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McMafia recap – series one, episode one

James Norton as Alex Godman
James Norton as Alex Godman Photograph: Nick Wall/BBC/Cuba/Nick Wall

“What will it take to corrupt you?”

For reasons which will become clear, McMafia is not a drama about the nefarious dealings of the Glasgow underworld. Created by Hossein Amini and director James Watkins, it’s “inspired” by Misha Glenny’s 2008 book McMafia: Seriously Organised Crime, a study of 21st century global criminal and financial networks.

Although rooted in grim authenticity, however, McMafia initially reminds of last year’s The Night Manager (it’s another co-production between BBC and AMC), in its tale of a handsome Englishman caught up in a web of criminal intrigue. It’s also a shamelessly telegenic travelogue, taking in Prague, Tel Aviv, Cairo, Paris and Ravenscourt Park underground station.

We begin in opulent Mumbai. A Mr Vadim from Russia is in conference with a Mr Chopra, who assures his visitor he is “god”, with control of the police and port authorities – the ideal go-to person for someone like Vadim, who wishes to transport heroin through the city. Assured, Vadim leaves. However, in an underpass, a woman riding pillion pulls up alongside Vadim’s car, smiles and attaches a bomb to the side of his vehicle. Ka-boom!

Cut to London and our first glimpse of Alex Godman, descending the stairs at a London charity auction. Like Tom Hiddleston, he is hewn from the finest British timber. At the table are his partner, Rebecca (Juliet Rylance), who works for “ethical banker” Sydney Bloom. His own family, however, are exiled Russians – his father, Dimitri looks vodka-ravaged, soul-sick, grumbling when his son speaks to him in English rather than Russian. Later, Alex must persuade him down from the roof in the latest in a series of drunken suicidal episodes.

Casting Leviathan actor Aleksey Serebryakov as Dimitri is a coup, and he’ll hopefully be able to do more than act sullen and miffed. His doting mother is a picture of fading elegance. Then there is Uncle Boris, Dimitri’s brother. Pasty, loud, sporting a white dinner jacket, he recalls Fredo in the Godfather – but Boris is a player. And, it emerges, it was he who ordered the unsuccessful hit on Vadim. And he is now curious about who wanted him dead. In hospital, he is visited by Ilya, a close friend and senior member of the Federal Intelligence Agency.

“Shipping and entertainment”

Aleksey Serebryakov as Dimitri
Aleksey Serebryakov as Dimitri Photograph: Nick Wall/BBC/Cuba/Nick Wall

Alex loves his family deeply but business-wise he keeps a distance. He has set up his own investment company and prides himself on playing with a straight English bat, avoiding any associations with the dubious Russian money into which he was born. When Boris proposes that he go into business with an associate of his in Israel, Alex firmly demurs.

Back at his office, Alex learns of an article about his company’s supposed Russian links. Fabricated rumours, but now investors are withdrawing. Reluctantly, he approaches an English colleague, Alan, to see if he will help make up the investment shortfall. But oily Alan only agrees to do so in return for a chunk of the company. Desperate, Alex agrees to meet with Boris’s Israeli chum, a Mr Kleiman, after all, and they travel to Tel Aviv.

Having stoically fended off the amorous attentions of one Tanya in a nightclub, in the midst of an air raid siren, Alex is introduced to Kleiman. If he is a gangster, he looks like the kindler, gentler, Corbyn-esque sort. He has made his pile in “shipping and entertainments”, as one does. It’s clear that he is a direct rival to Vadim.

“I’m a banker not a gangster”

Call me Fredo: Boris Godman (played by David Dencik), and Alex Godman (James Norton)
Call me Fredo: Boris Godman (played by David Dencik), and Alex Godman (James Norton) Photograph: Nick Wall/BBC/Cuba/Nick Wall

Back in London, Alex learns from his colleague that it was Boris who spread the rumour that caused the company’s crisis. Alex goes up to Boris’s home to confront him but when there, finds that his uncle is entertaining guests, three bald Russians seeking cash to go to war with Vadim. Over caviar, however, one of them attacks Boris with a knife, slitting his throat. Alex fends off his own assailant and escapes to the basement, where he phones to warn his family that they too are under attack; a successful call to the police prompts the assailants to flee.

At Boris’s funeral, Tanya reappears, lying to Rebecca that he and Alex are old friends. He does not correct her. He is handed a card by Tanya’s associate with a sim card attached – this is how he will communicate with Kleiman. They meet in London, where Kleiman explains that the reason McDonalds is bigger than Burger King is simply that there are more of them – he wishes to apply the same business model to destroy Vadim. McMafia, see? Alex protests he is a “banker not a gangster” but he’s sinking visibly into the mire.

Concerned for his distraught and broken father, Alex meets Vadim in Paris, essentially to beg for his father’s life – he’s a harmless old man, he says. It’s an emollient exchange charged with underlying menace. “Are you harmless?” Vadim asks Alex. No response. Credits.

Additional notes

  • Apart from Boris’s reminiscence of Fredo, there are other echoes of The Godfather. Alex’s determination to stay straight reminds of Michael Corleone’s “That’s my family, it’s not me.” to Diane Keaton’s Kay, whose outsider decency is mirrored by Caring Capitalist Rebecca, Alex’s partner. There’s also Dimitri, weeping at the morgue over Boris like Vito Corleone over Sonny, and Keiman’s speech to Alex about how “moving money is your weapon”, recalling Mario Puzo’s line about how a lawyer with a briefcase can steal more than a thousand men with guns.
  • If there is a Platonic ideal of the love between uncle and nephew it is expounded in an affectionate playful scene at the Tel Aviv beach in which Alex and Boris romp in the water and compare buffness. Alex says he goes “once or twice a week” to the gym but we see him work out and it’s more onerous than 20 minutes on the cross-trainer.
  • It’s a shame to lose Boris so early; his relationship with his gloomy maid Geena in his vast, lonely mansion was but one of the intriguing facets he brought to this episode.
  • Are there inadvertent shades of Britain’s Brexit quandary about McMafia? Suddenly forced to make deals in the wider world, unprotected by EU scruples, with new “international partners” who might play by different rules?
  • What are the intentions of Tanya? What exactly does Kaiman’s business entail? And how long can Alex keep up what is now a facade of ethical practice in front of Rebecca and his co-workers?
This article titled "McMafia recap – series one, episode one" was written by David Stubbs, for theguardian.com on Monday 1 January 2018 10.00am

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