Billions Season 3
Billions Season Finale Recap: Pest ControlAll hail the birth of a beautiful and stupendous villain in Wendy Rhoades.
Billions Recap: Comp DayThe stakes for the last few episodes of the season have been raised.
Billions Recap: All in a Day’s WorkGrigor, Bobby, Sacker, and Taylor manage to change others’ perceptions of them in a single day — for better or for worse.
Billions Recap: I’ve Got a Bad Feeling About ThisWe have ourselves a new (well, “new”) pair of Big Bads for the remainder of the season.
Billions Recap: O Captain My CaptainIt’s possible we jammed in a few too many story arcs this week.
Billions Recap: Jesus Christ, ChuckIf Axe can still surprise you with chicanery, you haven’t been paying attention.
Billions Recap: Break the StickIf you think you’re already going to jail, why not eat a tiny illegal songbird?
Billions Recap: Walk on the Wild SideNo one tells Dollar Bill what to do.
Billions Recap: I Learned It From Watching You, Dad!Get your dad feelings ready for this Rhoades v. Rhoades showdown.
Billions Recap: White TrufflesPoor Ira.
Billions Recap: Black SwanAxe is terrible at sitting still and not getting himself into trouble.
Billions Season-Premiere Recap: The Boys Are Back in TownHas Team Windbreakers finally pinned Team Half-Zip Navy Pullovers against the wall?
What’s New on Showtime: March 2018If you love Al Pacino gangster movies, don’t miss Carlito’s Way.
‘Billions’ Recap, Season 5 Finale: The Axe Falls
The walls close in on Bobby as Chuck sharpens his knives. Then an unlikely ally intervenes.
Season 5, Episode 12: ‘No Direction Home’
“So this is what it is to lose,” says Bobby Axelrod. “OK.”
He’s talking to Mike Prince, the man who helped engineer his downfall — a decisive one this time. How do we know it’s decisive? Because, I think, of that concluding “OK.” (Also, Damian Lewis, who plays Axe, just made public he is leaving the show.) Until this point, Axe has always scratched and clawed like a cornered animal to fight his way out of defeat, whether at the hands of his legal nemesis Chuck Rhoades or his business rivals, like Prince. This time, though? He admits he has been beaten, and makes his peace with it.
So why does it feel like a loss for Chuck, too?
At a glance, it looks as if Chuck got (almost) everything he wanted. He caught Bobby going into business with a shady cannabis company with an illegal sideline selling the black-market stuff, a deal Axe rushed into without doing his own due diligence. He has ended the era of Axe Cap/Axe Bank for good. He has busted up his mortal enemy’s romance with his ex-wife. He has harpooned his white whale at last.
Only the whale gets away.
What Chuck didn’t count on, as the jaws of the law began closing on Bobby, was that his own supposed teammate Mike Prince would help Axe escape. It was Prince who alerted Axe Cap to Bobby’s impending arrest, with a single goal in mind: seizing control of Axe’s empire. It was Chuck, he says, who wanted to see Bobby behind bars, a “Cheryl Tiegs fishnet fantasy” that Prince doesn’t share. All he wants is to see Axe gone.
Taking advantage of the brief window of time before Bobby or his lawyer, Orrin Bach, are officially notified about his indictment, Prince swoops in with an offer. He buys Bobby’s businesses — Axe Holding, the bank, the asset management arm, Taylor Mason Carbon, the whole enchilada — for the princely sum of $2 billion. It’s exactly the kind of liquid cash Axe will need to live life on the run once the rest of his assets are frozen by the government.
So Bobby steps into the helicopter meant to ferry him to the chosen place for his surrender — then simply steps out the other side and slips into a waiting car, which takes him to his escape flight. He winds up in Switzerland, where he is greeted with a new passport and a warm welcome. He accepts both with a smile. And why shouldn’t he? Even in exile, he’ll live a life of luxury unimaginable by any normal standard. “So this is what it is to lose”? I’d be OK with a loss like that, too.
Chuck and his allies, meanwhile, are left fuming — but they’re not the only ones. When Prince rolls into the Axe offices to take control, two of Bobby’s underlings, Dollar Bill and Mafee, walk right out. These two former rivals, who once staged a charity boxing match to give their enmity an outlet, agree to an alliance while they’re still in the elevator.
Other ex-Axe employees find themselves in a shaky position even when they stay behind. Prince says he needs Wendy and Taylor in order to effectively run the firm, but it’s impossible to imagine the two of them getting along anymore — not when Taylor, a crucial player in the conspiracy to take Axe down, figures out almost immediately that Wendy knew Bobby was planning to flee.
Then there’s Rian, the trader Taylor used to help move the anti-Axe plot along. Moved by something like pity for the young woman, Taylor warns her that what’s left of her ethics will be whittled away if she continues to work in the field, going so far as to encourage her to quit. But there’s Rian in the office when the conquering Prince appears; she’ll be a valuable asset to both Prince and Taylor, no doubt, but she is also shaping up to be one of Taylor’s biggest regrets.
And what about Axe’s right-hand man, his “Tom Hagen”? The last we see of Wags in this episode, he is dueling with Scooter, Prince’s Wags equivalent, to pull out an office chair on Prince’s behalf. Once a henchman, always a henchman, I guess. It’s true that Wags’s legal jeopardy over the banking deal disappeared once he revealed that he had never officially signed on as chief executive — at least not on any documents Chuck and company can find. But still, a second banana needs a top guy. Any port in a storm, you know?
If I have one complaint about Axe’s departure from what Dollar Bill refers to as “the field of battle,” it’s that the character’s long-delayed romance with Wendy never really materialized. No steamy assignations in exotic locales, no drama from growing pains as their relationship matures, no examination of how Wendy and Chuck navigate the new normal — hell, not even so much as a kiss goodbye!
“If we can’t finish it,” Bobby says as he and Wendy bid adieu, “we can’t start it.” Too bad for them, and too bad for us.
But this, of course, is subsumed by a greater loss: that of the steely presence of Damian Lewis. It is frankly amazing how well he and Paul Giamatti served as opposite poles on the show. Giamatti’s Rhoades is verbose and blustery, displaying a lawyer’s way with words and a to-the-manor-born respect for the rules, even when he himself breaks them. Lewis’s Axelrod, by contrast, had a clipped, clenched-jaw cadence in his speech; the precision of his voice, the sharklike cool and speed of his body language, every bit of it was in service to creating a character for whom “move fast and break things” was the byword.
Corey Stoll’s comparatively laid-back Mike Prince will be a major departure as Chuck’s next antagonist; it’s impossible to imagine Axe standing still for three minutes while Chuck cooks him an omelet. That’s a testament to Lewis’s work. The real cliffhanger for Season 6 is simply how “Billions” will fill its Axe-shaped void.
I don’t know about you, but when those workers chiseled the words “Axe Cap” from the office walls — a change not even the firm’s switch-over into Axe Bank occasioned — it really did feel like the changing of the guard.
In addition to all the storytelling and acting ramifications described above, am I the only one who thinks Bobby’s flight from the law speaks poorly to his parenting? Obviously his kids still have their mother, Lara, to look after them. (The actress Malin Akerman departed the show long ago, but her character is still out there.) But I find myself thinking of the sequence earlier this season when he bullied his son Gordie’s headmaster into calling off the kid’s expulsion, then delivered a fiery “greed is good” speech to the assembled student body. What kind of message does this send, I wonder?
One unexpected note of grace from Bobby’s departing deal with Prince: Axe pushed, albeit unsuccessfully, for Taylor Mason Carbon to be set free. Clearly he still has some respect for the protégé who almost eclipsed him.
On a happier note, this finale saw the return of Sarah Stiles as Bonnie, one of the Axe gang’s funniest members. Here’s hoping she is back in the fold full-time for Season 6, which its co-creator Brian Koppelman has said will debut in early 2022.
Rather cynically, Prince refers to Axe as “the new poster boy for inequality” … as he makes his play to seize control of Bobby’s empire. What does that make Prince? Until this point in the season, I think “Billions” used Prince to toy with the idea of what an ethical billionaire might look like: one who attempts to make amends with his former partner’s mother, who joins with Chuck and Taylor after Bobby destroys the renewable energy sector. Even the sight of Prince smoking a joint and eating eggs with Chuck and his daughter was humanizing. Do ethical billionaires exist? This episode may have given us the show’s answer.
‘Billions’ Season 3 Finale: Crash of the Titans
Season 3, Episode 12: ‘Elmsley Count’
The fall was coming from inside the house. After years spent fending off attacks from without, from rival financiers to a certain ax-grinding United States attorney, Bobby Axelrod got caught flat-footed by his own protégé. Making good on the surprise ending of last week’s episode, in which Taylor Mason made a surprising move to go solo, the Season 3 finale of “Billions” showed Taylor’s plan in action — and it really was all action.
Named “Elmsley Count” after a magicians’ trick in which key cards are kept hidden from the audience, tonight’s hugely entertaining episode reminded me of nothing so much as another Season 3 finale: “Shut the Door. Have a Seat,” the third-season closer for “Mad Men.” That memorable hour was basically a heist movie in which the priceless treasure being stolen, by a breakaway ad agency led by Don Draper, was nothing more or less than their own talent (and client lists). Here, however, we see that heist more from the perspective of the gobsmacked titan than from that of the brash young upstart, as Bobby, Wags and Wendy slowly piece together the necessary details to form the big picture of their betrayal: the unreturned calls, the missing money, the absent analysts, and the juuuuust-this-side-of-suspicious actions of Taylor the day before.
In brief asides, we also see Taylor’s various pitches to potential team members: good-natured but misused Mafee, who agrees; timid Ben Kim, who demurs; and outraged Wendy Rhoades, who explodes. It is during this third and final pitch that Taylor’s philosophy emerges. Protesting a bit too much considering the way she manipulated Mafee to save herself, Wendy tells the rebel leader that what they do in their business isn’t only about money. “The thing that makes it matter is lasting relationships, true loyalty, real trust.”
After the briefest pause from reflection, Taylor replies, in that maddening monotone: “No, I’m pretty sure there’s only money, and it can buy all those things, or at least the same result. That’s what you and Axe taught me.” Wendy’s vengeful fury from that moment forward stems at least in part from the fact that she knows Taylor is right: This is the message her and Bobby’s behavior conveys.
Axe himself, naturally, is even angrier. Taylor’s departure doesn’t just remove from his control the most brilliant mind for money he’s ever encountered, it also removes investments, future investors and his reputation for untouchability and for the loyalty of his staff. Such is his anger that he entertains, for a frighteningly long period of time, the offer of his Russian backer Grigor Andolov (who is playing both sides of this conflict) to have Taylor killed. However you feel about Bobby’s very serious consideration of that offer, it’s hard to deny the weight of Andolov’s casually issued, completely sincere statements of lethal intent. Watching him contemptuously backhand Axe’s coldblooded fixer, Hall, cursing at him with no more consideration than you’d give a Twitter troll, you can see he means business, even among people for whom meaning business is their business.
“How can I keep my money with a man who won’t kill for it?” he asks Bobby — rhetorically, since to Grigor, this is a question with only one answer: He can’t. It’s to Bobby’s credit that he doesn’t accept the offer, but it doesn’t say much for him that he considered it at all.
Meanwhile, another palace coup is brewing — and no, it’s not the one Chuck has spent the past few episodes engineering against Attorney General Jock Jeffcoat, although he thinks it is right up until the moment he’s proven wrong.
By the time Chuck arrives at his own office for what he thinks will be a listening party for taped evidence of Jeffcoat’s obstructing justice, the signs are mounting that something stinks. Aside from the parallel story line of Bobby’s betrayal and all its sleight-of-hand references, Chuck’s snare snaps shut just a little too easily given the size and cunning of its intended quarry. When a steely-eyed Kate Sacker tells Chuck that the day he had long dreaded had arrived at last — when the political skills he taught her were used against him — there is no doubt that something wicked lurks behind those office doors. Apparently Bobby and Wendy aren’t the only ones capable of teaching their brilliant underlings all the wrong lessons.
But the extent of the wicked thing waiting was as much a shock to me as it must have been to Chuck. Gathered around the smirking, hulking personage of Jock Jeffcoat is a small army of people Chuck once trusted: not only the New York attorney general, Alvin Epstein, the real Judas in this case; not only Sacker, the worm within the Southern District; but also the previously defenestrated do-gooders Oliver Dake and (this one hurts) Bryan Connerty. The blocking of this scene is as important as anything that actually gets said: We’ve never seen Chuck this badly outmanned, let alone outmatched. Jock’s position behind Chuck’s own desk (he inevitably concludes their conversation by kicking his feet up on the thing) is also physical inversion of the world as we’ve known it.
The moral inversion hurts even worse. Epstein is an unknown quantity compared to the rest of the group, but we’ve spent two episodes building up his unimpeachable ethics; he is also, not for nothing, a person of Jewish and African-American ancestry — he had described his need to keep his reputation “Jackie Robinson clean” if he wanted to get anywhere in this world — selling out Chuck in order to work as a deputy United States attorney general for a man who, among other things, has sanctioned lethal force against an unarmed person of color (not to mention the money laundering). Sacker is a shrewd political operator to be sure, but she expressed nothing but contempt for Jeffcoat and his agenda throughout the season. Just a few scenes earlier, she backed Bryan off from pursuing a witness-tampering case against Chuck because that tampering was part of a move against Jeffcoat. Dake is a stiff, but he’s generally a letter-of-the-law type whom Jeffcoat only recently fired.
And O, Bryan, my Bryan! He knows better than anyone how Chuck’s demons get the better of his quest for justice, and has more personal and professional reasons to strike back against them than anyone. But is taking down those demons down making a deal with the devil himself? What an absolute gut punch it is, seeing these six people gathered together to witness the fall of Rhoades. It’s the Southern District’s Red Wedding.
Yet from the ashes of defeat, victory rises — if not for the characters quite so soon, then certainly for the viewers. The episode ends with a montage of isolation. Taylor sits alone in the basement headquarters of “Mase Cap,” reeling from a visit by Oscar Langstraat, who brings gifts and news of his willingness to invest $500 million in the new company but also says he can never again bring himself to trust Taylor with his heart. Bobby stands in his empty office, staring a rare full-fledged defeat in the face. Wendy and Chuck dine and drink together in their house, quietly, mulling over offscreen conversations about what just went wrong in both of their lives.
Then comes a call from Bobby and, later, a knock at the door …
In a meeting brokered by Wendy, Chuck and Axe agree to sit down and pool their resources and take revenge on those who have wronged them. At least, that’s the straightforward way to describe the most crowd-pleasing moment of the show’s run. The moment Bobby entered the Rhoades’s home, I spontaneously cheered and applauded. Ahab isn’t chasing Moby-Dick anymore — he’s riding the white whale into battle.
Or vice versa — an inelegant image, admittedly — but who’s to say? After years of enmity, the two most formidable schemers on a series full of them (three, if you count Wendy) are united, and now anything seems possible. In the pro-wrestling terms occasionally embraced by this show, this is the formation of the Mega Powers, an astonishing alliance between the mega-heel Macho Man Randy Savage and the all-out hero Hulk Hogan, with Wendy serving as a far more vocal (and occasionally vicious) version of their valet, Miss Elizabeth.
What a way to cap a season in which this ruthlessly entertaining and intelligent show, so gimlet-eyed about the corrupting influence of power and so deft at depicting its argot and appeal, finally brought in the buzz it has long deserved. To paraphrase the Hulkster, “Billions”-mania is running wild, brother. Long may it flex.
‘Billions’ Review: Season 3 Finale Saves the Best For Last and Makes Season 4 an Absolute Must-Watch
[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Billions” Season 3, Episode 12, “Elmsley Count” — the season finale.]
The past two “Billions” finales built toward big confrontations between Chuck Rhodes (Paul Giamatti) and Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis). And that made sense: The two financial titans were on opposite sides of the line; more than that, they were at war. But Season 3 saw a softening of the opponents, much like the series itself has softened. Turning showy bombast into gleeful fun, the Showtime drama has developed into a thoroughly entertaining hour of television with well-constructed twists, intense personal vendettas, and more than a few winks to the audience along the way.
The twists in the Season 3 finale weren’t all that stunning; the biggest this season — that Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon) has started their own capital venture — landed in the penultimate episode, and the other major blow (Chuck getting fired) proves predictable to anyone familiar with the show’s structure. (Just knowing how much time is left in the episode makes it obvious Chuck’s plan isn’t going to work and will likely flip on him.)
But surprises aren’t the focus, and neither are the showdowns. Though Axe and Taylor briefly square off, as do Chuck and “Jock” (Clancy Brown), what matters in “Elmsley Count” is the three people brought together at episode’s end. Chuck, Axe, and Wendy (Maggie Siff) are on the same team now, and as the wisest among them points out, “There’s no one better at breaking down a strategy.” These three are going to do some damage in Season 4, and given how delightful their oh-so-short dining room table rendezvous were in Season 3, it’s delectable to picture what they’ll cook up in a year’s time.
In fact, anyone disappointed not to be floored by the finale (or the season in general) should still appreciate the upcoming benefits. Just look at one of the most tempting conflicts: Axe hiring Grigor (John Malkovich) to take down Taylor. If he gives the go-ahead this episode, it sets off a series of events that’s impossible to predict; there’s a power battle between one of the richest men on the planet (Axe) and one of the most ruthless (Grigor). Axe crossing that line would have been a huge choice and something that had fans talking all the way up until next season.
But it wouldn’t have gelled with Axe’s personality. He doesn’t farm out his dirty work; not when it’s personal. Moreover, writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien made sure to plant a key line to help viewers understand this motivation: What’s his objective with Taylor? “Total destruction — but not out of anger.” Axe is protecting himself, even if he is (somewhere inside) hurt by their betrayal. He can’t afford to be seen as someone who trains employees into better traders than he is, so his vengeance can’t be extracted in blood. It has to be drawn from money.
So for as much as Axe accepting Grigor’s offer would’ve stirred the fandom’s fires in the here and now, rejecting him — and potentially facing off against him later — makes Axe’s quest all the more noble and all the more interesting. Next year pits him against an enemy who will be desperate to prove themselves, especially after Wendy’s warning that they’re “too young.” That also made it personal for Wendy, and getting her invested in Axe’s scheming helps loop Chuck in, which forms the holy trinity of badass money managers. They’ll prey (pray?) on those they deem sinners together, and holy shit is that worth getting excited about.
The only question now is whether Season 4 can live up to the hype. In the past, perhaps more skepticism would be appropriate. “Billions” had a mediocre first season before delivering a helluva turnaround in Season 2. Season 3 had similar moments of greatness — the court case played out beautifully — and provided enough short-term dividends to make the long-term investment not only worth it, but quite fun.
Beyond that, the episodes also showed impressive maturity in their vision. Pieces are being set up for the long play just like Axe, Chuck, and Wendy are working on themselves. The show is mimicking its characters’ as the best version of itself, and because Season 4 is set to unite them in attack formation for the first time, it’s lined up to be a game-changer. Midway through the first season, it was impossible to imagine Chuck and Axe working together. Now, it’s all we can think about. Well done, team.
“Billions” Season 3 is available to stream via Showtime. Showtime has renewed the drama for Season 4, expected in 2019.
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Recap: season 3 billions
Billions finale recap: Everything falls apart for Axe and Chuck
Billions built itself on the rivalry between Chuck Rhoades and Bobby Axelrod. It was the heart of the first season, which was entertaining but still finding itself, exploring what kind of show it would be. In season 2 their rivalry came to a head with a back-and-forth power play that led to a criminal investigation which played out in the first part of season 3. Season 2 shifted the stakes and the storytelling forever, though. The supporting cast became the show’s greatest strength, as the likes of Wags, Ari Spyros, Dollar Bill, and new addition Taylor Mason added everything the show was missing in its first season.
In other words, Billions could only be the story of Axe vs. Chuck for so long. At some point they had to move on from their blood feud and find new enemies, allowing the show to tell new stories and move the characters in different directions. One of the great draws of this show is that it never stagnates. The ground is always moving beneath the characters, and that makes for exciting, unpredictable drama. “Elmsley Count,” the season 3 finale, represents another massive shift, and it’s incredibly exciting.
Once it was clear that Axe wasn’t going to stand trial for his crimes, that Wendy, Axe, and Chuck had made it all go away once they got wrapped up in it, the season’s larger story started to cohere. Axe went back to Axe Capital and shunned Taylor in the process, not giving them what they believed was their fair share of duties and responsibility. Chuck went back to Southern, where he encountered a brash Texan in Attorney General Jock Jeffcoat. Since then, both Axe and Chuck have been fighting uphill battles, as Chuck tries to get out from under Jock’s thumb and Axe tries to save the reputation of his business.
As the finale gets underway, both battles seem to be cooling down. At a capital introduction event run by Spartan Ives at Citi Field, Axe and Taylor kill their pitch to investors and leave with more than $6 billion of promised investment. The thing is, Taylor has made their own pitch before arriving, giving Grigor Andolov the gist of what Taylor Mason Capital will do with its cutting-edge quant project. “You crushed it,” says Grigor’s associate, assuring that money will come soon, and so will a tense showdown with Axe in the future.
For now, though, Axe has no idea what’s coming. He’s so focused on the reputation of Axe Capital that he can’t see Taylor slipping away. He can’t see the moves he’s made as ones that go against everything Taylor built while he was away, essentially dismissing their leadership and ideas as inconsequential. That kind of blindness makes him vulnerable, and the same can be said for Chuck. By the end of the episode, the show’s two titans are on the ropes, blindsided by those who were once close to them.
The entirety of “Elmsley Count” is astonishingly propulsive. From the get-go, the episode puts the pedal to the floor and doesn’t let up. It’s the type of finale that makes you realize how perfectly the house of cards has been built, all so that it can come crashing down in spectacular fashion. Knowing what we know about Taylor, it’s exhilarating to watch Axe celebrate the night of the Citi Field meeting, only to have the episode cut to the next morning, when Wags tells Axe that he can’t seem to get a hold of any investors who promised money. Once Axe realizes both Taylor and Mafee are missing, he begins to understand what’s happened. All told, Taylor makes off with more than $3 billion of the money Axe thought was his. (Recap continues on next page)
Chuck, on the other hand, thinks he has Jock in his sights. He delivers a target letter that labels Jock’s brother Jeb as the focus of criminal prosecution, and that sends Jock into a tizzy. But the AG doesn’t start obstructing justice the way they’d been hoping for, so Chuck gives him a little push, telling Epstein to call for a grand jury. That gets the ball rolling, and sends Jock right to Chuck.
He asks Chuck to, essentially, make this all disappear. He wants a few minutes alone with Cutler to “change his mind.” Chuck asks for full control over what cases Southern goes after in return, to make it look like he’s not eager to do this work, and the trap is set. Chuck sets up a meeting between Jock and Cutler in a spa, the room bugged to get all the evidence they need against the attorney general.
While Chuck awaits that evidence, Axe has his own decision to make. In the episode’s best scene, Axe confronts Taylor at the newly formed Taylor Mason Capital. After he humiliates Mafee, he moves on to Taylor, saying that they have no idea what’s coming. Axe compares the world he deals in to the top of Everest, the “death zone.” He says Taylor will run out of oxygen soon enough. “Young lungs, so we’ll see,” replies Taylor. Their exchange is imbued with history and anger and resentment and even a shade of respect, and that bodes well for the future of Billions.
The decision Axe has to make, though? It’s a big one. Grigor offers up what he terms “pest control,” which essentially means he’ll have one of his guys kill Taylor and make it look like an accident. Axe seriously contemplates the offer, for two reasons: Firstly, because it would take care of his problem, and secondly, because there are typically consequences to refusing a man like Grigor. I mean, this is the same man who slaps Hall during a meeting. Hall is the scariest dude of them all, and he’s put firmly in his place by Grigor. Not a guy you want to mess with.
Thankfully, the show doesn’t go down that path, which would be a difficult one to recover from. Axe turns down Grigor’s offer, and in the process loses all his investment money to Taylor. So Taylor Mason Capital is off and running, and now Axe Capital has a new threat to assess. Taylor says their firm will surpass Axe’s in three to eight years, depending on market forces. That’s a number that Axe doesn’t like hearing.
Now Axe has a new enemy, one who’s his former protégé. It’s time for the tables to turn on Chuck too. Epstein tells him to meet at the Southern offices to go over the recording of Jock obstructing justice, but when he gets there, he finds Jock, Epstein, Kate, Connerty, and Dake all standing around as if they’re on the same team. It’s the end for Chuck. He’s been outmaneuvered, as Jock fires him, and Connerty takes his place as interim attorney. It’s unclear how this all came together — did Kate’s meeting with Connerty change things? When did Epstein flip? — but for now all that matters is that Chuck is out of a job.
That all leads to a final, thrilling scene. The scene itself is simply Wendy, Chuck, and Axe sharing drinks at the Rhoades’ brownstone, but it’s still electric. Wendy, having turned down a recruitment offer from Taylor, is more loyal than ever to Axe, and angrier than ever at Jock Jeffcoat. So, like she did earlier this season, she brings Axe and Chuck together. They sit at the dining room table, glasses of wine in hand, and start to form a new bond. Axe wonders if Chuck has any ideas about how he’s going to take down Jock; he does. Chuck wonders if Axe knows how he’s going to go after Taylor; he has a few ideas. As the episode fades to black, the former enemies are sharing stories about how they’re going to get back to the top, and once again Billions has ended a season on an incredibly promising note.
If you’ve been following the world of TV Twitter this spring, you probably know that a certain subset of this nation’s great, professionally paid TV viewers has gonea littlegoofy for Showtime’s Billions. Observe!
I could go on. But my larger point is this: Billions is a show that a lot of critics wrote off somewhere in early season one, and while it got the typical, “Hey, this show has gotten a lot better” write-ups late in that first season and (especially) in season two, the recently concluded third season seems to have crossed some sort of threshold in terms of its popularity and the willingness of its fans to bug you about it nonstop on various social media platforms.
Billions has managed this rise in its fortunes despite being a show about white-guy antiheroes — a type of series many critics have cut less slack in recent years — and despite being about the mega-rich and the lawyers who fail to prosecute them at a time when nobody’s particularly enthused about either of those things.
It’s managed this rise in its fortunes despite the fact that its entire premise, involving one of said lawyers deciding to make an example of one of those billionaires, was basically torpedoed by reality, where the Trump administration has been, let’s say, much friendlier to the mega-rich.
And it’s managed this rise in its fortunes despite the fact that its storytelling is frequently completely ridiculous, often predicated on its characters hiding incredibly elaborate strategic gambits from each other, to the degree that it’s hard to imagine how they kept something so skillfully from seemingly everybody they knew.
That makes it a fun show to goof on, only helped by just how funny the show has become, thanks to its deep bench of actors who are incredibly agile with a one-liner. From jokes about the show’s potential for a crossover with The Americans to “FUCK ‘EM UP, BILLIONS!” this is a series that can handle a solid bit of snark — a must for social media takeoff.
But Billions is really good and sometimes great TV (in its third season, especially). It’s one of the rare shows that has genuinely been bolstered by the times: In an era of very dour shows about the dark times we live in, sometimes great (The Handmaid’s Tale) and sometimes mixed (Westworld), Billions is pure pulp thriller, but in a way that never loses sight of how poisonous all the vipers within it are. Here are three ways Billions overcame its early shakiness to become its best self.
1) It completely overhauled its premise, but in ways that aren’t particularly noticeable
The original premise of Billions was probably unsustainable. It centered on Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), a US attorney for the Southern District of New York, who grew tired of prosecuting small-time crimes and decided to take down Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis), a titan of finance he knew was crooked. Chuck’s wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff), worked for Bobby and thus became an unlikely figure in both men’s games.
In the early going, it wasn’t always clear what the show was, beyond an excuse to watch its two big-name stars snarl at each other. My review of the first half-season liked some aspects of the show (particularly the acting) but found its attempts to dig into the world of high finance too surface-level and obvious. It was clear the show was interested in income inequality and the corruption of US systems that led to the wealthy abusing them endlessly, but it also flirted frequently with lapsing into straight-up lifestyle porn about how cool it was to be rich.
Slowly but surely, the series corrected some of these flaws in season one, but then the question became what the show would even be once Chuck put Bobby behind bars, or Bobby somehow triumphed over Chuck. On a network that had already had a show that centered on an investigation of Damian Lewis that lasted at least one season past its welcome, Billions felt caught in a trap.
And then somewhere in early season two, Billions started overhauling itself for the long haul. You wouldn’t know it to look at the surface of the series, where Chuck and Bobby were still launching long-range attacks at each other (remarkably, it took until mid-season three for the two to share significant screen time). But underneath that surface, the show’s writers, led by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, were focusing more on other cases that fell under Chuck’s jurisdiction, as well as stories about how the corruption of the mega-rich had so infected the entire system that to try to defeat that corruption meant becoming corrupt yourself.
The second season concluded with a series of revelations that showed just how long of a game the series could play and substantially muddied its ethical waters. The question wasn’t whether to root for Chuck or Bobby; instead, the question was figuring out a way to tear down the entire system they existed within. The show still had the gleam associated with wealth and power, but it was interested in questions beyond its central battle. When it finally moved past it in the middle of season three, there was a wealth of other stories waiting to be told, including...
2) Taylor Mason gave the show an instant jolt of something new and different
Much has been made of how Asia Kate Dillon’sTaylor Mason, a promising new employee of Bobby Axelrod’s company, Axelrod Capital, is almost certainly the first nonbinary regular character on a major American TV show. (Both Taylor and Dillon use they/them pronouns.)
Dillon is one of TV’s most electric performers, and they’ve made Taylor into a force within the show, to the degree that almost all of the third-season finale revolves around major decisions they make. The show even subtly codes which characters are not to be trusted based on whether they use Taylor’s preferred pronouns — and the fact that Bobby and his various cohorts take no time in adjusting to using “they” and “them,” despite being scoundrels in countless other ways, is meant to convey the immense respect they have for Taylor, even when they’re incredibly mad at them.
But Taylor’s nonbinary identity and Dillon’s performance don’t explain, in and of themselves, why the show seemed to take off almost immediately after it introduced Taylor in its season two premiere. Instead, I would argue, the presence of Taylor has immediately pried apart some of the show’s most rigid elements, in a way that has benefited both it and almost every character within its world.
Somewhere near its core, Billions is an exploration of toxic masculinity, of the ways that codes of behavior between men can sometimes curdle and go wrong, most obviously affecting the women around those men but also hurting the men themselves. Billions’ most obvious example of this is in the relationship between Chuck and his father, Charles (Jeffrey DeMunn), a ruthless legal shark who abhorred any signs of weakness in his son and seems most at ease when the two are trying to kill each other.
But it’s also present in the constant dick-measuring at Axe Cap, or the scenes where Chuck and Wendy’s love of BDSM threatens his burgeoning political career. Nothing is more important in the world of Billions than the appearance of raw, masculine strength, but that raw, masculine strength is strangling everybody near it.
In the first season, this resulted in a lot of scenes of guys competing to see who could be the most macho, while Wendy and the handful of other women on the show tried to find places to fit amid the swagger. Simply by their mere existence, Taylor stands out as a rejection of this fruitless binary — a one-character expression of the idea that some of the systems we’ve come to rely upon were rotten to begin with.
If the larger idea of Billions is that a failure to seriously question the status quo will destroy the world, Taylor immediately makes viewers question many things the other characters accept as simply the way their lives are. And that extends to other aspects of the series, where Taylor (who is, after all, really, really good at playing the markets to make lots of money and, thus, part of the same corrupt economic system as everybody else) might not have as much immediate bearing.
3) By embracing pulp, the series has been better able to tell stories about the destructiveness of unchecked capitalism
If toxic masculinity is near the center of Billions, then the show’s absolute core is the idea that while unchecked capitalism might be fun to watch a TV show about, it’s destroying the world all the same. The more the characters maneuver to hang on to their power, the more entrenched the horrible systems that need to change become.
Chuck goes from trying to bring down Bobby to more or less propping up the whole system Bobby used and abused to become as rich as he is, and in the third season, the government (a not-that-fictional spin on the Trump administration full of fire-breathing evangelicals and grifters in greasy suits) is only too happy to let him do the propping. In the process, innocent lives are destroyed, a woman who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time is deported to Guatemala, and the titans at the top of the credits don’t even blink.
Billions was still interested in these ideas back in its first season, but it kept shifting awkwardly between the modes of “Chuck and Bobby snarl and hurl invective at each other” and “Unchecked capitalism is destroying everything.” One of the show’s co-creators is journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin, and in season one, certain storylines in the series felt more reported than they did written, like the show was trying to get across a point but hadn’t quite settled on what that point was or the best way to sell it.
In season two, however, the series simply shifted all of its eggs into the “pulpy business thriller” basket, and trusted that audiences would notice all the horrible venality that happened in proximity to the long war between Chuck and Bobby. When watching people do very bad things is as fun as it can be on Billions, it makes viewers feel all the more complicit in those bad things — and helps increase the sense that we’re just as complicit in the bad things happening in our own reality.
By wedding its larger concerns to the sheer, propulsive fun of the business thriller, Billions found a way to serve the audience its cake, then keep serving them so much cake they wondered where all the cake came from and desperately wanted to stop eating it. That makes Billions, at times, a show where it’s hard to find someone to “root” for, but the series is canny enough to know that’s the whole point.
We’re not damned; we’re already in hell, and we need to find a way to pull it down around our ears to make something better. But good fucking luck with that.
All three seasons of Billions are available on Showtime’s streaming apps. Season four will arrive in 2019.
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Billions premiere recap: 'Tie Goes to the Runner'
Every time a TV show returns for a new season there’s the question of whether it can sustain the momentum of its previous years. Billions crafted something special in its second season, really clarifying its vision in a way that felt exciting. Naturally, that leads to questions for season 3. Was the second season just a fluke? Can the show continue to craft something that’s unlike anything else on TV? Will the dialogue, characters, and ludicrous power plays start to lose their luster? The season 3 premiere, “Tie Goes to the Runner,” is a welcome affirmation that Billions isn’t slowing down any time soon.
The opening scene is, on its own, enough to quell any doubts about a slump for this show. Chuck, riding high on his takedown of Axe Capital and his run for governor, walks into a meeting with the Attorney General in Washington, DC. Billions doesn’t bother easing into the season, instead immediately giving us a scene of pumped-up macho dialogue. The AG, who’s interested in having Chuck lay off of his prosecution of various Wall Street types, presumably because he’s getting paid somewhere along the line, goes on a lengthy tangent about being from “horse country” and “baseball country” in West Texas. The man is a walking cliché, all Texas bluster and salt-of-the-earth metaphors that barely make any sense. He’s the type of guy who considers himself a cowboy or an outlaw despite his comfy seat at the head of the capitalist table.
It’s a stirring scene to kick off the season, largely because it immediately establishes that despite his recent win, Chuck is hardly the biggest fish in the pond. He still has plenty of people above him calling the shots, and it’s clear that the attorney general isn’t going to be amused by anyone refusing to follow his orders. Now, Chuck has to question the very strategy he’s built his career on. When he goes back to the office he tells Kate that they need to pull back on their prosecutions of corrupt businessman, something he does with a fair amount of anger and regret.
However, the consequences of last season’s events mean that everybody is having to compromise. Axe Capital’s assets have been frozen by Oliver Dake, who’s prosecuting the case along with Bryan, and that leaves Taylor, who’s running the company in Axe’s absence, with little to rile up the troops. Everybody is sitting on their hands and very, very sick of it. Thus, Taylor tells the team that they’ve booked a spot at an “ideas meeting” where the 10 best hedge fund managers in the city meet to discuss plays that could benefit everybody. Normally Axe Capital wouldn’t participate — Axe loves being the lone wolf — but with no money to play with, all they have is ideas and influence.
Of course, not every compromise or consequence is financial. At the end of last season Axe’s marriage was in tatters, and Wendy and Chuck were possibly finding their way back to each other after a lengthy feud. Not much has changed for Lara and Axe. Axe isn’t living at home — he has a swanky, gigantic, depressingly empty suite downtown that mimics his current mental state — and the two are at odds when Lara comes into Axe Capital in order to make sure that her assets are being managed properly. They’re butting heads, but by the end of the episode Lara hasn’t sworn off Axe’s influence, at least with their money. Their marriage is another story.
Chuck and Wendy initially seem to be doing better. Wendy is back to psychologically advising Axe, and she ends up back at home with Chuck at the end of the day. Later on in the episode, though, Chuck tosses and turns in the night, and Wendy talks about how they “cut their visits short,” that they didn’t invest enough time in their marriage as it tried to recover from their fight. It seems like she’s talking about a therapist, but their final scene of the episode sees them in a BDSM club, Chuck begging Wendy to tell him all the nasty details about the affair she had while they were separated. Just a kink, or is it something that suggests Chuck and Wendy haven’t healed just yet? (Recap continues on next page)
“Tie Goes to the Runner,” despite all of its charms, is still very much a season premiere. There’s a lot of setup, a lot of checking in with characters, and not a whole lot of action. That’s necessary, but it’s also not what makes Billions so great. With that said, what the premiere has set up is certainly compelling. It feels like the show is shifting in ways that will pay off in the long run. Most importantly, Billions is becoming about more than just bad blood between Axe and Chuck. The show is expanding, and it’s doing so in promising ways.
Taylor, of course, is at the center of that change. They were the standout of last season and seem poised to take that honor again this season. Taylor is the one with promise not just for Billions, but for Axe Capital. They’re the one steering the ship while its captain figures out how to avoid criminal charges. By the end of the episode, it’s Taylor, and not Axe, who’s walking into the “ideas meeting” with an idea about trading on smart chip technology that was thought to be impossible. They cracked it, and now they’re running with it.
Everything is changing. Todd Krakow is now the treasury secretary, and he’s trying to recruit Taylor. Ira has a tense meeting with Chuck, their whole relationship nuked by Chuck’s use of Ice Juice to take down Axe. In fact, everything around Chuck has changed. He’s the catalyst. Black Jack Foley is still backing him for governor, but Chuck Sr. wants no part of his son’s life or political ambitions. Add in the uncertain relationship with Wendy, and the fact that he’s not actually in control of the Axe Capital case, and suddenly Chuck’s win doesn’t seem so satisfying. Dake actually compares him to a man who’s committed a crime of passion: In the moment it felt great, but now it’s the next day and there’s blood everywhere.
That doesn’t mean Chuck is done making moves, though. He may not be on the Axe Capital case, but he’s still Chuck freakin’ Rhoades. After taking some time to think about it he reverses his decision about the corporate cases, telling Kate to keep leaning on them. With Axe announcing that he’ll be offering to suspend his trading so that Axe Capital can get its assets unfrozen, a move that Wendy and Orrin recommend, surely him and Chuck will be on a collision course once again. Axe Capital will be back to making waves, especially with Taylor’s smart chip play, and nothing bothers Chuck more than to see that company thriving, whether Axe is there or not.
Essentially, “Tie Goes to the Runner” is a great start to the season, but it doesn’t boast the crackling pace that defines the best of this show. The dialogue is still filled with grandiose proclamations and references — Billions continues its tradition of name-dropping wrestlers, with Ivan Koloff making the cut this week — the best being this description of Axe Capital with frozen funds: “We’re like the Czechoslovakian gymnastics team in the ’70s: a lot of pride for what this country was, but if things don’t change, defections are coming.” There’s still Paul Giamatti, Damian Lewis, and Maggie Siff commanding every scene they’re in. There’s still Dollar Bill getting righteously angry whenever he gets the chance. Billions is still very much intact, but what’s exciting is how things are changing. “Tie Goes to the Runner” might suffer from the usual storytelling necessities of a premiere, but it also sets up a bigger, bolder story for the season.