The first season of Billions ends in a fashion similar to the fourth season of The Sopranos. Just as "Whitecaps" hinged on an earth-shattering argument between husband and wife, the pivot point for "The Conversation" is a barn-burner between a man and woman who both feel betrayed. Or maybe that's not the titular conversation. It could also be the one that closes the episode, or even the one from the scene in which the "villain" woos one of the "heroes." Whatever the case may be, Billions ends this smart, complex season with a finale that both concludes a few major arcs and sets itself up for season two.
Looking back on the whole season, Billions can seem a little different. Is this show really about a woman who realizes the men in her life are full of it? That woman is, of course, Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff), married to U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades Jr. (Paul Giamatti) and working for billionaire Bobby "Axe" Axelrod (Damian Lewis). When the season began, she was torn between these two alpha males, supportive enough of her husband's quest for justice but unwilling to leave a job she loved and the man she had helped build up from nothing. In its end, she's left them both, after finally recognizing that both men used her. Both Axe and Chuck saw Wendy as a means to an end, as someone to use for emotional support when needed and someone to manipulate when the cards didn't fall their way.
Before that realization, though, life seems good for a smiling Wendy. Axe is so happy about last week's adjustment that he buys her a car, an over-the-top show of gratitute that's accompanied by the sounds of Sly and the Family Stone's "Everyday People." To further highlight the point, the episode then cuts to Lonnie (Malachi Weir), as he emerges from the subway. There's nothing "everyday" about people who send cars instead of Hallmark cards — but commuting? That's as everyday as it gets.
Lonnie is coming back to work for Chuck, who plans to use him to get to the bottom of the bribery charges he saw in Wendy's session notes. According to those notes, Axe admitted that he bribed the cops after an employee started shooting at deer with an assault weapon. And now Chuck knows. He wants Lonnie to look into it, looping in Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore) but leaving himself out of it. Sure, that'll work.
While Axe and Wags (David Costabile) pound the streets to get clients back, Lonnie lands the scoop on the "Deergate." Axe has trouble finding his mojo until he ditches the suit and tie for one of his "high casual" looks and starts speechifying. He addresses 9/11, the arrests, all of the problems that Axe Capital has faced — and then notes that he's still standing. He looks like he's ready to lead troops again; he's not just a guy in a suit, begging for money. In a line that's indicative of the way Bobby thinks, he lays his entire philosophy on the table: "We are friends for life, or you don't exist to me … ever again."
Just after Lonnie presents what he's learned to a skeptical Bryan (who knows Chuck must somehow be involved), Axe gets a heads up from Raul Gomez (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) about the investigation. He then runs to Hall (Terry Kinney) and Bach (Glenn Fleshler), who tell him that the weapon charges will be impossible to shake if traced back to Axe Capital. They're talking bribery and automatic weapons; it's not as gray an area as insider trading. Axe knows that the only person he told was Wendy, so he asks Hall to "prepare the materials for her." What could that mean? Sharks with lasers on their heads?
Nope, it's much worse: "The materials" are a horrifying invasion of privacy. It's ironic that Axe is furious that Wendy betrayed their trust, then turns around to show he's done exactly the same. They've been monitoring her computer and know about her kinky sex habits. They even have photos of that naked dip in the pool from a few weeks ago. The whole world will know about Wendy's dark side. In many ways, this is a much greater betrayal than Axe's session getting to Chuck. Even if Wendy had straight-up told Chuck, this is still worse. Axe is the kind of guy who brings a missile launcher to a knife fight.
While the Axelrods prepare to flee the country and Bryan has a chat with Lonnie to warn him away from Chuck's clutches, Wendy is ready for "the conversation." They go at it. She knows immediately that Chuck looked on her laptop. As if he's been preparing for this, he fires back, noting that she protects criminals. He even plays wounded husband, talking about how she wasn't there for him and mentioning how chummy she got with Bobby. Chuck spied on her, stole her private records, and just admitted he went to a sex club without her permission — how could there be any future for them together? Finally, he compares her to the criminals with whom she works. As expected, she kicks him out: "Pack your shit. Be gone."
Knowing that the source of the bribery information is now tainted, Chuck closes the case. Bryan just smirks with a great Chinatown reference. Welcome back, Lonnie.
Meanwhile, Wendy confronts Axe with a tape of the argument she just had with her husband. He agrees to destroy all of the "materials." He immediately wires her $5 million, and offers to triple that amount for the recording. She deletes it … and then she quits. Axe betrayed her too. She can't continue to work for him. Even as Axe tries to say something, she cuts him off. She's gone. Jobless, separated from her husband, and now $5 million wealthier, Wendy smiles again as she speeds off.
And what about Bryan, the runner-up for the Most Manipulated in this season's Rhoades Awards? While Chuck asks Kate to get to the bottom of how Axe knew about the investigation, Bryan meets with Bach. They're trying to woo him to Axe Capital's counsel; Bobby himself makes the pitch. He even makes a plea to Bryan's upbringing — he grew up like Axe did, and not at all like the wealthy Rhoades bloodline. If he says yes, he'll start at seven figures and work with someone who gets him. Bryan thinks about it. He grins as he walks away. But, as Axe notes, he doesn't say no.
Meanwhile, Chuck's team filters a bad rumor to Axe Capital that they're wired, which leads them to sweep for listening devices. When they don't find any, they're forced to tear the building down to its rivets. I'm a little surprised that Hall and Axe wouldn't consider the Tinker Tailor possibility — i.e. false information used to root out a mole — but the bare hull of an Über-wealthy company makes for a nice background as the season winds down.
Chuck enters stage right just in time, with a framed copy of the check that Axe tore up. I love the tone Lewis strikes whenever he's in a scene with Giamatti. The half-smile, the head cocked, the chest puffed out: Axe hates Chuck and every part of Lewis's body language is meant to reflect that. Giamatti gives it right back, sneering as Chuck calls him "Bob." Axe tries to play the moral superiority card, noting how he employs thousands of people and has donated millions to charity. Chuck compares him to Jesse James — a legend, but still a criminal. In the end, we're left to weigh the impact of Wendy's departure on both men. They've lost the angel on their shoulder, and now it's come to this: a man with unlimited resources against a man with nothing to lose.
- The episode closes with "Dimed Out," a Titus Andronicus song off of The Most Lamentable Tragedy, a rock opera about a man who meets his doppelgänger. As I've been saying all season, Chuck and Bobby are more alike than they'd ever care to admit.
- In a season of great directorial choices, the finale is helmed by Michael Cuesta, a veteran of Six Feet Under, Dexter, and Homeland. He also directed a great drama called L.I.E., which you should seek out.
- Question time: Were you satisfied with the finale? Enough closure on the saga of Chuck vs. Axe? What was your favorite episode of the season? Any predictions for season two? And who's your MVP?