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McMafia finally got good – but has it taken too long?

James Norton's series bubbled with tension in its penultimate episode but Susanna Lazarus asks if it was worth the wait
By Susanna Lazarus

For anyone who has stuck with McMafia – all three and a half million of you – it's been a rocky road. And when I say rocky, what I actually mean is long, meandering and, at times, rather dull. BBC1's flagship new year drama sauntered through its first five episodes giving us very little to sink our teeth into. Sure, there was Lyudmilla's kidnapping and that chubby Czech man was hurled off a balcony – but there was also an awful lot of bank transfers (and there's not much on TV less interesting than watching a mouse hover over a button).

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That all changed with episode six. The tension finally ratcheted up as criminal boss Vadim's henchmen circled James Norton's Alex Godman and his family. The final sequence – which saw his pregnant girlfriend Rebecca (Juliet Rylance) shot in the stomach by an assassin – marked a switch in pace that flowed into McMafia's penultimate instalment.

It was a welcome gear change. It would be unfair of me to expect the entire series to bubble with the sort of tension we've seen in the last two episodes – but I would be far from the first to feel frustrated with McMafia's slow start (in fact, I had a good old rant about it a couple of weeks ago).

I spent most of episode seven glued to my screen as Alex brokered an uneasy peace with Vadim before he was unwittingly played by Semiyon Kleinman, forced to face up to the harsh reality that he would have to overthrow viperous Vadim if he wanted any chance of survival.

Alexey Serebryakov in McMafia, BBC Pictures, SL

In the event, it was neither Vadim nor Alex who met their maker but the former's adored daughter Natasha who was gunned down by bullets possibly intended for her father. Vadim was last seen with an unmistakably murderous look on his face, hellbent on revenge just as an unwitting Alex boarded a plane bound for Moscow (it was his alcoholic father Dmitri who had set up the hit in a desperate attempt to save his son).

With one episode left, McMafia has finally found its stride, orchestrating a tantalising finale with all the pieces in place for an explosive showdown between young upstart Alex and threatened linchpin Vadim.

But has it taken too long? I only stuck with McMafia out of sheer stubbornness; most of those I know who started out didn't bother to continue. Had this series been a bit shorter – perhaps six episodes, like The Night Manager, rather than its unwieldy eight – then it might have done a better job of holding our attention early on.

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The pay off is good, no question – but I'm not sure it was worth the wait.

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