyagin’s daughter. With his phone on flight mode, Alex is unwittingly marching into the bear’s den.

In its final episode, McMafia ultimately delivered some thrills. From the moment he arrives in Moscow Alex is fighting for his life, using (to borrow a phrase from another thriller) his particular set of skills to survive. But was this too little, too late?

Director James Watkins staged a pivotal chase scene in which Alex is pursued by Vadim and his goons with bitter realism, a little more action ‘sugar’ could reasonably have been expected. Anton Chekhov famously set a rule that a gun introduced in act one of a play has to be fired by the end of act three. So Watkins introducing Alex’s Krav Maga classes in episode 1 only to never have him use these skills in any significant way was baffling.

Alex has been an inscrutable character. Initially the ethical banker, avoiding any dealings or investments in Russia to dodge the taint of corruption. After his dodgy uncle’s murder and a plot to undermine his business, out of ethical waters seemed to be a necessity. In the latter half of the series his descent has accelerated, and frankly, he has never seemed all that conflicted.

McMafia was at its best in this episode. The Godfather-like sequence of Alex dealmaking in an antiseptic office, as his new Russian allies liquidate his competition, was nicely done. His Mexican partners only asked that Alex arrange a meeting. He went much further: “The business I am talking about is worth 300 billion dollars a year. If you’d invested in my fund at launch you’d have doubled your money. An investment with my associates would have given you a 5000% return over the same period.” The business is of course heroin, but where Vadim imported the drug into Russia and his profits came with costs, Alex offers more profits and reduced cost. Russian ports will simply be used as an entry point for the Mexican cartel to flood the European market.

Frustratingly, series one has left many plot threads either hanging or underdeveloped – especially the way cuddly snake-in-the-grass Semiyon Kleiman faded away. When an actor of the calibre of David Strathairn is cast, one would expect something more from this character, especially after Alex’s double cross in episode 5. No doubt this is intended to be picked up again in a second series but the odds on a return seem rather slim.

In the end, while Alex may have claimed that Vadim’s ‘mafia methods’ were outdated, promising a more ethical way of conducting business, his story is that of a gangster. He began the series as a decent person, but in the course of gaining immense power, he has consumed his own soul.

Did you tune in for McMafia episode 8? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below…

Stuart Barr
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