Early on in this BBC/AMC crime drama, a character tells James Norton’s upstanding Alex that modern crime wars are “fought in boardrooms, not on the street,” and it’s a fair description of the world McMafia is trying to bring to life – one where organised crime has moved beyond stereotypical mobsters, gang battles and turf wars and turned, well, corporate.
That’s what the title’s all about, after all – not Scottish mobsters, as some have assumed – the corporatisation of crime, as explained in a lengthy McDonald’s/Burger King analogy in the first episode, and it’s an interesting new world for anyone whose knowledge of the mafia starts with the Godfather and ends with the Sopranos.
And this isn’t just pie-in-the-sky thinking from some screenwriter. McMafia is based on the non-fiction writings of journalist Misha Glenny (his book McMafia; Seriously Organised Crime is the basis for the show’s concept, though the plot is fictional and created by writers James Watkins and Hossein Ameini) and given Glenny’s insider access to real crime figures this is probably more true-to-life than most glossy crime capers – even if that is sometimes to its detriment.
But of that, more later. As noted above, the story of McMafia follows James Norton’s Alex Godman, the son of an ousted Russian mafia boss who’s grown up with a silver spoon in his mouth and a firm desire to stay away from his family’s criminal past.
Instead, he’s found his calling in the realm of hedge fund managing – but when his fund runs into problems and the violence of his family’s past begins to invade his own present, Alex finds himself getting his hands dirty to protect those he loves.
Well, that’s the elevator pitch for McMafia anyway, but in practice the series is a much bigger, sprawling story that takes in multiple characters (scenes were shot on location in India, Russia, Qatar, the Czech Republic and Croatia among other areas) and continents as we follow the insidious money trail of Alex’s transactions.
Occasionally, this can make the series a little dry and dense, with the first episode in particular spending quite a long time on the ins and outs of international finance – but happily, it’s usually not too long before an act of brutal violence or a sunny international visit pops up to kick the story back into gear.
The end result is something like The Night Manager with spreadsheets, combining the earlier US/UK coproduction’s gloss and scale with the hard facts and journalistic vigour of Glenny’s research, even when it comes to the casting – for the most part, Russian characters are played by experienced Russian actors, Czechs by Czechs and so on (apparently, the actor who plays Alex’s mother, Maria Shukshina, is the Meryl Streep of Russia).
A notable exception to this rule, of course, is the supremely non-Russian Norton (though he acquits himself well in subtitled scenes), who plays Alex as a surprisingly soppy ingénue to the world of crime who displays deeper ruthlessness as the series continues. Considering how much the series is built around Norton’s personal appeal, a surprising amount of the action doesn’t involve him at all (the globetrotting scenes usually involve new characters with their own intersecting storylines), but he’s definitely the emotional throughline of the story and his fall into corruption (which, it has to be said, comes a LITTLE too easily given his upstanding reputation) is an intriguing hook over the following episodes.
The only real issue is that the series’ attempts at true verisimilitude might leave some viewers turning off before they get that far, with lengthy discussions about international finance, money laundering and in-depth import/export deals bogging down earlier parts of the story at the expense of the drama’s pace. It’s all very accurate, but sometimes one can’t but feel a little of this detail could have been jettisoned for a more streamlined story.
If audiences do stick with it, though, McMafia is a rewarding (if slightly depressing) watch, that makes you wonder more and more what your money is actually going towards in a capitalist society. Clearly, crime pays pretty well after all – and it definitely has a generous travel allowance.