The fifth episode of Showtime’s Billions alternates between two distinct stories: As Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis) is pulled away from the company he created, U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades Jr. (Paul Giammati) puts the pieces in place to go after him. “The Good Life” is the series’ most back-and-forth episode yet, so let’s focus on each half of the narrative separately.
Bobby’s Story: A Trip to the Galapagos
The episode opens with a shot of New York City, then cuts to Axe riding his bike on a country road. He’s out of the rat race and picking up eggs from a local supplier, with whom he trades his expensive bike for one with a basket. He’s always dealing. Wags calls and asks for confirmation on the “sell everything” order from last week’s episode. Axe approves it. He’s really pulling out.
At breakfast later that morning, we learn more about Axe’s potential future. He designed a boat with his wife Lara (Malin Akerman), and it’s being delivered Friday afternoon. The kids casually mention going to the Galapagos — the way you or I would ask if anybody wants to run to 7-Eleven — and Axe likes the idea. Lara is a little more taken aback. She has work to do at her restaurant; she’s suspicious of the suddenness of it all. It’s Akerman’s longest scene yet, and further proof that Lara should become a more significant character.
Shortly thereafter, we see Axe and Lara having sex in their pool, then laying on a blanket in the sunlight. Even the one percent are jealous of these people. They’re the 0.00001 percent. Lara calls out Axe on his surprise boat trip, but she’s nevertheless ready to make the jump with him. She knows that he always has the long game in mind, and will do what’s in the best interest of his family. Axe says he’s finally planning to watch Citizen Kane — a movie he had never seen — and we also learn that Inglourious Basterds is one of the most commonly screened films in his private theater. (For some reason, that makes perfect sense.) Lara decides she’ll set up a projected screening of Citizen Kane, “the way you’re supposed to.”
Back at Axe Capital, panic is starting to set in. Axe’s right-hand man, Mike “Wags” Wagner (David Costabile), isn’t sure if his boss is truly in the middle of a midlife crisis, so he asks Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff) to talk to him. We already know that Axe listens to Wendy more than anyone. Can she convince him to pull back from the massive sell-off? Before she can reach him, though, Wags interrupts Axe’s screening of Citizen Kane. A few papers need to be signed. Axe isn’t too happy that he’s there, but he hears him out. Much of this episode is about underlings not being on the same level or having the same degree of information as their bosses. (As we’ll see, Wags is somewhat mirrored by Bryan [Toby Leonard Moore] over at the U.S. Attorney’s office.) If there’s a long game, Axe isn’t letting Wags in on it. Instead, he goes to a carnival where he runs into the mysterious Hall (Terry Kinney), who tells him the FBI is hot on his tail. Is Axe running away because he’s about to be arrested?
Whatever Axe is doing, one thing is clear: His employees are acting like schoolchildren while the teacher is away. They stage eating competitions and go out for sushi at strip clubs. Essentially, the Axe Capital employees are alpha-male morons who can do nothing without their leader there to guide them. They’re playing games on the deck of the Titanic while it sinks — or, as one says, on a boat headed for Omaha Beach. As Wags says, “A couple more days, it will be fucking Lord of the Flies in here.”
Wendy to the rescue! She meets with Axe, who’s still in his screening room. He wants to find his other self, and maybe sail the world. What’s so wrong with that? Again: If Axe has a trick up his sleeve, he’s not even telling Wendy. Later, when a police pension-fund manager also tries to talk him out of leaving, he won’t reveal even a glimmer of a plan.
As Axe goes to finally pick up his boat, he gets a news alert about arrests at a company called Mundia-tel. It’s a telecom company — which was the first sector that Axe told Wags to sell off — and its legal issues may collapse the whole sector. This was all a scheme to protect Axe Capital. The rest of the people in Axe’s world thought he lost his mind, and Bobby kept up the ruse so no one else would sell off. He says he even started to believe the façade: “It felt like freedom, you know? Like I could taste it.” But Axe isn’t going anywhere. He loves his company.
And then the FBI shows up.
Chuck’s Story: Farmers and Sex Clubs
During last week’s deposition of Pete Decker (Scott Cohen), Chuck learned that he could get to Axe Capital through “Dollar” Bill Stearn (Kelly AuCoin), the man with insider information on Pepsom Pharmaceuticals. That’s how they can nail Axe. They’ll have to place Stearn in Iowa, where he talked to the farmer who gave them confidential information, but they don’t have the evidence yet.
Meanwhile, Bryan is buying an apartment and needs a guarantor. Kate (Condola Rashad) offers to help, and we get the beginning of one of the most interesting aspects of this week’s episode — the development of a female character at the U.S. Attorney’s office. A relatively minor player until now, Rashad is very good here and also gets the week’s best scene.
It’s not long before they discover that Stearn was stupid enough to use a rewards card while he was in Iowa — just couldn’t give up those points — which means they can prove he was there. It’s time for a trip to the heartland. Meanwhile, that incredibly obnoxious reporter Michael (Sam Gilroy) is back on the scene. He tells Chuck about the sell-off at Axe Capital, and somehow, this is the first the U.S. Attorney’s office has heard of it, which seems like a bit of a stretch. I guess Chuck needs a few more ears to the ground. He calls and tries to get some details from Wendy, but she won’t give anything up. Before they head off to Iowa, Bryan brings up the ugly truth: Wendy could be perceived as a conflict of interest, so Chuck should probably recuse himself. He’s not having it.
Chuck meets with the farmer who told Dollar Bill about the insider information. He sweats the family man with a sick daughter and gets him to turn. The poor guy just thought he was talking to a friend. He didn’t realize the consequences. They get the farmer to sign a statement.
With their mission complete, what do Chuck, Bryan, and Co. do with their downtime in Iowa? Well, Bryan and Kate get drunk in the bar. She knows that Bryan has been sleeping with FBI agent Terri (Susan Misner), and it feels like a love triangle is on the horizon. (Bryan is certainly fascinated with Kate, who has aspirations no lower than the White House.) I really love these types of interactions, if only because they develop the show’s supporting characters. Billions can sometimes feel overpowered by Lewis and Giamatti.
While that’s happening, Chuck decides to feed his inner demons. We find him outside of a sex club. He’s been here before. He calls Wendy, and she plays along, telling him to go inside and keep her on the phone. He describes a “pathetic” man he sees being whipped by a dominatrix. It’s all about power. Chuck has so much of it in his normal life and he needs it all stripped away to get off. Wendy loves to take that power from him, too: As she tells him to get on his hands and knees in an unimaginably dirty club, she touches herself. These two were made for each other.
Back in New York, as Chuck and Bryan talk about moving on Stearn, they get a call. Wendy has gone in for her visit with Axe. Uh oh. The conflict of interest is officially front and center. What will Chuck do? The bad news gets worse from there. Chuck learns that Michael is about to drop a story about him, which claims that he won’t charge Axe because of Wendy. The source for the story is Lonnie (Malachi Weir) — the guy whose case he swiped last week to protect his father — but I suspect Chuck will presume that it’s Bryan. And then, there’s the big one: Chuck calls Wendy to make sure she’s not at Axe Capital when Dollar Bill’s arrest goes down. He must know he’s bending the rules. How long can he keep this up?
- This week’s episode was directed by Neil LaBute, a filmmaker who built his reputation on stories about power players. (Two examples: In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors.) He’s perfect for this show. He handles the complex back-and-forth narratives with a deft, steady hand.
- Another tip of the cap to LaBute: The two lead characters haven’t been seen in the same room for weeks, but they still feel like they’re part of the same story.
- While the last episode was heavy on music cues, there wasn’t even much of a score this week. I like this unpredictable structure; the show can slightly change each week without losing its overall tone.
- I love this episode’s focus on the expanded supporting cast. Billions will work better if the fringe characters are as interesting as the central ones, and this week, we got great development for Wags, Kate, Bryan, and Lara. I’m still waiting for Akerman to really come forward and match Siff.
- We’re now five episodes in — where do you think this season is headed?
Correction: An earlier version of this recap incorrectly said that Axe had already watched Citizen Kane.