Billions Recap: A Question of Decency

Malin Akerman as Lara and Damian Lewis as Axe.
Malin Akerman as Lara and Damian Lewis as Axe. Photo: Eric Liebowitz/Showtime


Where the F*ck Is Donnie? Season 1 Episode 9
Editor's Rating 4 stars

This week, Billions finally shifts focus to Lara Axelrod (Malin Akerman), offering insight into her influence on one of the most powerful men in the world. In the aftermath of last week’s revelation that Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis) profited from the 9/11 attacks, I’m reminded of the premiere episode, in which we got our first glimpse of Lara’s intensity. At the time, her response to June’s accusations felt like a move to protect her husband and his legacy, but now it’s easy to conclude a grimmer truth: Lara knew that if people understood the origins of Axe Capital, she would suffer in great ways.

The episode opens as Axe and his family are casually talking about the best baseball team of all time (the ’27 Yankees) when he notices that someone has spray-painted “Fuck You Pigs” on the side of his car. His reputation as a philanthropist billionaire is crumbling. The protestors are lining up outside Axe Capital — chanting “Towers Down, Profits Up!” — and Lara even suggests that they should pick up and move. She gets a really interesting line, which reveals how she sees herself as protector of the family: “My job is to read into everything when it comes to you and them.”

The publicity fallout is getting worse. The man who granted Axe naming rights back in the second episode wants to rename the symphony hall “Freedom Hall” or “Enterprise Hall.” Axe has been taking most things in stride lately, but this is too much to ask. “It’s either Axelrod Hall or Go Fuck Yourself Hall,” he says. The latter would certainly draw a different crowd.

Meanwhile, Donnie Caan (David Cromer) makes his big move. (Remember: We learned last week that he’s only pretending to work for the FBI and is actually double-crossing them at the behest of Axe.) He’s going to buy 1.8 million shares of Kemlot Biochemical on Axe’s orders. But the pressure looks like it’s getting to Donnie. He tells Wendy (Maggie Siff) about a dream in which he’s on a train track, tangled in a web, but unable to use the knife at his disposal before he’s crushed. It doesn’t take a psych degree to understand that Donnie can’t save himself. He tells Wendy, “This business makes liars of all eventually,” and we can tell she is worried about his mental and emotional state. He wants to get something off his chest, but he says can’t tell her because she answers to somebody — does he mean Chuck Rhoades Jr. (Paul Giamatti) or Axe? The FBI is equally concerned that Donnie’s got the yips.

Lara goes to her restaurant to find her family waiting for her, as if she’s facing an intervention. We learn that Lara’s direct approach runs in their blood. They’re all suffering because of their familial ties to a man who profited on 9/11, the day their brother Dean died trying to save lives. Lara’s family is direct: “Walk away from the shame. Divorce his ass.”

Donnie has disappeared. He left his shirt and his phone at the office and went off the grid. What’s the play? Where has he gone? Has he cracked under pressure? Could Donnie just disappear? Fake his suicide and flee to Mexico? I almost hoped he did; I’m concerned how his story will end if he sticks around. When Rhoades and Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore) learn about his double-cross, they’re going to burn him down.

Things get even worse for Axe when Raul Gomez (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) pulls the police-pension fund and the local fire inspectors shut down Lara’s restaurant. Not long after, Axe employees flee what appears to be a sinking ship, taking papers and files with them as they go.

Chuck wants to know what’s being said behind closed doors and not just in that special room at Axe Capital that blocks all electronic signals. He meets with Judge Whit Wilcox (Anthony Edwards), whom he has learned will preside over the “Dollar” Bill Stern (Kelly AuCoin) case. First, Chuck tries to pick his brain about how he’ll approach the case, and then he again requests to bug the Axelrod house. Wilcox refuses, adding that they’d have to bug Chuck’s home too, given Wendy’s role at Axe Capital.

Poor Bryan thinks the investigation is still going well. They learn that Axe is going to make $100 million on the Kemlot deal, and he’s convinced that this is their smoking gun. Bryan has a cute moment with Kate (Condola Rashad) after their high-five turns awkwardly romantic. They are two of the most likable characters on the show, and I’m rooting for them to get together. Before that can happen, though, someone has to find Donnie.

Lara is busy making a move of her own. Her old beau still has connections to her late brother’s fire station, but he’s not about to take her side. She calls him a “fucking simpleton,” and we can really see why she makes a match with Bobby. They both know how to manage personalities, see outcomes before they happen, and take no prisoners when they feel they’re being wronged.

She’s got one more play, and it produces the strongest scene of the week. While Wendy meets with Chris (Steven Pasquale), and he concocts an excuse to ask her out, Lara steps in. Does she need advice or is she trying to get information out of Wendy? Lara notes how she’s collateral damage to her husband’s scandal. She’s trying to pressure Wendy to say something to Chuck. And she’s pissed that she can’t draw the same line that Wendy does between her husband’s work choices and her life. Wendy isn’t having any of it, though, passing Lara off with a therapy recommendation that she refuses.

And then Chuck’s team gets a hit on Donnie! He used his E-Z Pass. Chuck gets a call at dinner, alerting him that they’re bringing him back in, and quickly leaves, making Wendy suspicious. She probably knows it’s related to Donnie, and therefore also knows that Chuck hasn’t really recused himself from the case. It’s all for naught, however: Donnie pulled a fast one, swapping out the E-Z Pass at a rest stop.

In an unusual scene, Chuck goes to meet with Lonnie (Malachi Weir), the guy whose case he dealt to the Eastern District weeks ago. Turns out Lonnie had once wanted to investigate Judge Wilcox and Rhoades squashed his plans — but now he wants him to reopen the case. Seems fishy to me. Wouldn’t everyone realize that it’s not a coincidence? Maybe Chuck is trying to send a message. Let’s see how this plays out.

Axe and Lara go to the fire station to make a play. The men cross their arms and stare. The always-charismatic Axe makes a strong, confident case that his actions have been less repulsive than they appear. He admits to his 9/11 profit, then argues that the families of his dead colleagues have survived because of that decision. He thought he had to be cold. Can a man like Axe be both political and moral? It’s not so black and white. He thinks it’s important to take care of those families and recognizes how good it looks to the rest of the world. The firefighters aren’t buying it, and later trash Lara’s farm. Eventually, she shutters the restaurant and closes the farm.

And then, Donnie! It turns out he went to Cleveland, of all places, to meet a man named Guru Ash, a “third-eye seer.” Donnie is a mess. He needs guidance. He is lost, but Ash tells him that he is now found. His credit card pings nearby; it looks like Donnie will be coming home safe and sound. He calls Wendy to tell her about his journey. In the final scene of the episode, he meets with Bryan. They need Axe’s source because they didn’t get that part on tape. Donnie gives Bryan a name that looks like it’s legit, but then he coughs and passes out. Is it exhaustion? Something worse? Behind a one-way mirror, Chuck has a panicked, concerned look on his face, like Chazz Palminteri piecing things together at the end of The Usual Suspects. Something isn’t right.

Other Notes:

  • This was easily Malin Akerman’s best episode to date, and I like the paralleling of Lara with Wendy. Both of these women must struggle with the consequences of their husband’s egos and morally questionable decisions.
  • What is Axe’s endgame with Donnie? The writers have kept us in the dark, allowing this story line to play out like a thriller. It’s basically a poker game: One player has a really good hand and the guy across from him has gone all-in.
  • Another great music choice to close this week: Townes Van Zandt’s “Waiting ’Round to Die.” So, who is waiting? Axe? Chuck? It’s poor Donnie, isn’t it? Poor, poor Donnie.

Billions Recap: A Question of Decency