SEASON 2, EPISODE 11: GOLDEN FROG TIME
You know those poison-tip arrows that certain tribes use that go through one guy and kill another? This might be like that. – Bobby Axelrod
“Golden Frog Time” was a hell of a lot of fun, as it coupled a good heist story with an unexpected (therefore if you read my reviews, you should have seen it coming) twist in the waning moments. The penultimate rule proved true again, as the drama ramped up to its highest degree and the rift between various characters reached its crescendo. Billions doesn’t go the murder route all that often, so the “big” event is going to be something different, and if its effect is maximized, that something will be creative.
Chuck Rhoades has had an up and down year, but his ups have lasted longer. He hasn’t been living with his wife, but he’s now sleeping with her again. He had to navigate through treacherous waters during Oliver Dake’s investigation, but now he’s made that problem disappear. He had to deal with Bryan Connerty’s personal conundrum and potential betrayal, but he still has everyone under his thumb in the office. He invested in Ice Juice, but he did it to lure Bobby Axelrod not just near his Trojan horse, but actually forced him inside the wooden equine.
While Axe and Wags thought for sure they had left a turd in the Rhoades family punch bowl, they didn’t have all the information. Neither did we, which takes me back to what I’ve said about Billions since the start of this season. Never get overly caught up on what’s actually transpiring on screen, and instead start considering what could be happening that we don’t know yet. In much the same manner as the stock market and high finance works, success comes from predicting the future. Use the information in front of you, but understand there’s always more, and the truth about the viability or solubility of an endeavor resides between the cracks.
The poison-tip analogy was excellent, not because it defined Axe’s scheme, but because it would better describe Chuck’s sting operation. Bobby Axe is Rhoades’ primary obsession. It provides insight into virtually every major decision he makes, and it even destroyed the first round of his marriage. Whether the pairing actually answered the referee’s count is still to be determined, because once Wendy finds out what Chuck did, the secret trysts might be on the chopping block. But the burning desire to destroy Axe and see him in leg irons led Chuck to see no other goal, or no other collateral damage.
Chuck Sr and Ira weren’t taken into full consideration, and Chuck was even willing to leverage his own questionable bank account in order to try and take Axe Capital down. He may have just done it, as Billions has built Chuck’s power all season long, leading to the come to Jesus moment we haven’t seen yet. Last year, Rhoades was shaming a dog owner on a New York walking path, and this year he’s willing to screw over everybody in his life if it means discomfort for his nemesis. His eyes are on Albany and the Governor’s Mansion, and they’re also on Wendy back in his life.
But is it believable that these conditions will maintain themselves in the long term? On this show? Hell no.
Is is possible the season ends with Axelrod arrested and Chuck smiling, but alone as Wendy finally cuts that cord once she learns she can’t trust her husband…again? If that’s the case, there will be a temporary smile, but one that will fall into a depressed frown upon the realization he gave away everything for vengeance, and wasn’t driven by love or the overwhelming pull to save his family and keep his relationships intact.
Bobby Axe has had a tough year, and it continued as Lara was only willing to “try hard” in bed, but looked completely disinterested in the sexual interaction after the reconciliation and the flowers. The Ice Juice play was a good one, but only if you’re willing to overlook how he was played. Axelrod has made a fortune and a name on not falling into traps, but Lawrence Boyd completely snowed him. Even Hall couldn’t see through the lies, because everything was buttoned up and even the smallest inconsistencies were whitewashed or caulked shut. However, watching the people in no position to turn down the opportunity to poison their own drinks and then be hospitalized was tremendous entertainment. There was a little bit of Ocean’s Eleven in the outbreak sequence, and the episode unfolded in an appetizing and compartmentalized flashback fashion.
The brilliance of the structure was in taking us through the past two weeks, but never even hinting at the fact that there might be a second timeline until the very end. As Chuck sits on the bed with his back to the camera and begins to emote, I immediately knew there was a problem. Yes, the camera could have cut to his face in tears, but the manner and angle of the shot indicated an emotional response we couldn’t be sure of, because it sounded like both a muted cry and a laugh. Watching smart or devious people attempt to outsmart each other works like gangbusters, but especially on a show like Billions, because it exists to be enjoyable first, prolific maybe never.
If there’s a series comparison for Billions, it’s USA Network’s Suits, another show I greatly enjoy. Neither is an Emmy winner, or likely ever will be, but both are wildly addicting and both have created multiple larger-than-life characters. Though in a different way, Louis Litt and Mike Wagner have an awful lot in common in the way they’re presented. The Axelrod character isn’t stationary on Suits, but if you look at the way these two shows are built, if you like one, it stands to reason you would like the other. I’ve enjoyed Suits since day one, even though I see the limitations, faults, or repeated concepts within the series. It found a formula and stuck to it, and Billions may have figured out the same thing. Suits has been hugely successful, and Billions is now taking hold and even attracting a few other critics that wrote the show off in the early stages of the first season.
Chuck was ultra-savvy in “Golden Frog Time,” but you can see those within his office beginning to question who he is, what he represents, and whether they fit into the future. They know his political aspirations, but we’ve seen much less of Sacker and Lonnie over the past few episodes, and even with Spiros returning to join the Klaxon investigation, these people have faded into the background. Bryan Connerty remains the lone exception, because Toby Leonard Moore is a featured player and stays close to the fray. We have seen him so focused on trying to break Taylor, a person he believes is in danger of losing what’s left of her soul. He’s wearing the white hat in each scene, which makes me think he’s going to take the job with Orrin Bach next week. Nothing is pointing to it, and that means everything is pointing to it. Chuck is still in good shape, cut to a dark meeting in the restaurant with Bryan and Bach, where he accepts the job, and agrees to go after Rhoades on behalf of Axelrod.
Why would he make this decision when he’s concerned with doing the right thing? He thinks he’s a knight in shining armor, and once he understands just how many wrong things his current boss is doing, his reaction might mimic Oliver Dake’s before he was reassigned. He sees himself as above the fray, but Billions teaches us that no one is truly hovering above the swamp. Everyone, even pro-Occupy, binary, green Taylor, can’t resist the trappings that come with power and money. I’ve never seen this show as anti-capitalism or even anti-wealth, but I’ve always viewed it as anti-power. It’s no different than many other shows, but while people are paying attention to Dollar Bill Stearn and his duffel bags of cash, they’re forgetting that many of these people were corrupted by the system and the smell of Easy Street.
Bill even tells Taylor how their world works as he confronts Axe’s star employee in the parking lot. “Everyone in our line needs cash squirreled away. It makes all the difference.” The best secondary story of this entire season has been Taylor’s morality, and how its gradually shifted away from everything one would expect from that character. It started with taking the regular job at Axe Cap, progressed to listening to Axe, taking the private jet, purchasing the “swanky” apartment, being willing to “shank” an analyst, and finally accepting the bag from Dollar Bill. Taylor has no idea what she is (or he is) anymore, and there’s a mental side to the character warning of this new life, and then there’s that part of your stomach that bounces when you pull out a giant wad of cash and can begin to look at huge sums as “fuck you” money.
I need to credit one of our readers, Adam Baumli, who wrote me last week at email@example.com to mention the Taylor angle, reminding me I made the point and then didn’t reinforce it last week when there were multiple occasions to do so. As always, you guys keep me honest, and I thank you for it. I’m writing and screening so much these days that even with my notes, I’ll miss a theme. Considering much of my writing centers around threads and larger ideas that cross several characters, it’s good when somebody like Adam gets my head back on track, especially when it’s such an important part of the show.
Taylor’s character has been PHENOMENAL this season for Billions, and I can barely imagine the show without it at this point. Asia Kate Dillon has done a wonderful job in the role, and watching the wunderkind’s next move has become one of the series’ real strengths. Putting her with Kelly AuCoin is such an unlikely, but enticing duo. These two fictional constructs should never be left alone in a room together, or more accurately the OLD Taylor shouldn’t be unprotected around Stearn. This new Taylor is increasingly susceptible to the slimy nature of Dollar Bill’s every move and machination. I hope we get much more from these two going forward.
Here’s one thing that probably won’t happen but would be an effective way to tie up a few characters for the season. Taylor rages against the new reality and decides it’s time to give major information to Connerty and his team. Trying to find him proves unsuccessful, both at his home or at the office. While Taylor is attempting to save the soul and return to a quiet morality, Bryan Connerty is meeting with Orrin Bach to take the position with his firm.
That is Billions. But, this was a terrific hour, amidst a series that has found its groove and is as easy a watch as anything else on television. Next week, Chuck has to be taken down a peg (perhaps the “D” word), but Axe might still wear an orange jumpsuit. What happens with Taylor? Chuck Sr. doesn’t know everything his son has done, so how will that play? Good questions out there to ask, which means the answers are anticipated. We’ll talk about it next week.
I’m @JMartOutkick. But you can call me Rudy.