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This review is based on the opening episodes of Mafiosa’s second season. Read our review of Season 1 here.
In 2006, Mafiosa premiered on French TV. A gangster drama with a female lead, a bucketload of violence and style to spare, it took 10 years for it to finally arrive on UK screens, courtesy of All 4’s Walter Presents. Fortunately, it’s a much shorter wait for the second season, which arrives on Friday 4th November.
Season 1 introduced us to Sandra Paoli (Hélène Fillières), who found herself the reluctant head of the Paoli family clan, following the death of her uncle, François. A young lawyer with a ruthless streak, she began her descent into the murky moral waters with composure and confidence, seducing, silencing and stitching up everyone who got in her way.
It was a bravura tour de fource for Hélène Fillières, whose chameleonic presence found a thrillingly unpredictable balance between naivety and nastiness, something that repeatedly took both us and her enemies by surprise. Season 2, though, turns the tables to gripping effect.
We pick up almost immediately after the climax of Season 1, which saw Sandra and Commissioner Rocca (Patrick Dell’Isola – now replaced by Antoine Basler) face off, undercover DEA agent Santoni bumped off and her brother, Jean-Michel (Thierry Neuvic), caught red-handed by the police. The latter was necessary for the Paoli clan to survive with Sandra’s authority in tact. After all, surely Jean-Michel could be relied upon to stay silent behind bars?
But after a season of Sandra’s rise to power, putting male noses out of joint across Corsica, things have reached breaking point – and the arrest of Jean-Michel is all that’s needed for them to snap. At this first sign of weakness, Sandra finds herself under threat on all sides, with Yacinthe and Ortoli stepping up to challenge her. What was once intimidating and impressive suddenly looks surprisingly shaky.
It would be an abrupt change in tone, if it weren’t for the superb Fillières, who subtly undermines her confident facade with furtive glances and nervous stares. Even her stern expression begins to look like a stubborn, childish pout. And so we see her appear increasingly far from her comfort zone; even her exchanges with her law colleagues, particularly her brother’s representative, leave her seeming out of touch with both sides of her life. When she goes to Coco Casanova (Jean-François Stévenin), an old friend of François, for help, his refusal is entirely rational. “Prove you can work with me,” he argues, pointing out that he doesn’t know her at all. One nail-biting scene sees her stand on a table and sing – a moment that’s as surprising and heartbreaking as it is horribly tense.
The tension stems from the fact that, unlike Coco, we do know Sandra; we’ve spent a whole season seeing just how cruel she can be – so now that things have snapped, it’s a question of when, not if, she begins to snap back.
The contrast between this and the first season is reinforced by a slight shift in the show’s tone. Season 1’s glossy visuals and cool editing give way to a more realistic mood. The tone is achieved through a more static camera, as well as a wider ensemble of new characters populating the Paoli ranks, from new gangster Manu, who’s having an affair that’s destined to go awry, to loyal henchman Toussaint, who threatens to go off the rails.
That only makes the returning faces all the more significant. Neuvic, who was convincing as the braun-not-brains of the brother-sister pair, does great work as the sibling gradually losing confidence in his counterpart. Aware that he’s been shafted, he’s smart, and smarting, enough to want to strike back, whether that’s by getting out of prison his own way or by grassing up Sandra. Either could be possible. In the other corner stands Rocca, who’s hoping to get Sandra’s sidekicks to dish some dirt, but can’t quite shake their old bond.
It’s telling that both Sandra’s threats and helps come from old friends – watch out for the scene-stealing Fabrizio Rongione as returning ally Rémi. (“What if we both flirted with her?” he jokes, after Sandra stops him chatting up Jean-Michel’s lawyer.) – as Mafiosa moves from its elegant initial run to a show where the story and suspense is increasingly driven by its characters and their relationships. The motif of the deceased staring accusingly at the camera at the end of each episode has gone, replaced by simple black-and-white stills recapping the past hour, but there remains an ominous weight to the music and performances that contrasts fantastically with the cute opening titles; from start to finish, the focus is on Sandra and Jean-Michel’s relationship, demonstrating how even the slightest change in their dynamic can send earthquakes through the Paoli clan.
It’s the kind of central conflict that has turned Netflix’s Narcos into a binge-viewing sensation, or given History’s Vikings the gravitas to match its scale. One season in and Mafiosa deserves to be as big as either among UK audiences. Carefully plotted and brilliantly performed, war is brewing – and Mafiosa’s bigger, darker and grittier Season 2 promises a family feud to remember.
All episodes of Mafiosa Season 2 and 3 are available to stream on All 4’s Walter Presents from Friday 4th November. Season 1 is already available.
For more information on the other foreign-language shows available, see our Walter Presents TV guide.