McMafia Premiere Review: An Impressive But Chilly Take On Organized Crime

James Norton as Alex in McMafia

One of the more interesting things about McMafia is the way in which the series repeatedly draws a parallel between the evils of organized crime and those of unchecked capitalism. The insinuation is crystal clear, and the show unabashedly follows that thinking through its dense and twisty first eight-episode season, which has already aired in the U.K. and begins tonight on AMC.

It is the story of Alex Godman (James Norton), the son of a Russian mafia family exiled in England, who finds himself pulled into his family’s world of organized crime despite having built up a legitimate business of his own — though its primary function is to make the ultra rich even richer and ostensibly a perpetuate a pernicious inequality. But when Alex’s uncle Boris (David Dencik) is murdered in front of him on the order of Vadim Kalyagin (Merab Ninidze), the head of Russian mafia clan who exiled his family to begin with, Alex is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, where loyalty to his family and a desire for revenge is in direct conflict with the ethical arm’s length at which he keeps his family’s sordid legacy.

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McMafia’s setup suffers from a sense of familiarity. Alex’s entry into his a world from which he thought himself sufficiently insulated couldn’t be more derivative of The Godfather if it tried. But that sense of pre-packaged sameness is ostensibly baked into the show by virtue of its title, and as is made clear in the first episode, when Alex takes a meeting with David Strathairn’s Semiyon Kleiman, another criminal in exile, these individuals are operating under a business model proven by none other than McDonald’s global domination. In one of the series’ many scenes where two people essentially explain the plot to one another, Kleiman quickly illustrates how ill-gotten gains are moved around the globe under the pretense of legitimacy, and how criminals seek to maximize their profits through attacks on their competitors’ businesses by outpacing their growth on a scale the other can’t hope to compete with.

David Strathairn in McMafia

The prevalence of what may constitute dry material and the subsequent necessary emphasis on exposition could create a high barrier to entry for some. That’s in addition to the fact that watching someone move money to offshore accounts in staggeringly high numbers from his well-appointed London office is only so interesting for so long. So McMafia has to adjust, and it does so primarily by introducing the sort of violence and threat of violence you would expect from a story about organized crime. Though used sparingly in subsequent episodes, the violence of Boris’s death is gruesome and serves a purpose in creating a sense of immediacy in Alex’s fateful decision to partner up with Kleiman and enter into the world he avoided for so long.

Again, the echoes of Francis Ford Coppola’s epic reverberate throughout the premiere, but instead of assassinating a mob boss and the mob-owned police captain, Alex begins laundering money for Kalyagin’s chief rival around the same time he makes an in-person plea for his father’s life. It is at that moment that McMafia demonstrates another of its key selling points by essentially merging The Godfather with James Bond, one of the most successful franchises of all time.

Opulence is very much on display wherever McMafia goes, not unlike the globe-hopping adventures of 007. When was the last time you saw Bone staying in one of the motels off the freeway outside of Dayton, Ohio. But the luxuriousness of the series’ settings serve a greater purpose than showing off just how expensive the series was to film. It is part of the larger conversation about ethics and capitalism and if they can ever be mentioned in the same breath without inducing massive eye rolls.

Aleksey Serebryakov Mariya Shukshina and James Norton in McMafia

McMafia positions its protagonist’s entry into the world of organized crime as a choice he was ostensibly obligated to make. It’s a bad choice, the series lets the audience know, and without it there would be no drama. But the series struggles to connect the personal nature of the choice with the character. Norton plays Alex as fiercely private, a man who, as his uncle mentions, has put up a wall so that no one can tell what he’s thinking, even those who have known him his entire life. It’s a mask he’s donned to protect himself in his professional dealings, and one that suits him well when faced with keeping those he loves at arm’s length. The only problem is, the mask never slips. Norton is tasked with playing his character with a certain level of detachment, yet the script doesn’t offer him the needed opportunity to connect on an emotional level with the choices he’s making.

But then again, McMafia itself sometimes shares in its protagonist’s detachment, and it weirdly works. The series is inspired by the book McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld, and, even though it has been reworked to fit the conventions of a television drama, there is a sense the story is being reported to you, rather than performed. Though it operates without the use of a heavy voiceover and isn’t pulling directly from history to tell its story, McMafia feels like a cousin of Netflix’s Narcos. The mileage you get from that sort of thing may vary wildly, but for those in the mood for a chilly exploration of organized crime on a global stage, you could do a lot worse than McMafia.

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McMafia continues next Monday @10pm on AMC.

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