Billions Recap: Wag the Dog


Season 2 Episode 5
Editor’s Rating *****
Damian Lewis as Bobby Axelrod, Ritchie Coster as Donald Thayer. Photo: Jeff Neumann/SHOWTIME

Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis) has been undeniably adrift and borderline unstable since losing his loyal ally Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff), but he’s kept it together with the allegiance of the soldiers at Axe Capital. In this week’s episode of Billions, Axe makes one of the most striking mistakes of his professional career, and we’re forced to wonder if he would have done so with Wendy and Wags (David Costabile) by his side. Is it a coincidence that Axe Capital is facing the first down quarter in its entire history after Wendy quits and Wags gets caught in a debauched spiral?

While Axe tries to pull out of a company nosedive, Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) and his team move closer to the wolf they’ve been hunting for weeks. Until the episode’s final act, Axe and Chuck’s narratives are pretty divided, so let’s pull them apart for the sake of coherence.

Chuck Goes Hunting

We first see Chuck in a very revealing therapy session. Don’t miss the body language on the couch that the Rhoadeses share: They are on opposite ends, and it looks unlikely that their marital freeze will thaw. Wendy is telling a story about how annoyed she gets when Chuck shows up in a suit to casual parties and dinner dates. However, what she takes as pomposity is really Chuck’s insecurity: He reveals that he dresses as well as possible to try and alleviate the impression that she’s out of his league. He has to strut his stuff and show his feathers.

It’s interesting to consider this overcompensation in the way that Chuck behaves at the office too, always telling stories and trying to gain the upper hand. His latest story is one told to Sacker (Condola Rashad) about hunting wolves when he was a kid, and it’s the lead-in to the handling of Tom McKinnon (Ross Partridge) — their inside man at Spartan Ives, and the one they hope will take down Lawrence Boyd (Eric Bogosian). To say that McKinnon isn’t the ideal spy is an understatement: He basically tries to get a co-worker to implicate himself while he’s taking a leak. It doesn’t work, of course. Chuck lets McKinnon off the hook, knowing full well that he’ll be back. Don’t forget that McKinnon knows Boyd is sleeping with his wife. Vengeance is a powerful motivator.

Naturally, it’s not long before an opportunity presents itself for McKinnon to get back in the game. He’s going to have dinner with his wife, Boyd, and Boyd’s wife. What could possibly go wrong? To steel his courage, McKinnon drinks a bit too heavily. At first it looks like he’s going to blow the deal, but he eventually gets Boyd to admit to the malfeasance — allowing Chuck and company to get an arrest warrant, as well as yet another interaction between Chuck and Axe (two weeks in a row!). But before we get to that …

Axe the Terminator

While Wags is off getting deep therapy from Wendy, Axe faces a career crisis: the first down quarter in the history of Axe Capital. After a deal with a company called Sansomic goes wrong, Axe learns from Boyd that the press and public are about to crucify him for the upcoming down-quarter revelation. This is an important bookend, because Boyd gives Axe insider information to protect himself, although this is something Axe chooses not to do in the final act.

Axe needs a big play from his staff to stop the down quarter from even happening. He knows that his staff is playing it safe, trying to keep their individual numbers up so they can get their bonuses. The speech here is interesting when compared to other Axe Capital speeches: You can sense the tension in Axe’s voice, and the outright anger. Nobody can leave the building until they have an idea that stops the bleeding. Dollar Bill (Kelly AuCoin) has one, but he can’t express it to Axe while his new chief of staff, Steph Reid (Shaunette Renée Wilson), is in the room. It’s clearly not coincidental that Axe Capital is now operating aboveboard and sinking below water financially.

It turns out that Mafee (Dan Soder) has a groundbreaking idea, even if Axe has to hear about it from Deb (Ilfenesh Hadera) because Mafee — hysterically smoking in a bathroom stall to avoid everyone — is too scared to tell him. (Imagine if your job forced you to flee to the bathroom for a smoke. I’m sorry if it does.) Axe learns that Mafee has an old colleague, nicknamed Eveready for how good he is at what he does, and Mafee is worried that he will take his place. It’s too late. They need the play.

Axe learns that the Nigerian currency is about to be devalued. He has insider information and research that confirms it — basically, the Nigerian oil industry is weaker than portrayed. If Axe takes a massive short position against it, he can basically help push it over the line, but he’ll need more ammunition than he has to make that possible. He first goes to Boyd, who declines, so he essentially brings in the other risk-takers in his field — Malverne (Dennis Boutsikaris), Krakow (Danny Strong), and Birch (Jerry O’Connell), who screwed Axe over way back in the pilot, leaking information to get him in trouble and distract Chuck. Axe knows they hate him, but will they help him if it’s beneficial to their own self-interest?

It turns out that not all of them will. Birch leaks the info, so now the banks know. The deal is falling apart, and Birch is the one who sabotaged it. He realized what Axe did to him, and vengeance can be sweeter than making a fortune. Axe even admits that he would have done the same if the roles were reversed. It’s a crucial mistake for Axe, and he needs Wags back as soon as possible. He gets good news on the casino project that could make him a fortune in upstate New York, and he convinces Krakow and Malverne to stay in the deal. They can still make it work.

Finally, Axe reunites with Wags, who comes to him bright-eyed after two days in therapy with Wendy. We get only one real scene from that session, but it’s a good one. Costabile and Siff are fantastic together, since both have such strong intellectual energy that they can play off each other’s wit. With little prodding, Wendy gets Wags to find the source of his recent tailspin: an encounter with an old colleague and mentor, who Wags realized was suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s. It was a vision of his own looming mortality — and then Axe hired Steph, filling a role often taken by Wags. He goes back to Axe, ready to leave, only to learn that Axe just fired Steph, calling himself “a fucking terminator.” Wags is back! “Coffee!” he yells.

The episode ends with Boyd and Axe about to go on a financial program to sell the Nigerian play in Axe’s favor. Axe gets a call that the feds are coming with a warrant for Boyd. If he tells him, Boyd will cancel the appearance, the Nigerian play will fail, and Axe Capital will have its first down quarter. Of course, he doesn’t say a word. Boyd gets the cuffs, and Chuck Rhoades has one of his first victories in weeks. The case will keep him employed. He eats gloriously fatty food at a deli to celebrate.

Other Notes

• It’s also worth paying attention to Lara Axelrod’s (Malin Akerman) plotline this week, as she realizes her name and her husband’s connections are both a blessing and a curse. She’ll always be “Mrs. Axelrod” — even as Axe is overly cruel in their final scene together, tearing apart her business plan (or lack thereof). Lara’s role has been relatively underdeveloped this season, but I think that’s about to change.

Billions feels like a show that could use Johnny Cash in every episode, so it was great to hear “A Legend in My Time” in the opening and closing scenes.

• Speaking of music, props to composer Eskmo’s score this week, especially in the final scenes. It always gives the show a propulsive momentum, adding to the tension of key moments.

Billions Recap: Wag the Dog