The level of criticism McMafia has attracted is surprising. It does, like any other art produced in the entertainment industry, have its flaws. The plot became difficult to follow and slowed significantly in pace (not that slow TV and film is always synonymous with bad) following the second episode. Nevertheless, it has picked up and things have fallen into place due to the events of episode 6. We’re now left with the fallout of the latter with Alex Godman’s (James Norton) family in danger and his fiancée (well, not for long, if he continues his secrecy) hospitalised following an encounter with an assassin. Those who have stuck through the series are about to have their patience rewarded.
There are two secondary characters (now arguably primary) who attract attention and seem to command viewers’ support more than other characters. The interactions between drive-bodyguard Joseph Cohen (Oshri Cohen) and beauty therapist turned sex slave Lyudmilla Nikolayeva (Sofia Lebedeva). Lyudmilla is introduced in episode 2, arriving in Cairo, Egypt to be a beautician for a supposed-hotel. She is driven to the outskirts of Cairo, bundled in a van, taken out to the Sinai desert, witness to the cruel execution of a fellow Russian captive, and is smuggled into Israel to work for ex-politician, now businessman, Semiyon Kleiman (David Strathairn). It’s made clear that while she won’t be expected to sleep with clients, her role is to extract information from Kleiman’s business peers using her feminine wiles. (I question this; he would convince her to go beyond that if it really mattered.) Joseph, on the other hand, is wilfully employed by Kleiman to be a henchman of sorts, which naturally means that he turns a blind eye to the shady dealings. Lyudmilla is the exception.
It’s clear from the conclusion of episode 2 during her introduction to Kleiman, that she’s attracted Joseph’s attention. Kleiman’s observation of Joseph watching Lyudmilla is so subtle, you miss it, but it’s very telling.
That’s the face of a Master who knows his Underlings are going to give him trouble:
Joseph’s fixation is more overt in episode 3: we’re given two delicious scenes for analysis. The first is in Eilat, Israel. Kleiman is attempting to set sail on his voyage (sorry) for casinos on water by enticing a host of potential investors. This scene is wonderful. His courtship of them is juxtaposed with Lyudmilla’s receiving instruction of her duties. Lyudmilla is a picture of sophistication melded with seduction. She’s placed with an American man to pretend to be a woman of means looking to enter the business world. He flirts openly; Lyudmilla’s flirtation is put on, with the mask slipping for a second enough to catch Joseph’s burning gaze. The camerawork is deliberate here: American man flirts, places his hands on her exposed skin, Joseph’s flicker of jealousy, Lyudmilla’s awareness of this and Joseph’s silent communication of his interest in her. The second scene of episode 3 is their private conversation in the car. Joseph watches her interaction with their boss (her keeper) in his rearview mirror. He knows she’s wearing a mask and he watches her take it off when they’re left alone. Although he truly believes his dodgy, human-trafficking boss is a “good man” (because human trafficking is a light crime), he’s aware of her anguish. He sweetly tries to put her at ease by engaging in conversation with her and they learn that they have Moscow in common. Lyudmilla makes fun of his accent by stating it’s like a six-year-old’s, while he assures her that Kleiman will take care of her and her sick mother. Oh, Joseph. There were high hopes for you and your perceptive ways.
Episode 4 tortures fans of these two with only one curt moment. It’s still important. We still unpack the clues. Lyudmilla enters as Kleiman is taking a call with Alex as Joseph stands guard. Joseph and Lyudmilla lock onto each other for a couple of seconds under Kleiman’s unimpressed watch. You guys, he’s right there! When she leaves, Joseph follows her with his heart eyes. There’s nothing more pleasing than a man with heart eyes.
We’re gifted with more Joseph and Lyudmilla moments in episode 5. The first being the casino ship. Lyudmilla can’t take the business discussion anymore between Kleiman and Friends, so she excuses herself prompting Kleiman to signal Joseph to follow her. He tells her that her visible upset displeases Kleiman while she challenges him philosophically with “Why do you work for him?”, to which he replies philosophically: “It’s a job”. Unfortunately, Joseph’s assurance that Kleiman will release her proves he’s still a loyal, sleeping henchman. The second, is another rearview observation, this time when Kleiman explains Lyudmilla’s objectives on the way to an art dealer’s party. He notes her waning spirit.
Lyudmilla then jumps on the false charges of rape and battery against Kleiman, by using her testimony as leverage: if she tells the truth to exonerate Kleiman, will he let her go. Joseph probes her in the manner of an intelligence agent, proving his unwavering loyalty to Kleiman. He trusts Lyudmilla and seeks her presence yet won’t break his professionalism. Instead, he enlists Alex to be the buffer in the quest for her freedom. Now fully invested in securing Lyudmilla’s freedom, Joseph visits her room to inform her that the plan may work. Ever the gentleman, he either keeps his eyes either level with hers or on the floor. It’s almost entertaining how awkward he is. They reach an accord and he moves to leave. His linger near the door signals that there are more things he wishes to share. Unfortunately (and predictably), Kleiman is stubborn and clings to her. Joseph is left to deliver the gutting news through non-verbal communication. Lyudmilla’s eyes convey her now-dying spirit. It’s difficult to watch, only made slightly better by Joseph’s evident sympathy.
Alas, it is not the end! Joseph to the rescue! Sort of. He visits her room when she’s preparing to work (with a ridiculously revealing dress, I might add) in episode 6. The only scene including these two lovebirds. The plunging dress appears like a cage, almost like a punishment for wanting to flee. In a literal sense, it could be a punishment for being ungrateful in Kleiman’s eyes, by upping her “work”. Joseph informs her that there’s still hope with Alex lobbying to free her. Alone together? Low lighting? Close proximity to each other? Some would almost call that romantic . . . * ahem *
And now, a moment for the shippers. Touched by his efforts, Lyudmilla takes charge and officiates their relationship with a kiss. Oh, you’ve done it now, Lyudmilla. You’ve ignited the flame in the man. The power of a kiss. He hands in his resignation and swaps for handling Alex’s security in London. Obviously, Joseph senses the vultures closing around Kleiman and it’s time to jump before he has to clean up the blood, but he’s also working to secure her freedom. A once steadfast, loyal and unquestioning bodyguard has ditched those attributes for love.
There are only two more episodes left. Those engrossed in the relationship between the two have crossed fingers that the couple survives and begins a new life in London. This possibility is worth seeing the series through to the end.