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McMafia – Gangsters in the Age of Globalisation

February 12, 2018

The final episode of McMafia was broadcast last night, and while it may not have been the monster hit the BBC were hoping for, I would still rate it as one of the best dramas produced for television in recent years.

The story followed the fortunes of City of London banker Alex Godman (James Norton). The scion of a wealthy Russian family exiled in London, Godman at first comes across as your typical stiff upper lip English gentleman who wants nothing to with his father’s alleged involvement with organised crime. But when Godman’s uncle Boris makes the mistake of trying and failing to assassinate rival Mob Boss Vadim Kalyagin, Godman soon finds himself dragged into his family’s dangerous world by association. After Boris pays the ultimate price for crossing Vadim, Godman (whose legitimate business is failing) is courted by the shady Israeli politician/gangster Semiyon Kleiman (David Strathairn) who wants to continue the covert war against Vadim but can only do it with Godman’s help. There are strong parallels here with The Godfather, in which the good son (Godman/Michael Corleone) rejects the family business only to be sucked in regardless and, to his surprise, quietly enjoys the role of gangster. The deterioration in Godman’s relationship with his fiancee and the lost opportunity of fatherhood is also reminiscent of Michael and Kay in The Godfather. Even the reference to Veniamin (an ill-fated Russian crook whose grisly demise is used as a verbal warning) allusively reminded me of ‘Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.’ Does Godman’s name echo The Godfather as well? As the series progresses, it becomes clear he is certainly not the good man he thought he was, and he seems to have a God-like imperviousness to human emotions.

The influence of fictional gangsters from popular culture on the drama is unusual as McMafia is based on non-fiction. Misha Glenny delivered an outstanding piece of investigative journalism in his book McMafia. He recounts in astonishing detail how the fall of communism led to ex-members of the Security Services in Eastern Bloc countries to launch their own mafias once they found themselves out of work. Spin the globe and Glenny examines how the Yakuza played an unusual role in rebuilding Japan (for a healthy slice of the profits) after the Second World War. In another chapter he focuses on how some of the most notorious internet email scams began in Nigeria. But how does this relate to the TV series? Show creators Hossein Amini and James Watkins have taken Glenny’s work as a font of inspiration for the series but did not have a strict linear narrative from the book to follow. I found this quite liberating as I could read the book without it having any spoilers for the TV series. Other non-fiction works such as Fast Food Nation and The Men Who Stare at Goats have been adapted this way. Certain parts of the text did feel like they were directly inspired by the book. For instance, Lyudmilla the Russian beautician who arrives in Cairo expecting to find legitimate work only to be kidnapped and trafficked into the sex industry in Tel Aviv is very closely modelled on a harrowing story from the book of Ludmilla, a Moldovan woman who was forced into the sex trade during what should have been an exciting adventure abroad. As a powerful drama with an epic scale, McMafia astounded me. Watch a gangster film like Goodfellas and you’re often seeing thugs with baseball bats beating people up over unpaid loans or petty insults. McMafia, by contrast, portrays a world in which drugs manufactured in India are sold in Africa, the profits are laundered in the Cayman Islands and wind up in London or Moscow bank accounts. Organised crime has become a global business.

McMafia has substantial flaws which led many viewers to switch off and stopped it from generating the ‘water cooler talk’ buzz that accompanied other BBC hits such as The Night Manager. It pains me to say this but James Norton is just too wooden as Godman. I understand he may have wanted to avoid comparisons with Bryan Cranston’s manic portrayal of chemistry teacher Walter White in Breaking Bad, and opted for a quieter introspective approach, but Godman felt too much like a blank slate. If anything, I felt more sympathy for Vadim the lifelong gangster who slowly finds his empire crumbling around him. Vadim knows his kind are not fated to die peacefully in their dotage, but his visible shock at the price his family pays for his misdeeds made me empathise with him. Also, the series was dogged with allegations of anti-Russian sentiment and anti-Semitism. I don’t think its controversial or wrong necessarily to portray gangsters of different nationalities. As Glenny writes in the book, almost every country on earth has produced gangsters, and the few countries that appear not to have an organised crime presence tend to have ultra-authoritarian governments such as in North Korea where the ‘state budget is decisvely dependent on the trading of narcotics to criminal syndicates in neighbouring countries’. However, in the show, Semiyon is not only a gangster he is a member of the Knesset, being assisted in a human-trafficking scheme by a Mossad agent. This was certainly one of the more over the top plotlines, and the forthcoming adaptation of John le Carre’s controversial The Little Drummer Girl, given the subject matter, will likely add to allegations of anti-Semitism at the BBC.

But if you can overcome these problems, and they are significant, then McMafia is still an astonishing feat of storytelling. In many ways it is a grittier, more realistic portrayal of organised crime than The Night Manager which had descended into a colourful caper by its final episode. McMafia is already making an impact on the real world as it seems to be influencing government policy. It may have lacked popular appeal, but McMafia still has many distinctions to recommend it.

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