McMafia, BBC’s sprawling organized crime drama that arrives to AMC this week, is bleak. It also manages at times to be dull and formulaic, despite its subject matter: globe-trotting mafia tales have a hook built into them, offering audiences a glimpse into lives of glamour and darkness, which McMafia eschews, too often focusing on facile arguments about capitalism.
McMafia is, of course, not the first crime story to focus on the grim realities of Mafia business. The series recalls David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, with its Russian protagonists and brutal violence, and often evokes the fatalistic gloominess of both the film and television iterations of Gomorrah. But a majority of Mafia films and shows at least make an argument for that life’s allure in the first place. No one in McMafia appears happy – least of all Alex Godman, the ethical banker forced into his family’s business after the murder of his uncle.
Godman is a British businessman with an addled Ex-Russian Mafioso for a father, living in London where his family was exiled after being tossed off the throne in Russia by a rival named Vadim Kalyagin. When we first meet him, Alex’s largest concern is distancing his thriving investment firm from his Russian heritage, which he has apparently been successful in doing: when his uncle, Boris, suggests some new Russian investors for the firm, Alex declines, as he’s apparently always done.
Of course, it’s no shock that Alex can’t remain neutral for long: McMafia is obvious narratively and thematically. Shortly after coming to Alex with his offer, Boris is murdered by Vadim’s people, after Vadim learns that Boris funded an earlier botched assassination attempt. Alex, seemingly left without a choice, is convinced by Boris’ allies to protect his father – and himself – by aligning with them in an attempt to avenge his uncle by running Vadim out of business.
The bloody business with Boris occurs in the first episode of McMafia, and as Alex dourly descends further into his family’s business, he appears reluctant at every step. In Goodfellas, Henry Hill was seduced by the Gangster life, and consequently his downfall was both punishment for his sins and a fitting price to pay for a few short years of excess. Alex is more Michael Corleone than Henry Hill, forced into organized crime simply because he alone in his family is able to take up the mantle – but unlike The Godfather‘s protagonist, who reveals an immediate capacity for both shrewd business and cruel violence, Alex is plainly out of his element even if he isn’t over his head. He might have the right mind for the Mafia, but he doesn’t seem to have the stomach for it.
In Alex, McMafia provides a plain protagonist who is difficult to care for or about. He is wary of his Russian heritage, but is a dutiful and loving son. He is a present boyfriend to his girlfriend Rebecca. He is a successful businessman who seems well-adjusted in every way. He’s simply a banker, until he is a gangster; a distinction that proves minor as the series narrows its focus to the impact of finance in the organized crime in Europe and Asia.
McMafia homes squarely on the business of the Mafia, as opposed to the lifestyle, offering a dry assessment of the machinations of organized crime. Alex transfers funds from Russian backers to offshore accounts, and the show follows the money, from Europe to the Caribbean, on to The Middle East and eventually Mumbai, where it funds a gang that will make difficulty for Vadim’s Indian dealings. Alex’s revenge takes place largely behind a desk, where he directs funds: an image that elucidates the global scope of Mafia power and the particular financial streams of Vadim’s empire, but rarely makes for compelling human drama.
Alex’s primary backer is a Russian expat living in Tel Aviv named Semiyon Kleiman, played by David Strathairn with ample well-mannered shadiness but an odd accent. Kleiman wants Vadim deposed, like Boris did, and leverages the newly vulnerable Alex into directing his money world-wide in an assault of Vadim’s businesses. It’s Kleiman’s money that makes its way to Mumbai through Alex’s firm, which further blunts the impact Alex’s “vengeance”, which is ultimately a coup of accounting: a far cry from Michael Corleone’s operatic settlement of all family business.
In a way, McMafia is laudable for spurning some conventions of Mafia narratives – theattractive excesses of connected life, and the macho posturing of alphas vying for a throne – in favor of a broader look at the financial framework of crime. But ultimately, it’s commitment to that broad view prevents us from investing in Alex’s story. He is a blank slate, wandering into a global drama that unfolds at a breakneck pace. Major players are often introduced only to be killed off in the same episode, and while the landscape of McMafia is in clearly in upheaval, we lack a sense of the local impact of each new assassination, betrayal, or coup. Alex and Vadim are a world apart, and though play chess with subordinates in the countries in between, none of the individual, seemingly disposable pieces seem to matter.
Money matters in McMafia, and it’s hardly coincidental that Rebecca works at a non-profit furthering ethical capitalism – an intractable, vague, and overly simple concept that provides a stark contrast to the world of the Mafia. Semiyon, Vadim, and ultimately Alex, operate in a system of pure, unchecked capitalism – an arena where the dollar is all powerful, and forces its subjects into binary roles of ruler and ruled, victor and victim. By the time the series introduces a truly horrifying human trafficking storyline, which unsurprisingly intersects with Semiyon’s interests, it’s view of the corrupting influence of money and power has already been calcified and communicated.
McMafia is about money – the series’ name itself is a nod to the world-conquering ubiquity of fast food franchises – than it is about Alex. But what’s not clear is why the people who have all the money in McMafia seem to want it in the first place. No one, from Alex to Semiyon to Vadim, appears to want to be doing what they are doing – which is likely intentional. Too often, the grim world of McMafia forces it’s audience to feel the same way.