McMafia presents an unrealistic image of gangsterism


McMafia, which concluded last night on BBC1, was a rather uneven drama, but it did have some very good moments. Chief of these, to my mind, was the final interview between Vadim, the villain, and his nemesis, our anti-hero Alex Godman, played by James Norton. Vadim points out to Alex that the price paid by the man who embraces the life of gangsterism is high. You lose everything, especially the people you love; you have no one in the end, and you meet a miserable violent death as well.

There is a truth here, and it is one that also features in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, believe it or not: if you want to have power, you have to renounce love. And sure enough, the closing scene showed us Alex rejecting the woman who loves him and whom he loves, simply because he has chosen power, and he cannot afford to put her at risk, or to have a weakness, a beloved person through whom others can hurt him.

The series also showed us a lot of things that I am sure have no equivalent in the real world. Chief of these was the way an amateur managed to outwit more or less every professional gangster he met. That would not happen in real life. Again, why did he do it? The original datum was to avenge his uncle, and perhaps he was very fond of his uncle, but common sense should tell you that the path of vengeance is dangerous and in the end futile. Besides, Uncle Boris brought the whole thing on himself, by trying to bump off Vadim in the first place.

The other thing that was not quite right was the assumption that gangsters go after family members, or “civilians” as they are termed in the Godfather films (which were referenced throughout the series). In fact they don’t. Mafia wives in Sicily and elsewhere do not, as far as I know, need bodyguards, because they are regarded as off-limits by all mafiosi. This makes sense: once you start picking off wives and girlfriends and children, where do you stop? Besides, everyone then has too much to lose. The mafia have rules, same as the rest of us.

Finally, another abiding image from the series was the figure of Simiyon Kleiman, the member of the Knesset and underworld kingpin. He is seventy and has no wife, and no child. Why on earth does he bother raking in the millions? Why not just retire and live a comfortable life? Was he addicted to danger, or addicted to making money? If so, that never appeared. Indeed, the one take away from the series that every character left you with was the sense that a life of crime really does not pay. Any legitimate job is better, however dull and unremunerative it may seem.

In what was supposed to be a key scene, no doubt, Alex visits the flat in which he was born in Moscow, which is a far cry from the luxury he knows in London. What was this telling us? That he was driven by a sense of the poverty from which he sprang, and to which he might return? Or that you can never escape your past, your genetic inheritance? All rather sixth form essay points, if so, and points that also have the disadvantage of not being necessarily true. We are not the slaves of our genes, nor are we bound by our past. Remember, Michael Corleone chose to enter the Mafia world. That was his mistake – he didn’t realise just what that choice would entail at the time. The Godfather movies have a moral depth to them that McMafia clearly lacked.