It’s always fun to watch a show like Billions slow down and offer up a character-driven episode. This incredibly talented ensemble knows its characters well, and this week, the directorial reins are held by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Mississippi Grind, Half Nelson), a duo that knows how to draw out great performances. The result is “Magical Thinking,” an episode that boasts the show’s best performances to date from Damian Lewis, Maggie Siff, and Paul Giamatti. It’s one of the best hours of TV I’ve seen this year.
For most of its running time, “Magical Thinking” has a simple structure: We follow four concurrent plotlines across one night in New York City, all of which are thematically intertwined by questions about uncertain identities. Has Lara Axelrod (Malin Akerman) lost touch with her sister and past? Is Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis) still a difference maker? What will become of Bryan (Toby Leonard Moore) and Kate (Condola Rashad) with no Axe Capital case to drive them? Who, exactly, is Chuck Rhoades Jr. (Paul Giamatti), and to what lengths will he go for justice?
Before all of that, though, Axe makes a rare mistake. Despite the protestations of Mafee (Dan Soder), he holds onto a deal that ends up losing $1 billion. Axe was wrong. That never happens. He’s going to need his guru to figure out what happened.
Wendy’s busy talking to the competition, getting a job pitch at a company that’s the tonal opposite of Axe Capital. Whereas Wendy’s current office feels like a fraternity, 60 percent of the employees at this place are women. It’s the anti-AC, made all the more obvious after a scene in which Axe’s macho posturing cost a fortune. This company doesn’t want Wendy for her feminine charms; they want her to turn their staff into warriors. While she considers their pitch, Wendy gets a text from Axe.
Chuck meets with Adam DeGiulio (Rob Morrow) to discuss the aftermath of Judge Wilcox’s arrest. Chuck cast a spell and made a federal judge disappear, and the two men laugh at their good fortune, but now they need to help each other over the next hump. Chuck wants to help name Adam’s replacement, someone who will likely be amenable to going after Axe next season.
Lara meets with her sister, Lou (Louisa Krause), who has been out of work since Lara shuttered the restaurant in light of Axe’s 9/11 scandal. She actually brings Lou to Axe Capital, which seems like a stretch given Lou’s feelings about Axe. Lou hates the whole place, noting the atmosphere of loud cars and leering men. Meanwhile, Axe tells Lara that he can’t go out tonight. He needs a marathon session with Wendy to figure out what went wrong today. Can she fix him?
It’s time for the conversation that makes up most of “Magical Thinking,” a tête-à-tête between Axe and Wendy, the person who understands him best. He needs “an adjustment.” Has he forgotten that he’s not Superman? Most interestingly, when Axe is wrong, he usually doesn’t dwell. He moves on. Why not this time? He realizes that as soon as Mafee told him that everyone disagreed with him, he was going to dig in his heels. He had to prove he was the “difference maker.” He gambled and lost. Did he know that he was going to lose? Was he punishing himself?
As Axe questions his abilities, Wendy does the same. She missed Donnie’s pain. Axe missed the billion-dollar call. They’re both off their game, and that’s unacceptable; they are the pistons that drive Axe Capital. She’s the first to draw the line between Donnie and the morning’s screw-up. Did he bomb the trade to karmically even the score for Donnie? This is a great scene between Lewis and Siff, who fall so deep into their characters that the actors disappear. It’s one to submit for Emmy consideration, for sure — and it’s likely helped by Boden and Fleck, directors who previously elicited career-best work from Ryan Gosling and Ben Mendelsohn.
While Bryan and Kate pack up the Axe Capital case and also question why they do what they do, Lou and Lara go back to their old stomping grounds, hitting up a dive bar. It’s not nearly as fun when they’re 35 as it was they were 20. Looking to rekindle old happiness, they decide to go joyriding, billionaire-style.
Chuck is feeling a bit young again, too, but it’s because of his awful father’s condescension. It turns out that Chuck needs dad to get Adam’s appointment through so he can help name his replacement. (I can think of few people I’d rather ask a favor of than Chuck Rhoades Sr.) After agreeing to help, he smirks his way into pressuring an “I’m sorry” out of his son, then pinches him on the cheek like he’s eight. This scene speaks volumes about why Chuck is the way he is. This is the kind of aggressive, egocentric “justice” that father has passed down to son.
Wendy and Axe are having fun, trying to hit a basket in the middle of the AC lobby from above while Van Halen’s “And the Cradle Will Rock” plays. She calls him out, comparing him to Kobe Bryant circa 2016, taking shots when he knows he can’t make them. His self-image has created a blind spot.
While Bryan and Kate get hot and heavy in Chuck’s office, their boss is meeting with Ira (Ben Shenkman) in one of the best scenes of the season. Chuck talks about the crow he just had to eat with dad, and Ira sees it for what it is — “a roof.” Everybody needs someone else to protect them every now and then. No one makes it through alone. As Ira says, “It’s not a moment for pride. It’s a moment for consolidation.” It’s a tremendous scene, carefully drawn out with a heavy emphasis on dialogue and character. Chuck is nervous about his marriage, and Shenkman’s Ira has a beautiful moment in which he discusses how being newly single after a divorce is something no one wants. Sure, he’s dating younger women, but he’s alone. Even when we get what we want, we don’t always want what we get.
Axe continues to let down his guard. He cries at videos of soldiers coming home to surprised loved ones. Is he the soldier? Or the kid who never hugged his dad? Not long after, Wendy drops the bomb: She knows that Axe used Donnie as a legal shield. He should feel great — he saved his kingdom and his loyal knight fell on his sword. Axe admits that he stole some of Donnie’s time, then tells Wendy everything. He never really cared about Donnie — at least not as much as he did about his own company. Is he a sociopath, using those close to him to his own ends? Would a true sociopath even ask that question?
Bryan and Kate are acting like kids; Lara and Lily are going on a spree; Wendy and Axe are still talking. What about Chuck? He spies on his wife and nemesis, seeing them look downright romantic. They’re laughing as they sit close to each other. Wendy’s body language is much different than she is at home. It sends Chuck on a sex bender. He goes to a dark club to meet a dominatrix who has Freddy Krueger gloves. Chuck needs some discipline, but he can’t give in because he didn’t get permission from Wendy. Then things get really weird. It turns out that Chuck wasn’t as alone all night as we thought; someone at the club is tackled with a camera containing pictures of Chuck’s evening. Who’s tracking Chuck? Is it someone from Axe Capital?
Finally, Lara and Axe get back together. Axe tells her that he cries at sentimental things, and she cautiously encourages him. She doesn’t want to get screwed over by Wendy again. Chuck comes home to Wendy, who has been typing up her session notes, and leaves her laptop on the bed to take a shower. Chuck can’t stop himself. He opens it, reads her notes about Axe, and then emails them to himself. I’m not sure Chuck can come back from this. It’s the ultimate violation of trust, both from Axe to Wendy and from Wendy to Chuck. Bob Dylan’s great “Gotta Serve Somebody” plays as the scene concludes. Who does Chuck serve?
- I can’t say it enough: See every Boden/Fleck film you can, especially Half Nelson and Sugar.
- “Magical Thinking” has a ton of great music cues. If you’re wondering about the tune that played as Chuck entered the sex dungeon, it was “Suicide” by the Black Heart Procession.
- Only one episode left! Do you think Billions will end the season on a cliffhanger? Any guesses as to what will happen?
A previous version of this recap incorrectly stated that Chuck met with Ari, a character played by Stephen Kunken. He met with Ira.