Television and the New Cold WarPhotos: McMafia: Nick Wall/Cuba Pictures/CPL Godm; Counterpart: Starz TV Features McMafia
Though it opens with an assassination attempt on the Arabian Peninsula and charts a course through Mumbai, the Sinai, and Cap d’Antibes, McMafia’s two poles, London and Moscow, are as familiar as D.J.M. Cornwell’s nom de plume. There are complicating factors—offshore accounts in the Caymans, deliveries in Dubai, internships in New York—but AMC’s new limited series, the latest in a recent raft of globe-trotting crime dramas, expends much of its energies on the correspondences among past, present, and (foreseeable) future. For good or for ill, McMafia, from its express interest in the nature of capitalism to its sense of Europe once again in retreat, is an emblem of the medium’s new interest in updating John le Carré for the post-Soviet age, which has turned out not to be so “post-” as expected: “Russians. Drinking our beer. Pimping our women,” as a Czech man complains to Israeli gangster Semiyon Kleiman (David Strathairn) in McMafia, navigating the streets of Prague. “Like ’89 never happened.”
It’s unsurprising that TV should focus its attention on the new Cold War—pop culture is always mining the wider world for material, to the point that even the righteously old-fashioned Madam Secretary features more battles in conference rooms with Russian diplomats than with armed men on the Afghan steppes. Still, the speed at which the shadow of Putin’s Russia has come to influence the medium’s stories of spies, emissaries, politicians, and criminals is worth noting, particularly after 15-plus years in which it was practically impossible to turn on a TV without encountering some second-rate Jack Bauer chasing “terrorists” through a teeming souk. It’s not that Russians have supplanted these (always Arab, always Muslim, always problematic) adversaries, so much as they’ve destabilized their role in the prevailing narrative—in McMafia, for instance, which follows Alex Godman (James Norton), the reluctant scion of a Muscovite crime family, as he allies with Kleiman to exact revenge on his uncle’s murderer, there are still swarthy, anonymous men in kaffiyehs, but they’re middle men in a multinational sex trafficking ring, not religious ideologues. The point isn’t that this portrait is “right” or “wrong,” necessarily—it surely raises as many questions as it answers—but it does have the benefit of reframing the so-called “War on Terror” as one in which all the players, from U.S. and Russian state actors to British arms dealers (as in AMC’s The Night Manager) and ISIL sympathizers in Berlin (as in Showtime’s Homeland), are embroiled in a conflict that is actually quite commonplace, which is to say that it’s as much about money and power as it is about ideals.
McMafia, more Bourne than Bond, and coming on the heels of similarly sleek underworld dramas such as Riviera (Sundance Now), Marseille (Netflix), and The Last Panthers (SundanceTV), struggles to slough off this baggage; aesthetically (half opulent villas, half murky nightclubs) and narratively (do-gooder breaks bad to save the family), it has all the excitement of lukewarm milk. Its most bracing decision is to apply certain concepts from the Soviet-American stalemate of the 20th century to the nettlesome, still-emerging outlines of its 21st century evolution, and thus to suggest that pronouncing the U.S. the “winner” of the Cold War—much less declaring “the end of history”—was awfully suspect, or at least premature. The (off-putting) title, after all, comes from Kleiman’s plan to “franchise” his crime syndicate as though it were a fast-food chain: “Why is McDonald’s more successful than Burger King?” he asks Alex, a former Goldman Sachs employee who agrees to launder Kleiman’s money for in return for an angel investment in his firm. “One reason. There are more of them.”
In McMafia, the fundamental feature of the new Cold War, indeed of the entire post-1989 landscape, is not the struggle between capitalism and socialism; it’s the ruthlessness that the triumph of capitalism over socialism ultimately engenders—the way its logic insinuates itself into everything from cheeseburgers to sex slavery. Though she’s so naive as to be unbelievable, Alex’s girlfriend, Rebecca (the underutilized Juliet Rylance), inadvertently draws the point during a lecture on globalization and poverty, underwritten by a corrupt philanthropist. “The problem doesn’t lie with capitalism,” she says, misunderstanding the economic system’s very definition, “but with those capitalists who have put self-interest and short-term gain ahead of the good of the people.”
Self-interest, short-term gain, an absence of ideological conviction: Here, McMafia offers perhaps the definitive gloss on the age we’re in, one its more intriguing competitor, Counterpart (Starz), amplifies by leaning on science fiction. Set, very deliberately, in Berlin, the series transforms the iconography of the Iron Curtain—the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, “defectors” and assassins and cracked leather attaché cases—into the embroidery on its eerie version of the East/West divide: a portal, known as “The Crossing,” that connects two divergent realities. If McMafia is Syriana with Russian oligarchs, Counterpart is The Spy Who Came in from the Cold for an alternate dimension. It even has more than one Alec Leamas: Howard Silk, a milquetoast bureaucrat, and his “Other,” Howard Prime, a menacing operative (both played by J.K. Simmons), the same man separated by 30 years of circumstance.
As Silk’s employer, Peter Quayle (Harry Lloyd) explains in the series premiere, Eastern scientists created “The Crossing” in an experiment gone wrong near the end of the Cold War, and from that moment, the gulf between the two sides of the passage has grown ever larger. In this, Counterpart might be read as allegorical counter-history of the Cold War, not dissimilar from The Plot Against America, The Man in the High Castle, or 11.22.63: The moment the portal opens, sometime in the late 1980s, it replaces the Wall as Europe’s most important border, and so gestures at a present in which the conflict changes, adapts, but never quite ends. Indeed, compared to McMafia, which is so aggressively “contemporary” it’s almost evanescent, the timelessness of Counterpart accrues real weight. Einstein on Peace, six-hour visas, compromised embassies, foreign moles: The series collects enough glimpses of the Cold War past, at least as imagined in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Lives of Others, or Goodbye, Lenin, to suggest, in its own strange fashion, that the promise of 1989 was at best a blip, at worst an illusion. As brooding spymaster Alexander Pope (Stephen Rea) says to Prime’s wife, Emily (Olivia Williams), when she refers to her job as “keeping the peace,” “Peace? I wonder when we’ve ever had peace. I wonder if there’ll ever come a reckoning for what they did to us. Times are changing. It’s scary to think how fragile this peace really is.”
For Counterpart as for McMafia, the “what” and the “they” of what they did to us is slow to emerge—both series suffer from the long prologue problem so common in the age of “peak TV”—but their commitment to untangling (or re-tangling, as the case may be) our preconceptions about which empire is the evil one is bracing indeed. The series’ sharpest perception is not that the Cold War is no longer simply a function of the CIA and the KGB, of kitchen debates and Iron Curtains—it’s that it never was. The two sides are mirror images, reflections across the crossing’s axis, or otherwise so deeply embedded in the dodecahedron complexities of the modern, digital economy that it becomes hard to decipher which side one’s on. Instructive, then, that the finest of these intricate stories from the front lines of the new Cold War is the series in closest touch with the old one, 2015’s The Last Panthers. Compared with its glossier, more preening counterpart, The Night Manager, as I wrote for Indiewire at the time, ”[i]t’s no dispatch from an imagined, ‘backwards’ ‘East,’ but a depiction of the destruction wrought in the name of the West’s ‘civilizing’ influence”: Though The Last Panthers is set in the European present, assembling Serbian burglars, a British insurance claims specialist (Samantha Morton), and a French policeman (Tahar Rahim), it is, first and foremost, about the betrayal of promises past.
By the time the series arrives at its penultimate episode, a stirring flashback to Morton’s Naomi Franckom, then a U.N. peacekeeper, in Bosnia in 1995, The Last Panthers outlines in frank, intimate strokes what McMafia and Counterpart can only gesture at: That “peace” is fragile because its terms are set by the winners, that for the losers—those for whom there was no Velvet Revolution, but instead the Balkan Wars—the very notion of “peace” is often absurd. TV’s treatment of the new Cold War is not always as engaging as one might hope—the complications of the conflict, then and now, are too profound for such a blunt instrument—but it is alive, in ways that are worth considering, to the notion of a “reckoning.” In war, as it happens, there are vanishingly few innocents, much less heroes and villains; there are, rather, winners and losers, living and dead, counterparts separated by the crossings of the past. “Decade here, three at home,” a bakery owner in Counterpart explains on this point, as if to punctuate our own moment’s sense of long-delayed reckoning. “Know what I know? There are no sides. We all go to the same hell.”
McMafia premieres Monday, Feb. 26 at 10 p.m. on AMC. Counterpart airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on Starz.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.