Rich gangsters and rich executives have much in common. They have unlimited travel budgets, they don’t worry about the global roaming charges on their unlocked quad-band cell phones, they always stay in first-class digs even in the Third World, and they have to deal with supply snafus, bumbling employees, regulation, and competitors muscling in on their territory. The main difference is that when the gangsters say they “made a killing,” it’s not a figure of speech.
Global investment-fund manager Alex Godman finds out just how thin the line is between executive and Mafioso in AMC’s eight-part international crime series, McMafia.
Alex (James Norton, Grantchester) is the son of émigré Russian Jews now living the luxe-expat life in London. He runs Godman Capital, investing rich people’s money around the world so they can become richer. Not that he’s doing badly himself: he has a glossy Modernist flat in central London, glossy live-in girlfriend Rebecca (Juliet Rylance, The Knick, American Gothic), glossy black cars—no Tube for him—and parties thrown by other glossy people in posh hotels or country estates.
Then, the rumors start: Godman’s money is Russian and crooked (but I repeat myself). His investors flee for less-obviously tainted funds. Just as he’s about to sell a piece of the fund to stay afloat, his uncle Boris Godman (David Dencik, Top of the Lake: China Doll) offers Alex a business deal with an old family friend in Israel. It’s this series’ version of an offer you can’t refuse.
Those rumors weren’t exactly true, but close enough. Back home in Moscow, Alex’s dad, Dimitri (Aleksey Serebryakov, Leviathan), was a mafia capo (or as they say in the old country, pakhan). He lost a power struggle—and apparently some number of his marbles—to rival pakhan Vadim Kalyagin (Merab Ninidze, Bridge of Spies) but somehow managed to survive to live in exile with his family. Now, he wanders through Hyde Park, swilling vodka from plastic water bottles and annoying the ducks.
Uncle Boris never forgave Kalyagin for this insult and has been working on his revenge strategy for years. When this blows up spectacularly, it’s down to Alex to protect his family by plunging into the messy business he didn’t know he’d been learning about in Harvard Business School.
Alex’s guide through the underworld—the Virgil to his Dante—is Semiyon Kleiman (David Strathairn, Billions, the Bourne films), a fellow Russian exile who’s grown both rich and leathery in Tel Aviv. His business interests stretch around the globe and include drugs, sex slaves, counterfeit luxury goods, and whatever else turns a buck. His plan isn’t to kill Kalyagin, but instead, to drive him out of business by taking over his market share; in Kleiman’s words, making Burger King bigger than McDonald's. Two episodes in, Alex is laundering money like he was born to it (which he was). How much further will he go to get back at Kalyagin? Stay tuned…
McMafia is based on a 2008 non-fiction exposé by Misha Glenny. It’s a BBC/AMC prestige co-production along the same lines as 2016’s The Night Manager and shares much the same sensibility.
Norton is appropriately repressed as Alex, so concerned with staying out of the family business that he can’t scream when he falls in. While it’s interesting to watch Grantchester’s Sidney Chambers find his inner badass, it’s too early in the series to tell whether he gets to enjoy breaking bad. Right now, it seems to give him indigestion—which may be the right reaction. Luckily, he isn’t the neurotic mess that Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character was in The Honourable Woman, another close relative to this series.
Dencik’s Uncle Boris relishes being a pot-stirrer and crime lord; he’s the life of the party no matter what den of iniquity he’s in. Strathairn’s Kleiman is sometimes the Yiddisher feter, sometimes the desert adder, but as usual, always worth watching. So far, Ninidze’s Kalyagin doesn’t have nearly the personality that Hugh Laurie’s Dickie Roper did in The Night Manager, but there’s no problem believing he’s a crocodile.
Like The Night Manager, McMafia romps all over the world. In its first episode, it jumps from England to Mumbai to Qatar, Moscow to Prague to Haifa to Versailles … all in one hour. There’s always a waiting limo, driver, local retainer, and bottle of champagne. The nightclubs are the huge, glamorous places you and I can’t get into, stocked with surpluses of sleek, beautiful young women wearing skin-tight clothes. The cars are black, the offices glass and chrome, the homes ready for Architectural Digest, and the airplanes private. In short, you can consider McMafia another season of Traveling with the Rich and Criminal.
Don’t expect fast-paced action. Like its already-mentioned relatives, this show is a slow burn, not an explosion. It’s the kind of story where a mouse click is played for drama and telephones are as deadly as limpet mines. We’ll see if the financial warfare turns into the other kind. In the meantime, we can watch the pretty people do really ugly things to each other and themselves.
McMafia premiered on AMC on February 26 and airs Monday nights through April 16. You can catch up with streaming video on the AMC series website.
Lance Charnes is an emergency manager and former Air Force intelligence officer. Nobody travels first-class in his international thriller Doha 12 or his near-future thriller South. His art-crime novels The Collection and Stealing Ghosts involve pretty things, pretty people (mostly), and sometimes even the Russian mob. His Facebook author page features spies, art crime and archaeology.