The second episode of Showtime’s Billions is even more confident than the first, with sharper dialogue and a focused structure. As the writers get more accustomed to these characters and the actors get more comfortable playing them, there’s reason to believe this show will only get stronger.
“Naming Rights” opens just like the premiere episode, with a man in his underwear. This time, it’s Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis), putting on a stylish outfit. (I bet he wears a new suit every day.) He’s talking to his right-hand man Mike (David Costabile), who isn’t too happy about the publicity backlash from Axe’s mansion purchase. It’s already backfiring, in fact: One of their biggest investment groups is threatening to take their $1.5 billion and walk. As Axe heads to the helicopter on his front lawn, Mike advises him to “keep it low-key.” He might be the least low-key person on television.
Director Neil Burger makes a clever cut from opulence to Chinese takeout, as U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) eats dinner with his right-hand man, Bryan (Toby Leonard Moore). They have a relatively funny chitchat — maybe, they joke, Rhoades will become the namesake of a dish called “General Chuck’s” — but they soon get serious, discussing how they plan to keep Axe under a microscope. They need to watch all of his trades and keep an eye on all of his investors; he won’t stay quiet for long. To underscore Axe’s inability to lay low, this scene is intercut with another, in which Axe attends a fundraiser at the Ellis Eads Symphony Hall … then suddenly decides he wants the building.
While Chuck chows down on General Tso’s chicken, we meet Tara Mohr (Annapurna Sriram), who works in the U.S. Attorney’s office. She’s introduced half-naked, having sex with another woman and snorting cocaine off her bare chest. (Soon after, we learn that her sexual partner is videotaping the encounter.) Mid-bacchanal, Tara is interrupted by a phone call; someone from the Financial Journal wants a quote about Steven Birch (Jerry O’Connell) and Arcadian Railroad. Tara calls Chuck and Bryan, who are taken off-guard. How could the paper have known about an insider-trading scandal before them?
Back at the symphony hall, Axe’s head attorney echoes Mike’s advice to pull back on the showy displays of wealth. (He even suggests a makeover of Axe Capital’s culture.) Axe makes it clear that he’ll never settle, and then, the Penn Jillette–hosted fundraiser begins. The host asks anybody willing to donate $1 million to stand up — and many do. This is how the one percent spends its Saturday nights. Mike gets a text about the Financial Journal scoop, as does everyone else in the room. Birch sits down, nervously.
In the episode’s most fascinating scene, we’re privy to a brainstorming investment session at Axe Capital. Pay careful attention to the vocabulary and tone of this meeting; it’s like a fraternity pep rally. Everyone is trying to show off to each other, quoting Goodfellas, referencing The Matrix, joking about bestiality and “nuts.” When a meek Donnie Caan (David Cromer) mentions the bland appeal of Apple, Mike practically punches him in the face. Axe plays Good Cop, for now.
As the meeting ends, SEC compliance officers show up, expecting full cooperation. We get a montage of interview meetings between the officers and Axe Capital employees. Several of them mention tips and insider information; others have gaps in their records; one just says “lawyer.” They even check Wendy’s (Maggie Siff) access, although she argues confidentiality. As the ordeal ends, Axe reveals that it was a “lifeboat drill” — and they all sank. If it was a real SEC raid, they’d be in jail. In fact, the fake SEC officers are the firm’s new compliance department. An employee named Victor (Louis Cancelmi) calls out the mean trick, then gets even angrier at the implication that he won’t really be able to do his job. Axe fires him in front of everyone. Is it a good idea to fire a disgruntled employee with insider information? Wendy senses this risk immediately, telling Axe that he shouldn’t have done it. (Also, she tells him, he should have kept her in the loop about the drill.) He asks her to fix the “Victor situation.”
Sticking with Axe again — he gets a lot more screen time than Rhoades — we see him meet with the man in charge of naming the symphony hall. They own the building for perpetuity, but everything is for sale. Axe offers $100 million to the symphony, plus $25 million to the Eads family, who he knows need the money. There is “one condition,” though.
Cut to Axe’s muscle, Hall (Terry Kinney), in Tara’s apartment. He’s her “newest and bestest,” or else the sex-and-drugs tape goes viral. He’s even got her hair as blackmail collateral. The rules are simple: If she wants to keep her job, she’ll tell him everything that goes down in Rhoades’s office. “You’re gonna watch, listen and report,” Hall orders.
The next two scenes with Chuck further define this increasingly interesting character. He’s a man who needs to be seen as unbreakably tough, but sometimes questions his purpose. First, he ambushes Michael Dimonda (Sam Gilroy), the reporter who asked him about Axe Capital last episode, knowing that he wrote the Financial Journal article under a false byline. Mike doesn’t fall for Chuck’s intimidation tactic, however, and basically threatens him. Later, Chuck goes to buy donuts from a food vendor and runs into a man who he helped send to prison. Chuck foolishly offers to buy the man’s food, not realizing that his act of charity would backfire. This scene is about the human cost of prosecution, and Chuck clearly has some doubts. Why should a single mistake separate this man from his family for four years?
Meanwhile, Wendy is in damage-control mode with Victor. At his palatial estate, she’s typically tough, telling him the story of a guy who made the mistake of badmouthing Bobby Axelrod and couldn’t get a job again. Now? “He’s got a blog.” On the other hand, Axe will take care of Victor if he acts like a gentleman. Siff continues to impress in “Naming Rights,” as she believably captures the steel-eyed determination that makes Wendy an equal to both Axe and her husband. She knows when to be tough with the former and when to be soft with the latter, which leads her to deliver the episode’s best line to Chuck: “Being 100 percent good at your job and 100 percent good … if you figure that one out, let’s both quit and write that book.”
After a massage-parlor conference with Mike doesn’t do enough to keep major money on the hook, Axe interrupts a dinner between Ken (Dennis Boutsikaris), a more conservative financial manager, and their shared client. Axe pulls a brash alpha-male move, pointing out how he makes 32 percent for his client, while Ken only makes two percent. The client steps aside to talk with Axe, then tells him that he wants solid investments, not edginess. “Sometimes that’s important.”
More importantly, Chuck figures out that Birch was just a “riderless horse” — borrowing a line from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, it’s a ruse that distracts from the posse’s real target — and decides to offer him a settlement. Chuck wants to get back to hunting the real villain. Birch takes the settlement, if only to avoid 11 years in prison, while Tara lurks in the hall to pass the news back to Hall.
Finally, we get to the meeting about the symphony hall’s naming rights. Axe arrives wearing a Master of Puppets Metallica T-shirt, both showing his disdain for old money and revealing a title he’d probably give himself if he could. (Also, reminding me I should listen to “Battery” again.) Chad Eads (Alex Cranmer) doesn’t remember him, but it turns out Axe caddied for the Eads family when he was a kid … until Chad’s grandfather fired him. Sure, he only made $16 a round, but he needed that money. That’s why he slashes $16 million from the $25 million he brought to the meeting. Consider it a vengeance payment. Axe never forgets.
- “Naming Rights” felt a bit less eager-to-please than the premiere. New shows often slump after the first episode, so this is a good sign.
- I like how this episode has a heavy focus on Axe, rather than last week’s balanced dynamic between him and Chuck. Let’s hope showrunners Brian Koppelman and David Levien keep up the unpredictable structure.
- The supporting cast is already starting to impress, especially Costabile and Kinney.
- I love the dorky FBI guy who says “Dominique All Day … Wilkins.” If you’re too young to get the reference, enjoy.
- Axe and Chuck are both making enemies who could burn them. Will Mike and Victor come back to haunt them?
- I really think Wendy’s line about “being 100 percent good at your job and 100 percent good” is the thematic key to Billions. Both men strive and fail to meet both benchmarks. Just like most people.