McMafia finale: how one outrageous scene summed up the show

Monday, 12th February 2018, 9:03 am
Updated Monday, 12th February 2018, 10:36 am

*Warning: spoilers for the entire season of McMafia*

After eight episodes, numerous visits to exotic locations and a lot of silent gazing by James Norton (who may well be competing with Ryan Gosling in the brooding, minimal dialogue stakes), BBC One's tense crime thriller McMafia span an engrossing and rather bleak conclusion this weekend.

The final instalment brought our conniving central character back from the brink of oblivion, and sent him right to the top of the food chain. But there was little joy to be had in his success.

By the end, Alex had become a modern-day Godfather in a Gucci suit, apparently backed by an entire government.

McMafia's finale argued real criminal power lies in politics - and the boardroom. And one crucial scene in the episode underpinned the entire message.

'I'm a banker'

During the tense opening minutes, where Alex came a hair's breadth away from unimaginable horrors, the suspense was palpable.

Detained at passport control. Kept in a holding cell by Vadim's FSB friend. And then transported to a rendezvous with Alex's would-be torturers and assassins; leading to a suspenseful chase through the dimly-lit backstreets and subway tunnels of Moscow.

But the tables soon turned.

This conclusion, like many of the preceding episodes, had much to say about the way truly horrifying abuses of power are hidden behind respectable, 'legitimate' facades.

As the drama itself pointed out, Vadim and Alex's father are relics. Alex, and people like him, are the genuine modern face of international crime.

Cue the amazing centrepiece sequence which cut between the funeral of Vadim's daughter, and Alex giving the pitch of his life to a boardroom of heavyweight political figures in a trendy, glass fronted office building.

Here he was, brokering a colossal heroin trafficking arrangement with assured, practiced banker acumen. You almost expected him to wheel out a powerpoint presentation in order to convince his prospective clients that the figures, and cost-benefit analysis, added up. That Harvard business degree - shared by his Russian contact, funnily enough - came in oh-so handy.

McMafia has presented a world where the new gangsters are not so easy to spot. Interesting territory, even if Layer Cake got there a while before it.

"I'm a banker," Alex insisted on telling the woman in his childhood family home, at the end.

Alex still inhabits the same kind of boardrooms and wears the same kind of suits he did while managing his hedge fund in London. For him, only the nature of the business itself, and its consequences, have changed.

Godfather-esque tragedy

There were layers of Godfather-esque tragedy here. Not least Vadim dying alone in a squalid apartment, bereaved, and betrayed by his best friend - having lost everything.

Vadim's downfall was surprisingly sad to watch - a testament to writing and performance (Photo: BBC)

That McMafia spent so much time with Alex's nemesis and his point of view was crucial. It gave us a more rounded and somewhat sympathetic antagonist - albeit one, like Alex, prepared to go to unseemly depths.

Alex, meanwhile, will seemingly have to sever all emotional ties if he wants to pursue his new high-powered criminal career. Given his increasingly steely demeanour, which only barely shook when he executed Vadim (impressive subtle acting on James Norton's part), you don't imagine that'll be a problem for him.

That old Godfather mantra of "this isn't personal - it's strictly business" seems ironically appropriate here.

Both Vadim and Alex attempted to destroy one another for largely personal reasons, though in the end, Alex saw the potential to combine the two in a final coup de gras.

The Breaking Bad of the business world?

If you stop to think about it for a second, it is somewhat ridiculous to believe that Alex could go from bland city banker, to reluctant money launderer, to Kremlin-backed drug kingpin in a matter of weeks.

But the drama has done a great job of making that journey engrossing, and strangely plausible.

Like Breaking Bad, this was about a protagonist finding that his talents could be turned to new, nefarious uses - and developing a taste for power along the way.

The Godmans have come a long way. But at what cost? (Photo: BBC)

Even Alex's reasoning that he was doing what he was doing to protect his family had echoes of Walter White. It was an excuse that became more and more flimsy throughout.

Alex ended the series representing corrupt Russian interests worth billions, and talking down to the feared Cartel - having stepped on his supposed allies along the way; first Kleinman, and then Antonio.

Alex is someone we can understand. Possibly respect. Maybe even grudgingly admire. But he's ultimately a true anti-hero. A character whose triumph sends something of a chill down the spine, rather than raising cheers.

An increasingly strong series

The series overall has been a compelling, globetrotting thriller. One that arguably got stronger as it went along.

The Mumbai episode was excellent, with some of the most tense, realistic hacking sequences in screen history. And the instalment where the viewer was guessing who would be the target of Vadim's attempted hit was edge-of-the-seat stuff.

Not every sub-plot has felt essential, or even necessary, but McMafia has been consistently absorbing, and the cast have been impressive.

The supporting cast has been one of McMafia's finest assets (Photo: BBC)

Norton was stony-faced but emotive when it counted; Juliet Rylance appropriately torn; and the likes of Karel Roden as Benes and the ever-excellent David Strathairn provided strong support.

Merab Ninidze, likely unfamiliar to British viewers before this series, might have been the stand-out as Vadim; channeling so much pain in his later scenes, and enough humanity behind the vicious front throughout, that we somehow ended up feeling sorry for him by the end.

Other talking-points:

Explicit Godfather references in recent weeks have included Vadim's men pulling the doors shut on his daughter during a 'business' meeting, and the same character cradling his dying child on a flight of stone steps (after all of the scenes establishing the close, loving relationship between the two, it was inevitable she would perish).It was interesting that a small act of kindness from Alex ultimately helped save him; Lyudmilla providing him a temporary sanctuary in Moscow, after he and Joseph freed her from the clutches of Kleiman."Gucci here, Gucci there", noted Alex's mother. The Godmans, who have profited from crime and suffering - and whose patriarch's actions have only just killed a 21-year-old girl - are left to enjoy their wealth. As Alex visited his tiny childhood home in a Moscow tenement block, we were left to ponder the cost of his family's rise to riches.Rebecca and Alex's relationship hangs in the balance. And she is clearly in two minds. But as she called him while packing her bags, Alex's glance at his phone appeared to suggest he was prepared to cut her out of his life.Alex has blatantly snubbed and disrespected his initial Cartel contact Antonio. Despite Godman now being protected by the Russians, could Antonio seek vengeance by targeting Rebecca? She had obviously come to value his attentions. That thread was left intriguingly open, if another season should ever emerge.

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