Billions Recap: Chess Moves


Quality of Life
Season 1 Episode 10
Editor’s Rating *****
Paul Giamatti as Chuck Rhoades and Anthony Edwards as Judge Wilcox.
Paul Giamatti as Chuck Rhoades and Anthony Edwards as Judge Wilcox. Photo: Paul Sarkis

The two men who define Billions are driven by a dark need for vengeance. If you cross either of these people, they will not just slash your tires — they’ll find a way to make you slash them yourself. In “Quality of Life,” U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades Jr. (Paul Giamatti) gives a crucial speech about how he has been blinded by vengeance in the past, and it’s a lesson that could just as easily apply to Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis) this week. Chuck and Axe are more alike than they’d care to admit.

The episode picks up right after Donnie Caan (David Cromer) coughed blood all over poor Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore). In that moment, Chuck figures it out: Axe knew that the FBI’s inside man was dying, which means he won’t be alive long enough to testify that he fed false information to the government.

As I imagine he often does in moments like this, Chuck speechifies. He explains how he had the talent to become a chess Grandmaster, save for a fatal flaw: He would get enraged over any perceived slight. As he says, “If I decided that my opponent didn’t respect the game or me, or I didn’t like the way he carried himself,” that would be the end. Chuck is revealing that he can be a petty man, one bent on destruction instead of winning. It’s a great speech, even it does sound a little scripted — as if it’s a story he’s told before. Maybe it was his valedictorian speech.

Axe and Lara (Malin Akerman) are in the hospital’s waiting room. We flashback to Donnie, staring vacantly after a meeting. Axe, who reads people better than anyone, knows something is wrong. He follows Donnie to the bathroom, where he learns that his employee has pancreatic cancer. And Axe essentially does what he did on 9/11: He uses tragedy to his benefit. Of course, he would argue that he also does what’s best for Donnie, setting up the Caan family so they’ll be comfortable when he’s gone — and he wouldn’t be wrong. Axe always figures out how to have it both ways. He’s the ultimate manipulator, convincing you that he’s being generous while ultimately serving himself.

Chuck meets with Adam DeGiulio (Rob Morrow), who speaks on behalf of the attorney general. The Donnie dilemma has ended the Axe Capital case. If Chuck defies the mandate, then the president himself will fire him. Chuck understands, but he still may have a chess move in the works. As he mysteriously says, “Musical chairs is a much better party game.”

In a structurally interesting choice, “Quality of Life” then flashes forward to Donnie’s funeral, a scene that will be revisited throughout the episode. Chuck pulls the bold move of showing up at the service. Wendy (Maggie Siff), looking appropriately aghast, warns him to “Get the fuck out of here.” He walks right by her, approaches Axe, and extends his hand. Axe glares, trying to figure out the play, but then shakes. “It’s a real loss,” Chuck says. “Yeah, for both of us,” Axe replies. Is Chuck just trying to get under Axe’s skin? Making sure he doesn’t think that he’s won?

Meanwhile, the employees who fled Axe Capital last week are forming their own company, complete with a horrible name: Ionosphere. The lawyers suggest that Axe let it happen. Better to avoid more bad publicity. But Axe is a vengeful creature, just like Chuck. “I can’t have the perception that the real talent at Axe Capital is flying under a new flag,” he says.

Remember “Dollar” Bill Stern (Kelly AuCoin)? His case has finally reached Judge Wilcox (Anthony Edwards). Bill’s lawyer argues that his client was just trying to help a family and that the insider information came as a result of charity. Again, this subplot fits neatly with Axe’s actions around 9/11. Someone made money on tragedy, but also helped a family affected by that tragedy. As Bill’s attorney says, “Consider the wisdom of putting altruism on trial.” Bryan counters by noting that the so-called “altruism” cost $200,000 and the insider information led to an $89 million profit. It was an investment, not charity. Wilcox ain’t having it, though. Bryan’s claim would require knowing what was in Stern’s heart. The case is dismissed.

Bill returns to Axe Capital to triumphant chants of “Keyser!” (He memorably called himself Keyser Söze in “The Deal.”) Axe isn’t happy. He orders Bill into his office, and one of my favorite scenes of the year unfolds from there. Axe and Bill pretend to have a screaming fight. Why? Everyone needs to believe that are on the outs, so Bill can go undercover at Ionosphere and ruin them. In chess parlance, Axe is taking a knight and moving them to the other side of the board. Lewis and AuCoin are great throughout this dramatic ruse, and Karyn Kusama directs it brilliantly, in a way that’s both playful and essential to the plot.

Lonnie (Malachi Weir) delivers the insider knowledge on Judge Wilcox to Chuck. It turns out that Chuck’s judicial nemesis doesn’t just have skeletons in his closet — he has a whole cemetery. Wilcox has been issuing a series of deeply racist judgments because he’s an investor in a company called Baldinger Prison Systems, which charges $1 per phone call for inmates. More inmates, more money. He’s building an atrocious business from the bench. Oh, and he’s sleeping with his Dominican housekeeper. Not long after he gets this dirt, Chuck drops the hammer on Wilcox. The judge will resign for “undisclosed personal reasons” and stride off into private practice. Is that it? It can’t be. Chuck is the guy who forced a stranger to pick up dog shit with his bare hands; there’s no way he’ll let Wilcox walk away from this.

While Bryan and Kate (Condola Rashad) are finally taking their relationship to the next level, Chuck Sr. (Jeffrey DeMunn) stops by to prod his son. Only DeMunn can deliver a line like “Stop fucking up” with a passive-aggressive smile. He suggests Chuck quit his job. Write a book. Move away. And then, he’ll be free to try for a congressional seat. Chuck gives dad the Full Giamatti: “Your advice is no longer welcome. Stay the fuck out.”

After that, an increasingly suspicious Wendy is prying to learn how much Axe knew about Donnie’s condition. While Lara is encouraging her kids to take over Donnie’s Secret Santa project — it’s a teachable moment kind of thing — Wendy is asking questions. She’s suspicious of Lara’s behavior and wants to have a session with Axe, which actually makes him look a little nervous. He knows what Wendy could get out of him, and how the truth would poison their relationship. Lara keeps trying to push Wendy out, even going so far as to suggest firing her. She’s playing protector again. Wendy could — and likely will — become her husband’s Achilles’ heel.

Back to poor, dumb, vile Whit Wilcox. He’s having a retirement party when Chuck is moved to speak again. (This guy loves a good speech.) Just as he finishes, Lonnie arrives to arrest the judge. Chuck said his district wouldn’t prosecute, but he said nothing about Lonnie’s. Now Wilcox can be replaced by DeGiulio, who promises to put a “friendly behind in his place” at the attorney general’s office.

As Wilcox falls to one vengeful Grandmaster, Ionosphere falls to another. Dollar Bill gave them bad information and now they’re screwed. At the eleventh hour, Axe steps in to play savior and puppeteer yet again. He offers them a revenue-sharing, non-compete deal. They have no choice but to accept it.

While Wendy expresses guilt about Donnie’s demise, Wags (David Costabile) reveals that he walked away with $40 million, adding to Wendy’s suspicions. Donnie’s partner notes that he just wanted to make it to Christmas and Axe looks crushed as we go to our final flashback. A doctor tells Axe that Donnie has two or three months left, but an experimental drug trial could buy him a few more. Axe says no. “What kind of quality of life would he have?” His concern may be genuine, but Axe is also protecting his own interests. Back in the present day, Axe momentarily seems remorseful about denying Donnie those last few months, but then he pushes that feeling down, repressing his own misdeeds. He walks away to the sounds of Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping.” Axe always gets back up again.

Other Notes:

  • The team behind Billions is definitely laying groundwork for season two. One piece of advice: Give Dan Soder and Kelly AuCoin bigger roles. Soder, a talented stand-up, offers some nice comic relief. AuCoin is one of the most versatile actors on TV, going from Pastor Tim on The Americans to Dollar Bill on Billions — two characters that are so different, I almost do a double take every time I see him on either show.
  • This is one of Lewis’s strongest episodes, if not the outright best. Axe’s moral gray area is beginning to eat him from the inside, and Lewis really expresses that well.
  • There are only two episodes left this season. Where do you think the story goes from here?

Billions Recap: Chess Moves