In what is overall an exceptionally well-executed series, the most impressive element of “McMafia” is just how fully realized it is. The eight-part miniseries was filmed on location around the world, breathing vivacious detail into its cross-country story of organized crime and money laundering. The glossy opening credits depict a red line tracing the contours of major cities that are locations for the show — London, Dubai, Mumbai, Prague — the red line of money; how it travels, how it flows, and the many places it can touch along the way. At its finest, “McMafia” is a portrait not of a family but of currency — in which one episode can track how a keystroke in London is routed through the Cayman Islands and then the United Arab Emirates in order to get a mob enforcer on the streets of Mumbai several thousand dollars’ worth of cash. That a miniseries can create characters and environments that seem so tangibly real is an exceptional feat. Unfortunately, in its back half, “McMafia” seems to forget about the worlds it’s inhabited in order to focus on the rather frustrating characters at its core. It’s still a compelling journey, and many ways the narrative arc is an inevitable one. But with so many fascinating peripheral characters and universes in its purview, it feels as if “McMafia” stakes its narrative on the most boring one.
The story follows the Godman family, Russian-Jewish expatriates in London who have built a legitimate foundation to their criminally obtained wealth. Alex Godman (James Norton, sharp-jawed and crisply dressed) is the 30-something son of the family, a boarding-school and Harvard-educated banker without any of the baggage of his family’s criminal past. But when a hit is carried out on a member of his family, he gets swept up in an ill-advised but undeniably seductive quest for revenge against a rival Russian family, headed by the deadly mastermind Vadim (Merab Ninidze). In order to attempt this, he allies with the charismatic but untrustworthy Semiyon Kleinman (David Strathairn), an Israeli politician and shipping magnate similarly interested in weakening Vadim’s power. This quest takes Alex and Semiyon from a global fund based in the United Kingdom to the counterfeit handbags market on the streets of Prague and the import of lucrative heroin from Pakistan to the streets of Mumbai in India.
The main story of “McMafia” is in depicting how quickly, and how thoroughly, Alex falls from grace — from the relative innocence of his childhood to a damning complicity with the bloody realities of international crime. He knows exactly what he’s doing — evidenced partly because he hides his actions so thoroughly from his parents and girlfriend, and partly because “McMafia” makes sure to reinforce to the audience what Alex is aware of. During a crucial negotiation in Prague, Alex has a conversation with a clear insinuation behind his words; shortly thereafter, the audience watches the hit he has orchestrated. In a later meeting, Alex is drawn from a sun-drenched, carefree lunch by the ocean to a room just a few shadowy hallways away — in order to be presented with the tortured, bloodied body of a rival, presented as a gift. It’s refreshing to watch the show depict how morally compromised its own protagonist is.
But in later episodes, it proves a bit tiresome. Alex’s conversations with the seasoned criminals in his orbit — Semiyon, Vadim, Spanish dealer Antonio (Caio Blat) and his own father Dimitri (Aleksey Serebryakov) — are some of the most interesting dynamics in the show. But his relationship with his girlfriend Rebecca (Juliet Rylance), which increasingly takes a central role, is deadly tedious, an attempt to produce drama out of a icy, distant relationship. The emphasis on the Godman family’s intimate dramas — multiple secret pregnancies! — shortchanges some of the most moving supporting characters, revealing a vast swathe of humanity that is influenced, sometimes fatally, by Alex’s power games. That includes kidnapped waif Lyudmilla (Sofya Lebedeva), a terrorized Russian teenager sold into one of the syndicates’ care, and Mumbai fixer Dilly (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a fearsome gangster who delivers one of the most affecting performances of the series.
Still, “McMafia” is frequently dazzling, in a way that belies its gimmicky name. Strathairn and Ninidze are typically fantastic, in their complementary portraits of gangsters surveying the end of their reign. Its taut storytelling and global focus is reminiscent of both AMC’s “The Night Manager” and Sundance’s “The Honorable Woman,” which both sought to tell human stories against the background of pitiless international relations. The scope of the limited series is well suited to this type of story, and in the seven episodes released to critics, co-creators Hossein Amini and James Watkins present a frightening look at how easily money turns dirty, and how a facade of luxury can mask terrible crimes.
“McMafia” is based on the book of the same name by Misha Glenny, which investigates how the collapse of the Soviet bloc led to a massive worldwide rise of organized crime. As Russia saturates the headlines here in America, with an unfolding investigation about certain meetings, unsavory magnates, and possible assumptions of quid pro quo agreements, “McMafia” presents how exactly those encounters might have taken place — luxury suites, expensive liquor, and whispered conversations. It’s an eye-opening view of how the world probably works. Despite its sympathy for Alex’s fall, “McMafia” is more brilliantly scathing than its primary storyline would suggest.