This must look like your future foretold, huh? – Chuck Rhoades
You mean watching you arrest other people while I walk right out the door? Yeah, it kinda does. – Bobby Axelrod
Midway through the sophomore season of Billions, our two male leads have found themselves dodging crossroads and losses, both personal and professional. Meanwhile, Wendy Rhoades is back with Axe Capital, which has put added strain on both her own separation from Chuck as well as the Bobby-Lara relationship. As always, everything comes down to her first, before either one of the two men within her orbit. That’s the underlying secret of the entire show. She’s the key. She’s the show’s chastity belt, its sadism, its masochism, its mind fuck, its basic psyche, its nature, its nurture, and its torture. What she does informs upon everyone else’s actions around her.
Once that simple fact is understood, Billions instantly makes more sense as a character study. The financial maneuvering and the civil and criminal cases, the side businesses, the schemes, and the ass tattoos are all part of why the show is entertaining, but this series goes as Wendy goes. Maggie Siff, a strong performer whose work in both Mad Men and Sons of Anarchy showcased how tough a character she could play, but it also illustrated her ability to work vulnerability through strength.
Wendy’s reaction to Ira’s news about just how rough her husband’s life has become as a result of Axe’s litigious revenge ploys, his own financial woes, and the estrangement from the only woman that matters in his world other than his own mother shows all of this. She meets with Bobby at the skate park and comes out swinging; asking for a 20 percent salary bump and a stake in Axe Capital. She has demands and her words don’t merely eek out, they scream forth with furious anger and punch her victim in the face. But, when she realizes she’s been played, and her husband was just a bargaining chip to get her back under Axe’s thumb, she goes from power to weakness, and then tries to save face with the refusal to treat Bobby himself.
Many actors couldn’t pull any of this off with any degree of touch, but Siff adeptly drifts from emotion to emotion and manages the task beautifully. Her tender side emerges at the family dinner that almost ends with a kiss. Her hard boiled side arrives as she signs her contract and sees through Axe’s dog and pony show with Orrin Bach on the civil suits. Her content isn’t always the most enjoyable, but it’s almost always the most important. Her ebbs and flows lead to rash decisions, arguments between other characters, and sometimes very stupid plays.
Among the big moves over the past two weeks, Lara has tried unsuccessfully to expand her hydration business, and Axe’s callous, honest response to those struggles has pushed her to rethink portions of her marriage. Well, it did until Axe agreed not to see Wendy for any coaching sessions, which Lara took as a new development, but we know was already one of Wendy’s demands once she learned she’d been hoodwinked. Axe lied to his wife’s face, it worked, and he ended up naked with her minutes later. It doesn’t suck to be Bobby Axelrod, even if he paid five million dollars for worthless land. Chuck Rhoades Sr. has certainly been busy, and as usual, when he does thinks to “help” his son, he usually complicates matters for multiple parties.
Chuck has gotten Oliver Dake off his back, at least for the moment. Of all the ridiculous people in Billions, Dake is the most transparent as a villain. It’s impossible to like the guy, despite Christopher Denham’s commitment to the role. The dialogue he uses isn’t believable, it’s full of wild threats and wild eyes, and there’s a rigidity and hatred within this young man that makes him instantly an enemy of the show. He creates sympathy for Chuck, even when Rhoades is at his most selfish or loathsome.
The Attorney General calls Dake, just as Lonnie Watley is giving up the goods, and suspends the investigation in the wake of the Lawrence Boyd guilty plea. I’m pretty sure Oliver wouldn’t have reacted as sadly if he found out his father was murdered in the street, and when he sits down with Chuck and tells him not to get “fucking comfortable.” Dake wants this guy, which he claims is because he just despises corruption from officials who take an oath, but if there’s not something personal here, the guy isn’t human.
Actually, that assessment could be accurate, because at the church, one of the AG’s deputies gives him the advice to store a part of himself in a basement and leave it pristine. If Oliver wants to give everything to the job, it’s fine, but he must retain some of his soul in the process. I’m not sure Dake can even do that, or we’re supposed to believe it would be difficult. From his hair to the knot in his tie to the glasses, to the manner of speech, he’s robotic and behaves like an open-world assassin, but not one hiding in the shadows. He walks up to you from a mile away, pointing the gun with every step and calling you by name. He’s a caricature of a stuffed shirt, but because Billions rolls around in its excess, he somehow fit with this show.
I’d be surprised if we’ve seen the last of him. He may be part of the cliffhanger at the tail end of the finale, provided Chuck is in good position by that point. He could be the pin in the Rhoades balloon. He’s definitely got the prick gene. Maybe he should start playing Go.
Go, the Chinese board game Connerty and his fellow nerds are caught playing in the office, has appeared in television many times before, and the reason is obvious. It’s a game with almost infinite moves, a deep strategy game that dwarfs chess in its complexity, and it reveals much about planning, forethought, and analytical minds. I always stunk at chess, despite thoroughly enjoying the game, because I couldn’t see more than two or three moves past my own. Billions relies upon a hedge fund whose fearless leader either knows the results before the game is even played, or hires people like Taylor or Everett Wright to know for him.
Even then, it’s a gamble.
Lawrence Boyd tells Chuck he thought Rhoades was ready to take the next step and understood the game. Chuck says he does, and he’s absolutely right. He’s another guy who plays way into the future with every present piece he places on the board. He’s shown the ability to adapt and manipulate a conclusion in the past, both as he trailed Bobby Axelrod last season and the way he contorted McKinnon to trap Boyd. It was never because he cared about taking down Spartan-Ives, even though he does despise the financial sector and its sharks, but because Chuck knew it might save his job. So, when he tells Connerty to watch himself with a move on the Go board, it makes complete sense. Of course this guy plays Go, understands it, and can eyeball a game in progress and make an educated comment about it.
Sadly, he hasn’t been as intelligent in his romantic life, and now he might have taken a shine to an attractive Swiss woman in his martial arts classes. She nearly choked him out with her legs…I’d have probably handed her a ring if I were in that spot. If you happen to be someone that can do that – I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org. Plus my DMs are open. As is my relationship status. Yeah I’m shameless. Sue me. Or fake it until Wendy Rhoades comes back to work for you.
Connerty wasn’t a gigantic part of the proceedings these past two weeks, but we did get the slick work during jury selection, which put Boyd in a no-win situation. His attorneys blew through their peremptory challenges, and with each loaded question Bryan asked, he inflamed those sitting in the box. His relationship with Chuck has coarsened, as has his day-to-day work with the rest of the office, which makes the continued needling from Orrin Bach that much more interesting as a plot point during the back half of the season. Whatever his decision will be probably isn’t coming until the finale, and as cards get shuffled in dramas featuring different teams, it’s definitely possible he takes a path to the dark side.
Or, because he also plays Go and utterly hates Axelrod, maybe he goes inside to take him down. If that happens, there’s no way we’ll learn about it initially, because Billions loves to toy with the audience and move five stones onto the board mentally, before laying one down physically. I expect Connerty to become much more of a focus, now that Rhoades isn’t strapped to the chopping block and surrounded by three separate butchers.
Hall might be the scariest character on television right now, and it’s because of the deadpan manner in which he delivers horrifying, threatening, awful dialogue. He seems to have no conscience, which is why he serves Axe as fixer so effectively. Before Boyd gives in and takes the deal, listening to Hall’s instructions about contingency funds, buying off witnesses, and veiled threats at a possible informant’s children all leaves Lawrence frightened and uneasy. Imagine that. “I know where your kids will be every day you’re in jail” makes a rich man uncomfortable, even when he’s not the victim in the situation.
I’m going to miss Doctor Gus, another one of the Jordan Belfort-like cartoons this show has given us. We lost Dake and Gus in one week, but we’ve still got Yosemite Wags, even if his head space was cleared on a park bench by, you guessed it, Wendy Rhoades. Again, she controls everything on this show. The only things she doesn’t do are arrest people or make trades herself, but neither of those things would happen without her influence.
The casino hasn’t been intriguing on its own, but because of how it’s forced Axe to deal with rival hedge funds, especially with Krakow, who he’s been at odds with all season, made it interesting. The conversation with Hank Flagg showed that even an upstate motorcycle enthusiast has connections, knows how to read, and comprehends the worth of his property. He also jams Drive-By Truckers classics like Ronnie & Neil. Axe ended up paying five million, and though Chuck Sr. has gotten his buddy – and welcome to the party David Strathairn – to move the location to the Catskills, to think that’s a done deal would be foolish. Bobby isn’t just going to give up and move on. If he does, it’s because there’s a bigger play to make. He’s been thwarted in attempts to buy an NFL franchise, screwed over by Jerry Romijn-O’Connell on the Nigerian currency short, and now the casino deal is on the fritz.
Axe has Wendy back, however, and he just banged Lara after a successful lie, so he’s close to breaking even. Wags is in a better spot, even though he tried to resign, and he could have some ideas that don’t require cowering in a bathroom stall like Maffee or pushing the risk envelope too far with Dollar Bill. And, on the other side, Chuck is out of trouble, but the wife he was starting to make inroads with has gone back into the seventh level of his personal hell at Axe Capital. So, when he calls it a “deal breaker,” the rain falls from the silver lining in his cloud and drenches his face. It also ruins the gaudy suit he wears to casual outings to try and live up to what he thinks Wendy deserves.
Billions is never lacking in entertainment or pacing. Sometimes it’s too busy, but in this two hours, though a lot happened, almost all of it was necessary to the larger story. There wasn’t a great deal of wasted time, certainly nowhere near as much as many dramas sometimes bring at midseason. We’re about to get much more Connerty, and marriage counseling continues for Chuck and Wendy. As for Axe, the NEXT big idea probably works out. He’s had a down quarter, and bad things come in threes. He’s been shut down on three plans, so fourth time may be the charm. And Chuck is going to have to thwart his penis’ urge to sleep with the fighter. Now that Wendy is back in Axe’s building, that’s going to be even tougher.
LINE OF THE WEEK: These jurors are gonna do me like Louis XVI. What I want you to do is start fucking dealing. – Lawrence Boyd
I’m @JMartOutkick and at email@example.com. Seriously, that thigh choke deal…I’m down. And so now, as the great Bruce Buffer says, it’s time!