Billions Recap: Coffee Is for Closers


Season 1 Episode 3
Editor’s Rating *****
Episode 101
David Costabile as Mike, Damian Lewis as Axe. Photo: JoJo Whilden/Showtime

“YumTime” is about the manipulative games played by powerful people. Whether it’s a high-powered wife protecting her husband from a scandalous book, or a U.S. attorney swapping cases to get the one he wants most, these characters have an amazing ability to treat others like pawns on a chess board. After all, that’s how figures like Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) reached such influential positions. And now that they’ve played the game, they just can’t stop.

The episode opens with Axe discussing the potential takeover of YumTime, a baked-goods giant that sells products like Ding Doodles, Cuckoo Nutties and, its flagship, the Scrumpet. (It’s effectively a stand-in for Hostess.) Axe claims that someone changed the recipe for the Scrumpet, and advises his employee, “Whenever you can, put a company in your mouth.” It’s definitely not as good as they remember. When Axe senses weakness, he’s like a shark with blood in the water. But why is he so interested in a company that makes sugary treats?

If the YumTime arc is the first “game” of this episode, the second starts up when Chuck learns that the Eastern District U.S. Attorney’s office is trying to flip a former Axelrod investor named Pete Decker (Scott Cohen). They don’t want someone else to land the biggest case of their careers. As Chuck learns the Decker news, he’s berating a man who let his dog poop on the sidewalk without cleaning it up. The guy asks to “let it slide,” and Chuck goes on a tirade. If he looks the other way every time, how long will it be until the whole plaza is covered in dog poop? He forces the walker to pick it up with his bare hands, then thanks him for doing his “civic duty.” What a nice guy.

After a brief YumTime meeting, we get to the thematic lynchpin of the episode. Mike (David Costabile) is having a counseling session with Axe Capital guru Wendy (Maggie Siff) and talking about … well, his particular sexual proclivities. Let’s just say that Mike likes a sex act that many consider demeaning. He claims he likes it because it’s about accepting all of him, even his dirty kinks. Wendy calls him out pretty quickly, noting how doing it fulfills his need for dominance. Besides, it all seems to be driven by a recent work situation in which Mike thought an employee got out of line. As he says, “It’s my duty to make an example out of her now.” So, he wants to slowly bleed this employee out from behind the scenes, giving her less information and fewer leads until she’s useless. It’s the same game that Axe is playing and that Lara (Malin Akerman) will play later in the episode. In this case, however, Wendy knows and likes the woman Mike wants to destroy. Will she warn her?

Lara runs into June (Melissa Errico), a 9/11 widow who has written a book called 9/12: The Day After. Lara is clearly worried about how the book will portray Axe — he was the only partner from his firm who survived the attacks, as we learned in the pilot episode. I wondered then if he might be hiding something about that day, and those suspicions feel even stronger now. Lara calls someone, then inquires about getting a copy of June’s book as soon as possible.

Three episodes in, it’s interesting to consider how Billions has very few throwaway scenes. When the underperforming Donnie (David Cromer) is given more responsibility by Axe and Mike — coming so shortly after Mike’s scene with Wendy about how he messes with people — I have to wonder if he’s not being set up as a scapegoat. There must be a reason. Axe assures him that he’ll be like Brian Doyle, the New York Yankee who struggled throughout the 78 season only to become the hero of the World Series. Uh huh. Sure.

The midsection of “YumTime” centers on deal-making. Chuck needs to make a deal to pull the Axelrod case away from Eastern and back into his office. Lara needs to ensure a tell-all book doesn’t take down her family. Axe needs to complete his takeover of the YumTime board, for reasons not yet known. We see Axe meet with the board, and he talks about increasing his position. (He already owns 4.9 percent of the company’s stock.) He tells them that the head of the company has betrayed the consumer and his own legacy by tampering with recipes. That’s when we learn that one of the board members is Evelyn (Kate Jennings Grant), the mistress of Chuck Rhoades Sr. (Jeffrey DeMunn). Is this all just a play to get back at the U.S. attorney? Seems like it.

Chuck Jr. meets with an attorney named Lonnie (Malachi Weir) and gives him the bad news: Lonnie has to sacrifice one of his cases for the sake of the whole. Chuck wants him to give up an airtight investigation about a bombing at the Statue of Liberty so they can snag the Decker case back from Eastern. If they can turn Decker, then they’ll be able to go after Axelrod. They pass the deal along to Eastern, who informs them that Ari Sypros (Stephen Kunken) will be embedded in the case too. Chuck agrees, despite calling Spyros a “confused dog.” Bryan (Toby Leonard Moore) and Terri (Susan Misner) find Decker, quote a little Glengarry Glen Ross and take him in. Employing a bit of game theory, they play a version of the prisoner’s dilemma. The quick version: They want to flip Decker. Whoever gives them the most dirt on Axelrod will get to go home first. It’s that simple.

Meanwhile, Lara has read June’s book. Chapter ten is “a problem.” I love how carefully the Billions writers tease us without revealing exactly what the book says. We only know that it’s bad. Axe could buy the publishing company and kill the book … but that might be too much trouble. Lara has a better plan. She decides to mess with June’s life. First, she starts with simple things like cancelled tee times. Then she moves up to the heavy stuff, rescinding her son’s admittance to Stanford. June is forced to give in, and brings a revised version of the book to Lady MacAxelrod, who has an NDA ready for her to sign. I bet she has a stack of them sitting by the door.

Before Lara finishes up, we see Axelrod makes his final moves against YumTime: He convinces a board member that the Scrumpet recipe was changed to help profits but hurt the product. He talks about getting a Scrumpet after every paper route when he was a kid. (I get the impression that Axe has a story like this for every possible deal, and few are true.) At the next YumTime meeting, the power play is complete. Axe is accused of being a raider, trying to tick up the popularity of the company in the short term and sell his share, making a profit without concern for the long game. Maybe. Nonetheless, the board replaces Evelyn with Axe. This will definitely get back to Chuck.

After Wendy basically talks Mike’s plaything into leaving Axe Capital for her own good — yet another brilliant scene for Siff, still the MVP of Billions — we end the episode with two Chuck scenes. In one, he’s too distracted for a bit of cattle-prod foreplay with his dominatrix wife. In the other, we see him on the sidelines of a little-league baseball game. It’s time to bring in Decker. He tells him how they could threaten Decker’s parents because their finances were involved in the insider trade. Again, we’re back to people playing with their pawns, pitting each move against their rivals. It’s a shark-eat-shark world.

Other Notes:

  • In the car, Bryan and Terri quote Alec Baldwin’s amazing monologue from Glengarry Glen Ross. I love that scene so much, I once performed it onstage at a theater competition. (I wish I had video of that too.)
  • “YumTime” gives Akerman her most screen time so far. She’s shaping Lara into a terrifying character. Will she develop a softer side, or is she all hard edges? Right now, I’m mostly scared of her.
  • I love the parallels between the legal world and the business one. Chuck and his team want the Axelrod case the same way that Axe Capital wants a big deal. The headline is as important as justice.
  • Did this episode’s structure feel a little cluttered to anyone else? “YumTime” is still very solid TV, but I hope the show begins to slow down a bit. We haven’t learned much about the supporting characters we’ve already met, and the cast keeps growing larger. We’ve got the players on the chess board, now let’s start moving them around.

Billions Recap: Coffee Is for Closers