Billions Recap: Master of Puppets

Paul Giamatti as Chuck Rhoades. Photo: Jeff Neumann/Showtime
Episode Title
Short Squeeze
Editor’s Rating

This high-paced, crackerjack episode of Billions really defines the incredible world of Bobby Axelrod. While the U.S. attorney Chuck Rhoades meets with former Axe Capital ally Pete Decker to get to the bottom of how his firm works — especially the illegal parts — Axe heads up to Québec to see Metallica in concert. And, of course, he's unable to leave his shark instincts back in the States.

"Short Squeeze" opens with an Axe Capital employee making a very bad decision: He gets drunk at his palatial estate, then decides to unload an automatic weapon at deer on his property. After he's been rescued from the authorities, he tells Axe that he was mad at the deer for eating what they planted. All they do is "eat, move, shit, repeat." Axe warns him that this will be the only second chance he gets. Axe Capital is on thin ice as it is. They certainly don't need staffers firing guns in the middle of the night.

The bulk of the episode consists of Decker's proffer, a "Queen for a Day" scenario in which Chuck offers leniency in return for information about the firm's wrongdoings. As Chuck says, "Sing for your supper, and you'll get breakfast in the morning." If Decker doesn't offer anything, though, he'll go to jail. His parents will be right behind him, since Decker invested their money in funds guided by insider trading.

So, Decker sings. At first, it's mostly about Axe Capital's structure — there really isn't any. Nobody knows when meetings will start, since they always form around Bobby. Everything and everyone turns with him. He shaped the company around himself, and nobody ever knows where his focus will land. Decker paints a portrait of a man so powerful that he's like a sun — people and information constantly orbit him. When he feels like it, he'll just reach out and grab what he needs. Looking for the paths to Axe is like looking for vapor trails. "Information comes from everywhere and all at once," Decker says. And yet, he also portrays Axe as something of a vulnerable king: "Someone is always coming to assassinate him."

Meanwhile, the king is off to a Metallica concert. He's going with three buddies, including an old friend named Freddy (Noah Emmerich). Before he heads north, the Cross Co. Trucking short Axe ordered Donnie to place in episode two gets a bit dodgy. Turns out that Cross Co. has ties to YumTime, the candy giant that Axe strong-armed in episode three to remove Chuck Sr.'s mistress from its board. Donnie is nervous about the legality of the trade, but Axe tells him to hold the position and then boards his plane.

Meanwhile, Chuck Sr. is playing golf when he hears about the Cross Co. short. He pounces: He'll try to pump up the stock price, simultaneously making himself some money and getting back at Axe. While he's still in the air, Axe finds out about the squeeze and quickly figures out that Chuck Sr. is playing (illegal) games with him. Axe needs to make a deal with the enemy to protect his investment, so he calls the broker from episode two to shore up his position, even though he knows the stock will collapse after YumTime cancels its deal with Cross Co.

There's a great scene on the plane in which Axe plays Hearts with his old buddies. They talk about being reckless when they were young, and Freddy calls out Axe's claims of maturity. He's not mature now; he just masks his recklessness better. Freddy knows his friend "still needs to crush, not just win." A lot of character and history is embedded into this game of cards. And it's no coincidence that Decker describes Axe Capital as a casino just a few scenes later. Life is a high-stakes game of cards to Bobby Axelrod. He'll never stop trying to shoot the moon.

Onto the story of the worst spy in white-collar crime history. Remember Tara Mohr? She was caught doing drugs by Axe's number-one manipulator Hall (Terry Kinney), and now reports back to him about the inner workings of the U.S. Attorney's office. Tara knows someone is in a proffer, but needs to ask around to find out who it is. She sees Decker's name written on a white board, and gets caught peeking at information on the desk of Chuck's secretary. She's not subtle at all. Naturally, she gets busted. Chuck and Co. now know that their investigation is under attack. They later try to bust Hall, but he sniffs out the sting and walks away.

Before that happens, though, Hall calls Spyros at the SEC and tells him to check out the Cross Co. squeeze. Spyros looks into it, learns that Chuck Sr. is involved, and then takes the news of illegal Rhoades activity to Chuck Jr. — it's a power play. Spyros wants to be part of the press conferences. He's not just a "confused dog" anymore.

In Quebec, while the man-children get amped up for Metallica backstage, Axe meets the lovely Elise (Kerry Bishé). She sings her take on RATT's "Round and Round" and Axe's heart melts a little. (Whose wouldn't, really?) Later, as they flirt over a drink, we learn that Axe has seen Rocky seven times but has never seen Citizen Kane. He considers himself more of a fighter than a businessman. In an interesting twist, he turns down Elise's advances. It would have been easy for Billions writers to turn Axe into a philanderer, but it's much more interesting that they chose not to.

After Decker says a lot more about life at Axe Capital, Chuck finally gets to the good stuff. He needs to know exactly when Axe told him to buy Pepsom Pharmaceuticals, since that's the insider trading around which they're trying to build their case. He never gave Decker the order, though. A voice on the phone told him to buy — and he thinks it was Bill Stern. So, Chuck has to go after Stern before he can pin anything on Axe. As Chuck riles himself up, he goes Full Giamatti: "I want this motherfucker's genome mapped … I want to put him on the rock and stretch him."

Back in Québec, Axe learns that Freddy overheard his conversation about the Cross Co. short and tried to jump in on it. Now that the short is getting squeezed, Freddy could be screwed. He's in over $200,000. Axe guarantees his money, and the short comes through the next morning, but Freddy has already been abandoned by his buddies. The message is clear: If you screw Axe over, he'll save you from yourself … but then he'll leave you behind. And this time, Axe may be ready to leave everyone behind. When he gets back to work, he tells Mike that it's time to start selling everything. People will think he's getting out of the game. What's his play? "Short Squeeze" defines Axe as the guy who's always a few steps ahead of the competition. Is he jumping off a sinking ship, or has he found a way to save it?

Other Notes:

  • When Metallica is backstage with Bobby, they play a bit of "Harvester of Sorrow" off … And Justice for All. It's not a typical choice, so it seems like the writers chose it as a commentary on Axe himself. The other song we hear them play is "Master of Puppets," which we already know to be one of his favorites.
  • "Round and Round" can't be a coincidental choice, either. "What comes around goes around" seems especially significant on a show like Billions.
  • If you're wondering, the song that opened and closed the episode: "Oh No" by Andrew Bird.
  • Remember how last week's episode referenced Glengarry Glen Ross? That film was directed by James Foley, who directed this week's episode. Foley has also directed several of the best episodes of House of Cards, another clear inspiration for Billions. He's pretty great.
  • I love the guest stars who appear this week. Noah Emmerich is fantastic on The Americans and Kerry Bishé is great on Halt and Catch Fire, arguably the most underrated drama on TV.
  • "Short Squeeze" is the show's most fast-paced episode so far, really illustrating how the people in Axe's world bounce from golf courses to private planes to concerts to offices. It was the fastest hour of TV that I've seen in a long time.