Billions Recap: Doing Bad to Do Good

Episode 108
Damian Lewis as Axe, David Costabile as Wags. Photo: Jeff Neumann/Showtime


Boasts and Rails Season 1 Episode 8
Editor's Rating 4 stars

When the team behind Billions uses the same song to open and close an episode, listen closely for thematic relevance. Jason Isbell’s “Cover Me Up” is this week’s choice, with its repeated line, “Cover me up and know you’re enough to use me good.” It’s a fitting choice. “Boasts and Rails” is about how people use one another, and even horrible tragedies, to accomplish their own perception of “good.”

The FBI, led by Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore), breaks down the door of Donnie Caan (David Cromer), just so he can see what it’ll be like when they come to take him to jail. (Seems like a waste of federal resources, but what isn’t these days?) It turns out that the smoking-gun file Donnie gave Bryan at the end of the last episode was worthless — it didn’t even have a cybertrail that lead back to Axe (Damien Lewis). As Bryan and his team storm out, a janitor on Axe’s payroll notices. Maybe that show of force wasn’t such a good idea.

Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) is at an event with his son, Kevin (Zachary Unger), when he spots Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira, who is talking to Axe. “Baron Von Axelrod” calls over Kevin, putting his grievance with Chuck behind him so a kid can meet his favorite baseball player. Wendy (Maggie Siff) steps up, looking a little stunned. After Teixeira leaves, Axe gets a call from Hall (Terry Kinney) about what the janitor saw. “We may have a real issue.”

“Boasts and Rails” offers a lot of insight into what makes Chuck Rhoades tick. He should feel happy that Kevin got to meet a childhood hero, but Wendy won’t pat him on the back just for letting something good happen to their son. He calls her out, noting that he doesn’t get a portion of the sympathy that she offers Axe Capital employees every day. She turns it right back on him with a wonderful line: “Grow the fuck up.” Something’s gotta give. He makes $185,000 a year and she’s considering a job that would bring home a quarter of that, which won’t give them enough to cover either their lifestyle or the $70,000 private-school tuition for the kids. Wendy offers Chuck a deal: “If you get that big job you’ve always talked about, I’ll quit.”

Kate (Condola Rashad) has tracked down the writer who was working with June, the 9/11 widow who wrote a scandalous book about Axe’s firm. Remember how Lara (Malin Akerman) threatened her into redacting a chapter about what Axe really did on 9/11? Well, that history is finally exposed. It turns out Axe wasn’t in the towers that day because he was working out his severance package at the firm’s legal office. It gets worse. He never led rescue efforts, as he claimed. He actually profited from the tragedy: After the first plane hit, he shorted airline and travel stocks, making a fortune, which he then used to start Axe Capital. Were his actions wrong? Did he profit from death? Or did he grab an opportunity to make a ton of money, which then led him to pay college tuition for the children of those who died that day? It’s wonderfully, morally gray. But it’s not going to look good in the court of public opinion. Chuck advises they give the scoop to Dimonda (Sam Gilroy). Apparently, this guy is the only reporter in town.

Axe is ready to scorch the Earth to find the new mole. He barks orders at people, grabs phones, and threatens to find the “quisling” (a fancy word for traitor, exactly the kind of term a military buff like Axe would use to remind people that he’s smarter than they are). The FBI hears it all, and knows that Donnie is in trouble. Chuck tells Bryan to burn someone else. Frame another employee as the mole. Get an innocent man fired to keep Donnie on the hook.

A tech guy at Axe Capital reports that three people erased their hard drives and overwrote them with new data after the “Axplosion.” Donnie Caan was one of them.

Bryan goes to thank Kate for the leverage they’ll get from the book, then gets an impromptu invite to join her and her parents for dinner. It turns out that her father (played by great Harry Lennix) is a businessman, and he goes right after Bryan about how the tools the government uses makes them just as shady as those they prosecute. Kate’s dad gets a key line during his lecture: “Doing bad to do good — nothing you say can convince me that’s alright.” He challenges Bryan’s principles, which leave him a bit shaken. He tells Chuck that he won’t sell someone out to protect Donnie. Chuck is pissed, but he only gives him the Half Giamatti, pressuring him to do what’s needed to keep Donnie in play.

It may be too late. Axe and Wags bring in the three schmucks who erased their hard drives. Axe just stares at them with what a character will later call his “Laura Mars Eyes.” Donnie leaves to puke. He’s followed. Bryan calls and tells him he has a tail. Things don’t look good for Donnie.

And what is Chuck doing? First, he clears the plate of Tonelle “Tee” (Tijuana Ricks), so he can suggest her to Adam Digiulio (Rob Morrow) as a replacement for Bryan. Then, he goes to meet with Horvath. The offer is laid out: He would make $9 million a year. He’d have the expertise, the image, and the prestige. All he has to do is say yes.

Axe comes home to find Dimonda there with the “Blood Money” story about what happened on 9/11 and 9/12. What does this reporter want? Whatever it is, he’s not getting it. The story drops. We see other characters finding out the truth, then we learn that Wendy knew. When Lara’s sister, Lou (Louisa Krause), learns what Axe did, she’s shaken that Lara even married him, given that their brother died on 9/11. Axe’s team wants to move fast, possibly even file a defamation suit. He refuses: “It’s true. I never lied about it.”

Speaking of lies, Bryan made a whopper. Butch gets fired; Donnie is still undercover. Axe goes to the pizzeria from episode one, where he gets a few glares but looks like he might survive this scandal. Chuck tells Bryan he turned down the Horvath offer after discovering that Bryan did what needed to be done. They offer themselves some comforting excuses over drinks. Butch was working for a corrupt firm; he was fruit of the poisoned tree. They compare him to a haberdasher for the Nazis. Later, in arguably Giamatti’s best scene to date, a notably buzzed Chuck admits to Wendy that he can’t stand her relationship with Axe. Keep in mind, he essentially just compared Axe to Hitler, and his wife is arguably closer to Axe than she is to him. What would that do to a man? She says, “Things are changing there, and it can’t last like this much longer.” Chuck gets a twinkle in his eyes and says, “It won’t.”

Not so fast, Chuck! In the final scene, we learn that Donnie is a reverse mole. Axe knows that he’s talking to the Feds and is working with him, likely feeding them false information or maybe just giving them nothing. All of this was a charade to convince Chuck and his team of Donnie’s worth. Guess Chuck should have taken that offer.

Other Notes:

  • John Dahl directed this episode! If you don’t know who John Dahl is, go rent Red Rock West and The Last Seduction, then try telling me Maggie Siff doesn’t remind you of Linda Fiorentino. To round out a great triple-feature, don’t forget Rounders, written by Billions creators David Levien and Brian Koppelman.
  • There was an interesting motif of trendy eating this week, whether it was Bryan’s bibimbap, Dimonda’s cabbage, or whatever the hell kind of smoothie Adam was drinking.
  • Add Harry Lennix to the show’s list of great guest stars. The casting agent really deserves a raise.
  • A narrative that had edged toward turning Axe into a hero and Chuck a villain swung back in the other direction this week, showing Axe’s past manipulations and Chuck’s willingness to turn down a major offer to do what’s right. The moral gray area is what makes the show fascinating. Sometimes, it might be right to use someone for good.

Billions Recap: Doing Bad to Do Good